Illustration by Ivi Fung

Books have the potential to elicit strong emotional responses: from joy to sadness, the powerful feelings that can be conjured by words on pages has been a constant in the human experience. The power of books and the emotions and ideas they convey can also be seen as a threat. For as long as books have been printed, there have been attempts to ban and destroy those that are seen as dangerous to society. Such attempts can offer a deep insight into the values of the societal elite and the problems faced by particular groups of people at any given time.

“Such attempts can offer a deep insight into the values of the societal elite”

The Bible

Reputedly the best-selling book of all time, it may come as a surprise that the Bible has a very long history of being banned. Perhaps equally as surprising is that for most of the Bible’s existence, it was the Vatican and the Catholic elite who were behind the various bans. While the Bible may seem like a text that has remained uniform throughout its existence, this is far from the case. There have been various versions of the Bible, a fact exacerbated in a pre-printing press world by the need to copy Bibles by hand. Often, it was translation from Latin to vernacular that posed a threat, as these Bibles allowed laypeople to interpret the text themselves. Heresy - beliefs held in contradiction to the orthodox views of the Church - was a deep concern for the Latin West. Heretical groups often used passages from the Bible to support their claims and recruit new followers. After the Albigensian Crusade, a crusade launched against a group of heretics known as the Cathars in southern France, the entire region was banned from the personal ownership of Bibles to ensure that they were being taught only orthodox Christianity. The ban of vernacular Bibles remained common, especially as the Reformation spread across Europe. The Catholic Church still maintains control over who is able to print and distribute Bibles.

Perhaps the most infamous ban of Bibles was in Nazi Germany, where Hebrew Bibles were seized and burned as part of the persecution of Jews. The dramatic scenes of book burnings have become emblematic of the oppression of the Nazi regime, who also burned books by Jewish authors, books about communism, and any other content that was seen as anti-Nazi.

Simultaneously, Bibles were extremely hard to come by in the Soviet Union. Organised religion was highly discouraged and practitioners faced the threat of persecution. Bibles were smuggled in or screen printed on pieces of clothing and cloth.

Today, the Bible is forbidden in some Muslim countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Libya. There are also bans in multiple countries on the version of the Bible distributed by Jehovah’s witnesses.

The Gulag Archipelago

Written by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn over ten years, between 1958-68, this three-part book traces the history of the prison camp system, “the gulag,” in the Soviet Union. Speaking about the Gulag system was both frightening and taboo, and there were many people living in the Soviet system who were not aware of the extent of abuse that occurred at the camps - something Solzhenitsyn set out to rectify. He describes the Gulag as a country of its own, existing in secret within the Soviet Union, and uses the imagery of Soviet sewers full of the different waves of people sent off to the ‘country,’ an effective and deeply disturbing representation.

Solzhenitsyn was eventually arrested and held by the KGB, but three versions of the manuscript survived and were distributed underground. Multiple people were killed and arrested after falling under suspicion of knowing the location of the manuscript or helping to distribute it. Two copies made it off of Soviet soil and the first Western version was published in French in 1973. It created waves for multiple reasons, not only because it revealed what was occurring at the camps, but because Solzhenitsyn placed the blame for the origin of the Gulag with Lenin and not Stalin, claiming that Stalin had only expanded a system that already existed. It had been the long-held belief in the West that the system had been the work of Stalin alone. In 2009 it was made required reading in the Russian School system.

“The reaction they provoke are just as important as the works themselves”

His Dark Materials

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (known as The Golden Compass to North American Readers) are young adult novels that follow the journey of two children as they travel through multiple parallel universes. Pullman has said that the book functions in part as a modern retelling of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, an epic poem detailing Adam and Eve’s fall from grace. Pullman’s books caused controversy as they explicitly criticise organised religion, particularly Christianity, with God and the Church portrayed as evil figures that must be overthrown. Pullman has specified in interviews that he intended the books to function in this way, telling a reporter that his books “are about killing God”. The series was ultimately banned by some Catholic school boards in the United States and Canada, but Pullman has expressed his surprise that the books didn’t receive more pushback, especially considering the criticism Harry Potter has received, a book series that has been attacked by some Catholics for containing witchcraft.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde is notorious not only as an author but also for his imprisonment for homosexuality and indecency. The Picture of Dorian Gray is his most well-known work, but all of his novels have become equally well regarded. Upon publication, many of his works were heavily criticised for being over-sexualised and portraying an immoral lifestyle, especially The Picture of Dorian Gray. Throughout the novel, Gray becomes increasingly attractive the more morally corrupt he becomes, and only the painting locked away in his attack shows the true cost to his soul. Wilde’s novel also makes clear allusions to homosexuality, and its contents were used as evidence against him during his trial. Wilde was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ in 1895 and sentenced to two years of hard labour.


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Books are more than just words on a page; they provide insight into the societies that produced them, and the reaction they provoke are just as important as the works themselves. For as long as books are written and published, they will continue to be banned. Whether they critique a government or threaten societal values, books have the power to be major disruptors.