The age-old story of challenged and banned books



Banned books seem like a thing of the past, pushed by paranoia and fueled by fears of moral corruption. But many books are still banned on national and localized levels. Why?

From the Bible to Harry Potter, some of the world’s most influential books of times both modern and ancient have been banned from the eyes of the public. This type of censorship may seem antiquated, but it still happens all over the world.

Banned books: a brief history

Banned books have been around about as long as there have been enough books ban, dating at least as far as Pope Paul IV’s Index of Prohibited Books in 1559. This list, which detailed “heretical or ideologically dangerous” material, was reissued over 20 times before its abolishment in 1966.

But even the book considered most safe by the Roman Catholic Church has been banned, as the Bible has been historically (and even currently) censored in dozens of countries. It’s all a matter of what is considered objectionable by authorities, and why.

Though Western book censorship loosened considerably in the 20th century (the last book banned in the US was in 1963), book banning is still practiced regularly in libraries and schools, as well as many foreign governments.

Why are books censored, and by who?

Where is the line between safe and offensive? Critical and hateful? Educational and corrupt?

Different entities have different opinions, but common motives include:

  1. Politics: Books critical of reigning political movements, like communism, were banned in countries like China and Russia; in contrast, books promoting communism have been banned in countries opposed
  2. Religion: Likewise, books that challenge dominant religious institutions have been frequently banned
  3. Sex & Morality: Books considered sexually explicit, deviant, or obscene are often banned for moral reasons, or as a perceived protection. Hate speech is banned in countries like Sweden though allowed in the US (US bans are limited to child pornography)
  4. Science: Books that teach evolution like Origin of the Species have been banned often; the same goes for science books on sex, reproduction, and race

Though books aren’t banned nationally in most Western countries, some think censorship has gotten worse since the 1970s on a local level, especially in regards to the policing of books deemed appropriate for kids.

There are many books considered “challenged” for attempted (and typically unsuccessful) bans, usually in schools and libraries. Notable material includes the Harry Potter series, Captain Underpants, and older books like To Kill A Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye. (The American Library Association (ALA) details these in a timeline here.)

There are a plethora of reasons used to justify modern challenges. Here’s a breakdown of such reasoning in the US:


And here’s who initiates the challenges:


As you can see, parents are the primary initiators these days, and their objections are to sexual content and offensive language above all else.

What it all means

The liberation of literature is considered by many, especially the ALA, to be an important element of free speech and open access to information.  

But even though countries like the US may struggle internally to define whether or not, and how, to draw the line for youngsters, they are privileged to do so: other areas of the world remain massively restricted in their access to books to this day.