Reading lists

A surprising list of recently banned books

As long as books have existed, there have been people trying to stop other people from reading them. And with book bans on the rise, it's as true today as ever.

A flatlay image of covers of banned books against a red background – some are blurred out or otherwise visually censored
Controversial: books that have been banned over the years. Image: Flynn Shore/Penguin

In 213 BC, the great Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang buried 460 scholars alive before burning all the books in his kingdom so he could control how history would remember his reign. Of course, since there were no books or scholars left to record the event, the exact details of this episode remain contested. But the point is, as long as books have existed there have been people trying to stop other people reading them.

Indeed, by 1982, so many books were being challenged in the United States that several free-speech organisations banded together to start Banned Books Week, which runs from 22-28 September. Forty years on and we're seeing new limitations on the vitality of provocative stories and the words they contain.  

Here, we’ve rounded up a list of the books that have been targeted for censorship in recent years.

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Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling (1997)

JK Rowling’s fictional Hogwarts School of Witchcraft And Wizardry has long been of genuine concern to black-magic believers across the world, stoking fears it could incite children to pursue the Left-Hand Path. The hit series of books – about a bespectacled boy-wizard and pals – has been compared by Christian groups to "rat poison mixed with orange soda" and a "doorway that will put untold millions of kids into hell". They have been the subject to at least six book burnings in the US.

Then, in September 2019, St Edward Catholic School in Nashville banished the book from its library after its pastor took exception to its portrayal of magic. In an email to parents, he described the books as "a clever deception", adding, apparently in all seriousness: "The curses and spells used in the books are actual curses and spells; which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text".

The Catholic Church has taken no official position on the books, though, in 2003, a Vatican spokesperson stood up for them, saying they are consistent with Christian morals.

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