Every year a coalition of organizations, from pro-library groups to anti-censorship associations, come together to celebrate “Banned Books Week.” It’s a celebration of the right to read and the right of access to information. At the same time, it’s a challenge to libraries and schools to re-examine the titles they try to keep off the shelves.
The list of frequently banned books is surprising, especially considering the effect some of these books had on American history, including Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harrier Beecher Stowe, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown.
We can celebrate Banned Books Week by catching these legendary titles, written by combat veterans and banned by people who wouldn’t understand them anyway.
1. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway was an ambulance driver for the Allied Powers during World War I, working on the Italian Front. He tried to enlist as a regular infantry troop, but was turned down due to poor eyesight. He was wounded in action by shrapnel from an Austrian mortar round – but never stopped his front line duties.
A Farewell to Arms is the author’s book about his experiences in the Great War. The novel, first released serialized in 1929, was considered overly violent and borderline pornographic at the time. If anything, read this book because F. Scott Fitzgerald sent Hemingway 10 pages of notes on it and Hemingway told Fitzgerald to kiss his ass.
2. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Then-Private First Class Vonnegut was captured by the Nazis during the WWII Battle of the Bulge. He, along with boxcars full of fellow POWs, were taken to the German city of Dresden and forced to work in the city – until it was firebombed by the Allies. Vonnegut and a few others survived the devastation, in what looked like a different, horrifying new world.
Slaughterhouse Five is named after the underground bunker in which he waited out the bombing. The book is the story of a man who became “unstuck in time,” floating back to the past at seemingly random times. It has become the PTSD flashback story and one of the most banned books of all-time.
Once called “depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar, and anti-Christian,” the Indianapolis-based Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library sends dozens of free copies to districts which ban the book.
3. The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer
Norman Mailer was from an affluent family. He was drafter after graduating from Harvard and drafted into the Army as a typist in 1943. He did many things, including communications, cooking, and even recon. He saw a lot of action doing recon patrols in the Philippines and his experience became The Naked and the Dead.
Mailer’s book follows an infantry platoon fighting the Japanese in the Philippine island of Anopopei. The book was deemed so obscene, it was banned in Canada. CANADA. Though popular, the book is really long and detailed.
4. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
At age 19, Heller enlisted in the Army Air Corps. It was 1942 and WWII was in full swing. Heller actually enjoyed his military service as a bombardier on a B-25. He flew the required 60 missions over Europe on the Italian Front, just like John Yossarian, the main character.
Catch-22 became so popular for lampooning the bureaucracy of the military, the term stuck and is now in common parlance. It was the other language in the book that caught the ire of towns and districts in the United States for being obscene – as if fighting in WWII was supposed to be clean.
5. Animal Farm by George Orwell
Orwell didn’t just write books against Fascism, he went out and did something about it. During the Spanish Civil War, he twice traveled to Barcelona to join the fight against the Franco regime. He was shot in the throat by a sniper and barely survived. This made him unfit to fight for Britain in WWII.
Orwell, despite fighting with Communists in Spain, saw the Soviet Union as a tyrannical dictatorship and wrote Animal Farm to criticize Stalin and his regime. The book also closely follows the events of WWII and predicted the coming Cold War. Animal Farm was banned in the Eastern Bloc until 1989.
6. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Of course A Clockwork Orange was written by a veteran, and of course someone tried to ban it. Burgess was a veteran of the UK’s Royal Army Medical Corps and spent much of the war in Gibraltar. Even though he disliked authority and regularly pranked his fellow orderlies and made a general mockery of the rules, he was often promoted.
His book is set in a dystopian England, and is the violent story of a teen named Alex and his gang. The book’s true focus is about free will and how much humans are born prone to destruction versus how much they’re taught. This book is violent even by today’s standards.
7. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
J.R.R. Tolkien served in World War I France as a member of the Lancashire Fusiliers. His experiences at the WWI Battle of the Somme would not only come to color his descriptions of combat in The Lord of the Rings, it would also come to describe the worlds he created in Middle Earth.
While the descriptions of war were from personal experience, he went out of his way to inform people that there was no real-world analogy to his work. Sauron did not represent any world leader and there was no ring to rule them all. The book was banned for being anti-Christian and anti-religious – despite the idea of a King returning being foremost in Tolkien’s mind.
8. Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
Author William Styron was once a United States Marine, serving much of World War II stateside. In 1944, he was sent to the Pacific for the planned invasion of mainland Japan – but the Atomic Bombs ended that idea. His book The Long March is reflective of his time training as a U.S. Marine, especially being called up to fight the Korean War.
Sophie’s Choice was banned in a number of countries, including Poland, the Soviet Union, South Africa, and a number of localities in the U.S. for explicit sexuality and drug use.
9. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Evelyn Waugh was 36 years old at the outbreak of World War II, but used his connections to get a commission in the Royal Marines. He fought in West Africa, North Africa, and the evacuation of Crete from advancing Axis forces, among other missions, inluding escorting Winston Churchill to a meeting with Yugoslavian leader Marshal Tito.
Though set in WWII England, the book doesn’t have much to do with the war. The principal reason for it being banned is because of the matter-of-fact depiction of homosexual characters. The book makes no judgement on whether it’s right or wrong, just that it exists.
10. The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Golding joined the Royal Navy in 1940, spending much of World War II at sea, attacking submarines and battleships, even taking part in the sinking of the German ship Bismarck.
His experience prompted him to say, “I began to see what people were capable of doing. Anyone who moved through those years without understanding that man produces evil as a bee produces honey, must have been blind or wrong in the head.”
So a book about children exposed to the worst of human nature is hardly a surprise coming from a man of such experience. The book is banned for its violence and language (even though it’s necessary for the theme of the book) – and is often accused of racism.
11. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Salinger joined the U.S. Army in 1942 and stayed through the end of the second world war. He was on Utah Beach in Normandy on D-Day, drank with Hemingway in Paris, was at Hürtgen Forest, and it was his unit that first encountered the Dachau Concentration Camp.
The whole time, he carried a typewriter with him. When he couldn’t type, he wrote. And what he was writing was the Catcher in the Rye, a book that saw more military action than most of the guys on this list. And like other entries on the list, it was banned or challenged for vulgar language, sexual references, blasphemy, undermining of family values and moral codes, and promotion of drinking, smoking, lying, and promiscuity.