15 of the Most Controversial Books in the Western Canon

Whether it’s to join a debate, exercise those First Amendment rights, or get a piece of the scandal, everyone loves – to hate, potentially – a controversial book.

In chronological order, here are fifteen of the most controversial Western books from across the spectrum of scandal. We hope you find yourself intrigued, enlightened, enraged, or some combination thereof.

1. Open and Smut Case

Who: John Cleland

What: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (a.k.a. Fanny Hill)

When: 1748-49

Why: Explicit sexuality

How: Considered the first erotic novel in the English language, Fanny Hill tells the story of a country girl forced into prostitution in eighteenth-century London. Cleland wrote the book while finishing a sentence in debtors’ prison only to be re-arrested for obscenity after the book’s release.

The novel has been banned, confiscated, and smuggled in countries around the world throughout its 260-year history. Its publication was illegal in the US until a 1966 Supreme Court case ruled that it had redeeming social importance as a work of literature. Since then, no American court has been successful in ruling that a book is obscene.

2. Capital Offensive

Who: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

What: The Communist Manifesto

When: 1848

Why: Challenging capitalism

How: As the book that effectively split the political world in half for the better part of a century, The Communist Manifesto needs little introduction. Marx and Engels’s criticism of (and proposed alternative to) capitalism is more theoretical than practical, barely addressing the real-world possibilities behind the ideology.

Nevertheless, the book set off a chain of events that eventually led to the implementation of communism in four continents and several close calls for global nuclear war. Lest we overlook the tragic irony, the Soviet take on this German manifesto was also used to keep East Germany under lock and key for 40 years.

3. Stir It Up

Who: Harriet Beecher Stowe

What: Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly

When: 1852

Why: Encouraging abolitionism, catalyzing the American Civil War, and stereotyping African Americans

How: This propagandist tale of cruelty against African-American slaves is legendary for not only stirring up abolitionist sentiment, but also really ticking off the slaveholding South.

In response to its incredible popularity – and what they claimed to be misinformation – slavery supporters began their own literary campaign, which included titles like Aunt Phillis’s Cabin; or, Southern Life As It Is and Uncle Robin in His Cabin in Virginia, and Tom Without One in Boston.

Despite the criticism that it helped cement stock characters like the mammy, the pickaninny, and the tragic mulatto into American consciousness, Stowe’s novel has had massive staying power.

4. Itchy and Scratchy

Who: Mark Twain

What: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

When: 1885

Why: Racial stereotyping… and coarse language and behavior

How: Despite being profoundly antislavery, Huck Finn is regularly challenged as school reading for its near-constant use of the n-word. Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it is also lambasted by critics for its oversimplified black characters.

However, the controversy surrounding the book began long before these things ever raised any American eyebrows. The novel’s early detractors deemed it “the veriest trash,” insisting that it was “more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people.” What, pray tell, was all the fuss about? The fact that Huck was vulgar. He “not only itched, but scratched” and “said ‘sweat’ when he should have said ‘perspiration.’ ” Egads!

5. Do the Evolution

Who: Charles Darwin

What: On the Origin of Species

When: 1859

Why: Contradicting creationism

How: Although not intended as an attack on the church, Darwin’s scientific classic is the biggest wedge to be driven between religion and science since Copernicus’s On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.

A spiritual man, Darwin insisted that it was “absurd to doubt that a man might be an ardent theist and an evolutionist”; however, his theory of evolution flies in the face of a literal interpretation of the Bible, making it a matter of intense debate even 150 years after the fact. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see children pulled out of science classes when evolution is taught – or unheard of to visit creationist museums that depict humans and dinosaurs cohabiting a not-so-distant past.

6. Body Language

Who: James Joyce

What: Ulysses

When: 1922

Why: Extensive descriptions of bodily processes

How: Just 37 years prior to the publication of Ulysses, America was still turning its nose up at the mention of Huck Finn’s sweat. Keeping this in mind will help you understand why Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness descriptions of blasphemy, sex, defecation, masturbation, menstruation, and drunken hallucination didn’t exactly set off a bidding war among publishers.

The first edition was famously printed by the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris after serialized portions of the novel had already been declared obscene in the US. The book was then banned in the US, Great Britain, and Joyce’s home country of Ireland.

7. An Unseen Censor

Who: J.D. Salinger

What: The Catcher in the Rye

When: 1951

Why: Teenage profanity, sexuality, and underachieving

How: Modern readers of this Salinger classic might be surprised by how contemporary it feels. The slang is familiar, the jokes are still funny, and the teen angst is plenty angsty.

It’s therefore no wonder that an almost 60-year-old book about an upper-middle-class kid still has shock value. Its narrator, Holden, gets kicked out of school, talks openly about sex, is liberal with the word “goddamned,” and even attempts to sleep with a prostitute.

Detractors also condemn the novel’s several uses of the f-word – apparently failing to notice Holden’s efforts to erase it from the walls of his little sister’s school. It’s not often that a book so profoundly lamenting the end of innocence is censored for its adult themes.

8. Little Fifteen Twelve

Who: Vladimir Nabokov

What: Lolita

When: 1955

Why: Pedophilia

How: As told from the first-person perspective of a man who sleeps with his twelve-year-old stepdaughter, Lolita is controversial for obvious reasons.

What’s less obvious – but far creepier – is the fact that the narrator is extremely convincing in describing his good intentions and crippling remorse. First published in Paris, the novel was later banned in France, England, Argentina, and New Zealand. (You know something’s edgy when the French consider it obscene.)

Weirdly enough, when the book was published in the US in 1958, it stayed on the bestseller list for two years.

9. All Blow’d Up

Who: William Powell

What: The Anarchist Cookbook

When: 1971

Why: Encouraging domestic terrorism

How: Written by a disaffected nineteen-year-old during the throes of the Vietnam War, The Anarchist Cookbook is unapologetically anti-government. It contains several do-it-yourself recipes for narcotic foods – as well as some woefully inaccurate instructions on how to build bombs.

Although very few stores carried the book to begin with, terrorist acts like the Unabomber, Oklahoma City, and Centennial Olympic Park bombings have thrown the book under a new and more dangerous light. Powell has since converted to Christianity and publicly disavowed his teenage ravings.

10. It’s Paining Men

Who: Alice Walker

What: The Color Purple

When: 1982

Why: Rape, incest, homosexuality, and an unfavorable portrayal of men

How: Cutting right to the chase, The Color Purple famously opens with a graphic firsthand account of an incestuous rape. After bearing (and being separated from) her father’s children, Celie is forced into a loveless marriage where she is beaten and suffers spousal rape by her husband.

Her freedom eventually lies in having a lesbian affair with her husband’s mistress and leaving him to start her own business. For many readers, the mother/daughter/lesbian lover dynamic leaves little room for any male protagonists, which critics argue reinforces negative stereotypes about black men.

11. Still Haven’t Found What They’re Looking For

Who: Salman Rushdie

What: The Satanic Verses

When: 1988

Why: Irreverence toward Islam

How: In addition to other offences, Rushdie refers to the prophet Muhammad as Mahound, a derogatory, Crusader-era term, and names various prostitutes after Muhammad’s wives.

Initial backlash included rioting, bombings, and book burnings. In 1989, the Ayatollah of Iran issued a fatwa against Rushdie and “all those involved in its publication,” resulting in the assassination of one of the book’s translators and attacks against others.

Although Rushdie was unharmed, he spent the next nine years living in undisclosed locations under police protection, reportedly even staying at Bono’s house in Dublin from time to time. You know you’re in trouble when Bono’s letting you hide out in his mansion.

12. Lady in Red

Who: Bret Easton Ellis

What: American Psycho

When: 1991

Why: Extremely graphic descriptions of torture, murder, mutilation, cannibalism, and more

How: Although American Psycho can be characterized as a satire of American machismo, odds are you’ll be too distracted by the detailed first-person accounts of a serial killer to really appreciate the underlying message.

After Simon and Schuster backed out of the project, Vintage Books got the publishing rights to the novel – as well as a lot of heat from feminist groups for its portrayal of violence against women. (To be fair, the narrator also kills a few men and a dog.) As with guns, spray paint, or huff-able glue, many stores require that you be 18 in order to purchase this novel.

13. On the Origin of Pieces

Who: James Frey

What: A Million Little Pieces

When: 2003

Why: Intentionally deceptive marketing

How: Famously dubbed “A Million Little Lies,” James Frey’s so-called memoir incurred a horrible retribution after it was revealed that many of the more scandalous events in the story never actually happened.

Particularly damning was the fact that Oprah, who’d previously featured the novel in her book club (and bolstered its sales by about n-teen percent), made it her personal mission to rip Frey and his publisher into a million little pieces on national television. The media carnage and book returns that followed taught Frey one of the most important facts of American life: don’t mess with Oprah.

14. Match of the Penguins

Who: Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell

What: And Tango Makes Three

When: 2005

Why: A children’s book depicting homosexuality among animals

How: According to the American Library Association, this is the fourth most challenged book of the last decade – which is no small feat for a children’s book. Based on real-life events that took place at the Central Park Zoo, it tells the story of two male penguins that successfully hatch and raise a chick named Tango.

Some people argue that it raises too many sexual questions for a children’s book; others, however, point out that it is no more sexual in nature than any heterosexual portrayal of family life. Of course, the real debate is over the political implications of homosexual parenting.

While LGBT groups see the book as an important alternative to the prevailing definition of family, some conservative and religious groups feel it is an attack on traditional moral values.

15. Magic, the Battering

Who: J.K. Rowling

What: The Harry Potter Series

When: 1997-2007

Why: Depicting witchcraft

How: Although young adult literature about teenage do-gooders can only get so controversial in the traditional sense of the word, the American Library Association lists the Harry Potter series as the most challenged books of 2000 to 2009.

The novels have been banned and burned across the globe for fear that their portrayal of magic in everyday life will encourage witchcraft among children. (Of secondary concern, it seems, is the fact that almost 40 people die over the course of Harry’s education.)

52 thoughts on “15 of the Most Controversial Books in the Western Canon

  1. Anthony Boylan says:

    You should certainly add “Naked Lunch” by William S. Burroughs to the list. It’s essentially the description of a paranoid psychotic break the author underwent while writing the novel under the influence of a whole slew of hallucinogens, uppers, downers. The graphic and violent descriptions of sodomy, the drinking of alien semen and the herion injections all served to get the book banned and then put on trial in the U.S. A who’s who of American writers came out to defend Burroughs book as a work of art, whether or not they liked it.

  2. Troy says:

    What about The protocols of the elders of Zion, or Mein Kampf. Those are very controversial.

  3. Arrow says:

    Why does “We Need to Talk About Kevin” not feature on this list?
    It is challenging in terms of the mother/son relationship, and the feelings each have or seem to have towards each other, and also in terms of discussing the possible mindset of a “highschool shooter”
    There could be books written on its controversiality.

  4. Katie says:

    The books I have yet to read, I will probably look up. Nothing like some good controversy. Thanks.

  5. Jim says:

    This left out the book that has been actually banned in public schools by the U.S. Supreme Court since 1963–the most frequently acclaimed and burned book in history: the Bible.

  6. Deb says:

    Jim is mistaken. The Holy Bible has most certainly not been “banned” in public schools. I was librarian at public middle and high schools for 29 years and the Bible was on the shelves of every library I ever worked in and was available for check-out by any student who wished to do so, along with the Koran and many other Christian and non-Christian religious works.

  7. MarHin says:

    those books really come from sick minds, for ex ,who would write books about homosexuality not only that but this book is for kids ohhhhhhh my , and the book
    The Color Purple
    to have free mind and free will does not mean u can present poison for humanity
    thinking must give the life meaning not to kill life in kids before it even begins

  8. Ronnie says:

    What is so controversial about humanity acting upon its nature? A clear path to knowledge should never be strewn with debris!

  9. toby says:

    i just started Origin of Species and i”m pretty excited…heard there’s a whole chapter on pigeons.

  10. lleuwyn. says:

    This is a great list although and although it could do with a few more titles it does cover a good range of reasons books are considered controversial.
    I disagree with a previous comment on the penguin book though. I’m assuming the book probably wouldn’t even go into details about the birds sex lives so it wouldn’t have any reason to disturb a child, merely give them an important insight about how some people are different than others.True, children books should remain innocent to some degree but I don’t believe parenting should be about shielding children against truths that basic and I don’t believe the author is “sick” for trying to educate them about how they shouldn’t fear those with different ideals or tastes to theirs. Although I suppose an opinion from a parent (which I’m not) would probably be more valid.

  11. Tyler says:

    Hello. Great list. I will say though that many other great works were brought into obscenity trials. I think this list might benefit from the inclusion of HOWL, for some poetic direction and because of its impact.

  12. B says:

    American Psycho is my favorite modern American novel. I found it extremely illuminating, insightful and meaningful. As a feminist, I was not once offended by its graphic depiction of violence. I am MUCH more offended by people telling me what I should or shouldn’t read.

  13. Sophie says:

    They forgot “The Bell Curve” though it’s more “should never have been published”
    instead of controversial. No I do not remember the author though I do remember that it was written by to males. sorry

  14. Kyle says:

    why isn’t “The Dice Man” by Luke Rhinehart in there? i would have thought it might have raised a few eyebrows with all it’s casual homosexuality/orgys and murdering a man for no reason while having sex with a prostitute!

    My favourite book of all time probably! gets twisted but still i have to love it’s open and honest portrayal of the human mind!

  15. Ch says:

    The only book on here that should be banned is the Anarchist Cookbook. Has anyone ever read that dribble? As a self-proclaimed Anarchist, it offends my sense of the ideology as it insights chaos and violence- two things real Anarchy opposes. Besides that, it’s just garbage writing.

  16. Estella says:

    The Bell Curve, as mentioned by Sophie, was written by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, if you’re ever inclined to take a crack at it; it’s famous for being a proponent of scientific racism (that’s chiefly contained in two chapters; the rest is socioeconomic crap), although if you really want books on that, you could easily find something far more disturbing.

  17. naz!!!! says:

    shame on anyone who bans harry potter, just because they cant teach their children to be mature enough to read a good book!!!

  18. Amanda says:

    What about _Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret_? Judy Bloom dared have a young female protagonist who questioned God and wondered when she’d get her period. And of course there’s _Fahrenheit 451_, Ray Bradberry’s futuristic classic about the banning and burning of books for promoting individuality and free thinking.

  19. Emily says:

    What about Lady Chatterley’s Lover? The obscenity case for that book revolutionized publishing in the Western world.

  20. DogmaII says:

    Great list. But as Jim said, it leaves out the Bible. Which is undoubtedly one of the most controversial books in human history.

  21. At least half of these books aren’t actually part of the “Western Canon.” Some of the books aren’t even part of the “West.” Very misleading title.

  22. PennyTration says:

    shutup MarHin, you truly are an idiot.
    and yeah, I was going to say Marquis De Sade myself…

  23. Lucy says:

    I recently read about a parent that tried to ban Shel Silverstein’s Poetry, specifically “A Light in the Attic” and “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” because it supposedly encouraged suicide, disobediance, rude behavior, and cannibalism.

    Fortunately, the school dismissed her claim. Honestly, people don’t give kids enough credit! Even an elementary student can tell that just because a character does something in book, that doesn’t mean they should do it, especially if it’s meant to be funny or silly.

    If a kid reads a book about characters with real flaws, in a world where people aren’t always punished for bad behavior and rewarded for good, they’ll be much more likely to “click” with the book; they may even become lifelong readers!

    And seriously, what kid will become a voodoo/pagan/druid after reading Harry Potter? No one. Besides, while spiritual things are real, the kind of magic in Harry Potter isn’t. No kid could become a wizard, no matter how much they want to, so really, parents have nothing to worry about. It seems like no one’s thinking of the obvious here.

  24. Bryan says:

    What About “TEN LITTLE NIGGER BOYS AND TEN LITTLE NIGGER GIRLS BY NORA CASE”? Those where children books that where released in 1907 but its now extremely offensive to African-American Culture.

  25. YALL ARE CRAZY says:

    seriously people if you have a problem with a boook then dont read it or dont let your child read it either!!!!!!!!!!!! YOU DONT HAVE TO PUNISH OTHER PEOPLE FOR YOUR ACTIONS BECAUSE YOU DONT LIKE A BOOK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! YOU HAVE A PROBLEM

  26. George says:

    After reading the above list, i am now encouraged to Beat the record for the most obscene book ever written. 🙂
    I want to write a book so Repulsive, so obscene, so nasty, and just plain absolutely sickening, and then it will be a best seller 🙂 and will remain so for at least a decade. I want it to be so obscene and twisted that im placed on Americas most wanted, put on a TSA no fly list, and Black listed from re entering the usa.

    and by doing so ill be rich, and famous.

  27. Piezkool says:

    Oh, banned/challenged books lists, how you make me laugh.

    Or, how you make me sad for the state of humanity.

    Personally, I thought that Catcher in the Rye was a great book and I really liked it! But I suppose that one is understandable. Doesn’t mean a great work of literature should be banned, though.

    Also, I find the fact that Tango Makes Three is the FOURTH most challenged book of the last decade outrageous. When my teacher read this to me in elementary school, I knew that penguins did stuff like that and I just thought that it was a cute story about something that ACTUALLY HAPPENED.

    People read WAY too far into this stuff and it just makes me disappointed with humanity in general

  28. Amanda says:

    American Psycho, Lolita, and The Catcher in the Rye are some of the most prominent books I have ever read, and I did not find them offensive, not even a little. It all comes down to personal opinion. And, it’s just a book. Get over it.

    And two to add are, The Lie and The Average American Male, both by Chad Kultgen. Incredibly relevant to contemporary society, though crude in nature. Amazing books.

  29. Coronadon says:

    You know, the funny part is how objectionable we find the presentation of ideas that challenge our comfort zones. It is ludicrous to see the range of responses that mankind has generated to combat the presence of an idea that challenges the status quo. Seriously, folks, do you think we evolved by ignoring the presence of better ways to do things? Books cannot change your mind,…you can. If you fear your own thoughts and what you might do if you actually thought anew,….you have a set of problems you should deal with. Time’s a wastin’….we need you to think.

  30. woodbuck says:

    “After reading the above list, i am now encouraged to Beat the record for the most obscene book ever written. ” Didn’t the boys on South Park already do that?

  31. bogetteC says:

    Harry Potter? Really? Just because some bible bangers dont like a book doesn make it obscene.

  32. Ica says:

    George’s comment is epic! I agree though, this article encourage me to write controversial books (:

  33. spandan says:

    I read “Lolita” very interesting and i got really impressed from author of the book though he has tried to show an unusual relationship between step father and daughter in the novel.

  34. Whitney says:

    Is it a weird or bad thing that I’ve read all these books except The Anarchist Cookbook? No?

    Oh and uh… Justine? 120 Days of Sodom? The Crimes of Love?
    Come on people where is the Marquis de Sade in this list?

    Anyway, there’s some good books on here that show people the extent of some people’s psyche 😛 xx

  35. I really like what you guys are up too. This type of clever work and exposure!
    Keep up the great works guys I’ve included you guys to my blogroll.

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