Oxford Dictionaries staff pick their favourite banned books
This week is Banned Books Week, which celebrates the freedom to read, and recognizes books that have been banned or challenged – meaning that someone objected to their inclusion in schools, libraries, or bookstores – both within the past year and in history. We thought it might be fun to recognize our favourite books that have banned at one point or another in history.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
The novel follows a young girl called Alice who falls through a rabbit hole. The book follows her journey through this hidden land, meeting many a strange creature as she follows a curious white rabbit. I like it because it’s so imaginative and wonderfully mad, an encapsulating read that allows me to drift to another place.
Quote: You used to be much more… muchier. You’ve lost your muchness.
— Lucy Bibbings, Advertising Operations Assistant
‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson
I notice that ‘The Lottery’ was banned in Apartheid-era South Africa, something that made its author, Shirley Jackson (1916–65), proud. This is a brilliantly chilling short story about a small American town which every year holds a lottery for its inhabitants, one in which you pray that your numbers do not come up… ‘The Lottery’ first appeared in the New Yorker in 1948 and its power was such that Jackson received hundreds of letters from shocked and angry readers. Jackson’s novels and short stories combine biting social observation, a reality in which everything seems off-kilter, and moments of grotesqueness and sheer horror to create a one-of-a-kind reading experience. The great Stephen King dedicates his novel Firestarter to Jackson ‘who never needed to raise her voice’: a brilliant evocation of her style. For readers whose appetites have been whetted by ‘The Lottery’, I’d recommend Jackson’s terrifying novel The Haunting of Hill House, the opening lines of which are a perfect example of Jackson’s uncanny world:
Quote (opening lines): No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
— Eleanor Maier, Associate Editor
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
An unreliable narrator describes his romantic pursuit of a barely pubescent girl. A dazzlingly stylish book written in the voice of one of literature’s most extraordinary monsters.
Quote: You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
— Nick Day, Web Assistant
Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
Moll Flanders follows the wonderfully eventful and racy life of its eponymous heroine, as she ventures her way through 17th-century London and Virginia. Moll lives entirely upon her charm and wits, making and remaking herself through rises and falls in fortune, and countless husbands and lovers. I first read it when I was 18, having seen a BBC adaptation starring the fabulous combination of Alex Kingston and Daniel Craig. The book, and the indomitable Moll herself, stuck with me – so much so that, years later, I ended up writing my DPhil on Daniel Defoe. The subtitle of the book gives readers a real flavour of what they are in for:
Quote: The Fortunes & Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders &c. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest, and dies a Penitent.
— Charlotte Buxton, Associate Editor
Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns
This book, published in 1954, was banned in Ireland – although nobody now seems quite certain why. It has been suggested that it’s the novel’s ‘disgust, death, and decay’ that led to the ban, but focusing on that would ignore what makes Comyns’ novel so quirky and funny. A village in Warwickshire floods (leading to its incredible opening line, below) and many people start dying painful, unexplained deaths – but it is Comyns’ surreal yet matter-of-fact tone that makes the book so wonderful.
Quote (opening line): The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows.
— Simon Thomas, Content Marketing Executive
The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
It’s a magical realism novel about two men who, after falling 29,000 feet out the sky (from a plane) and surviving, undergo physical and spiritual transformations. It explores issues of faith, fanaticism, and revelation in ways and vignettes that are both preposterous and poignant. I love the way language is used in this novel. It reflects the dizzying and disorienting nature of the plot, and at times – like the story itself – it elicits a feeling from me of pure joy.
Quote: Language is courage: the ability to conceive a thought, to speak it, and by doing so to make it true.
— Allison Wright, Online Editor
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
My favourite book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, often appears on banned books lists. When it was published in 1885 it was for its coarse and obscene language and more recently due to the frequent use of the ‘n’ word and debate over whether the book’s message is anti-racist. It’s also written almost entirely in vernacular, which makes it an interesting read for anyone interested in language. I also fell in love with Huck’s struggle as a misfit choosing whether he should try to fit into a hypocritical society and coming to terms with their attitudes and beliefs.
I first read it in middle school when I had moved from Florida to North Carolina. The school curriculums worked out that when I arrived in NC they were reading (The Adventures of) Tom Sawyer which I had read the year before in my previous school. So I decided to read the next book by Mark Twain, Huck Finn to entertain myself. Sadly, the public school system didn’t catch up with me until my third year of high school by which time I was very excited to read Huck Finn in my American Literature class. Unfortunately, I was very disappointed to find our class set of books were a censored and abridged edition. Thankfully I had a very accommodating teacher who insisted we all go out and buy new copies of Huck Finn so we didn’t have to read an edited and abridged version (after I had pointed it out to her). (I became very suspect of her qualifications as an English teacher after this as she had taught many years using the class set without knowing that it was not in fact the original work… ) I also probably annoyed quite a few of my classmates as being the kid who forced everyone to read a longer text, but I don’t remember anyone being too bothered.
Quote: (when Huck finally decides he will go against what society tells him is right and tears up a letter he wrote that would turn Jim in as a runaway slave) It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
“All right, then, I’ll GO to hell”—and tore it up.
— Ashley Wagner, Programme Editor
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
War is not my favourite thing to read about. Catch-22 is the first book with a central theme of war that I picked up that I did not put down again unfinished. The satirical style made for a jarring contrast between the playfulness of the language and the horror of the content, which utterly enraptured me. It has been years since I read Catch-22, but I can still remember the conflict I felt reading it. The eponymous paradox — so terrible and inescapable — is achingly frustrating to even contemplate, and echoes a sort of trap that is at once familiar. It no surprise that the dilemma resonates enough to have made its mark on the language. As for a quote, it is impossible to not give the catch itself:
Quote: If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
— Rebecca Hotchen, Assistant Editor
Animal Farm by George Orwell
Animal Farm follows a group of farm animals that get fed up of serving their human masters and decide to revolt. The pigs take charge, and over time they become more and more like their old masters. It was a great way to portray friction across different political groups and beliefs, and how even some of the strongest minds can be warped to service the needs of the greedy. It also encapsulates a true revolution, by essentially finishing in the same situation that the book started.
Quote: All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.
— Dan Braddock, Senior Marketing Manager
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
I first read Frankenstein at university, but have since read it again and I still love it. It’s so much more than just a horror story about a monster being brought to life by Dr Frankenstein: it is also a novel about what it means to be human, and about humanity’s ability to be truly monstrous.
The novel famously started life as a story told by Mary Shelley on a wet night in Switzerland with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Byron, before being published in 1818 (a revised edition appeared in 1831). It has gone on to become one of the most famous gothic novels ever written, and has spawned multiple film adaptations and other re-imaginings. It’s both very readable and a novel that makes you think about how we treat those who different to us. Forget the green-faced monster with bolts in his neck, and instead read the dark, brooding original. You won’t regret it.
Quote: I beheld the wretch — the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped and rushed downstairs. I took refuge in the courtyard belonging to the house which I inhabited, where I remained during the rest of the night, walking up and down in the greatest agitation, listening attentively, catching and fearing each sound as if it were to announce the approach of the demoniacal corpse to which I had so miserably given life.
— Kirsty Doole, Publicity Manager
Ulysses by James Joyce
It’s probably slightly pretentious, but mine would be Ulysses (which is itself a little pretentious). But I love how the book challenged social norms. The use of language was just brave and helped free us in terms of how we express ourselves. It’s hard to pick a favourite line, as the ones I like most are the almost unnoticed, but very beautiful turns of phrase that Joyce comes up with for describing every day images, and I unfortunately can’t think of any without consulting my copy of the book. Of the more obviously quotable lines from the book, there is one that I quite like for its pithiness and controversialness:
Quote: You die for your country. Suppose. (He places his arm on Private Carr’s sleeve) Not that I wish it for you. But I say: Let my country die for me.
— Jean Pierre De Rosnay, Editorial Coordinator
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The story of the Joad family is one now firmly embedded in the American consciousness, strongly tied to how we imagine the Great Depression and the plight of the Okies in the Dust Bowl of the mid-1930s. The book was banned in several places in the US, including the state of California, due to its unflattering portrayal of the area’s residents.
Quote: There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do.
— Marketing Coordinator, Taylor Coe