Firsts London Rare Book Fair

The Most Famous Banned Books Of All Time

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Some of the world's most controversial books are on display at the 2022 edition of Firsts: London's Rare Book Fair

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Whether it’s for their depictions of sexuality, their controversial theories or political reasons, some of the most famous books of all time have been banned over the years. That includes Ulysses by James Joyce – now widely regarded as one of the greatest novels ever written – which was first published in 1922, before being banned in the UK and the USA. In commemoration of the book’s 100th anniversary, Firsts: London’s Rare Book Fair, has chosen banned books as this year’s theme.

Returning to the Saatchi Gallery from 15 – 18 September 2022, Firsts is one of the most prestigious book fairs in the world, showcasing unique works from over 100 dealers – from old books to manuscripts, ephemera and maps. This year, there will be a special focus on censored books. In light of this, Firsts has shared 10 of the most famous banned books of all time, many of which will be on display at the fair.

The Most Famous Banned Books Of All Time

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Fanny Hill, John Cleland

Fanny Hill, John Cleland

Written by John Cleland in a debtors prison in 1748, Fanny Hill is a first-person narrative of a young woman’s life as a prostitute. It was a controversial book right from the beginning, leading to Cleland and his publisher being arrested in 1749 for ‘corrupting the King’s subjects’. The novel was banned – but that didn’t stop it spreading across the population through pirate versions. It has continued to rile people up ever since, becoming the subject of an obscenity trial in Massachusetts in 1821, and reaching the US Supreme Court in 1965, after G.P. Putnam’s Sons began printing copies. It’s proving too racy, even, for some modern audiences: in 2017, Royal Holloway, University of London hit the headlines after removing the book from its reading list to avoid ‘causing offense’ to students.

James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)

James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)

Probably the most iconic banned book of all time, Ulysses was initially published in 1922 by Parisian publisher Shakespeare & Co, but was banned in the UK and USA for obscenity until 1936 and 1934 respectively. Well-known as one of the most prominent texts of modernist literature, Ulysses was first viewed as immoral and obscene for its sexual and scatological content. Even at the time of its publication, Ulysses was alternately described as ‘the most important expression which the present age has found’ (T.S. Eliot) and ‘like a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples’ (Virginia Woolf). It is a book which has always caused fierce disagreement.

Lady Chatterley's Lover, DH Lawrence, signed first edition

D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928)

For its strong language and frank depiction of sexuality, D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned in the UK in its unabridged form from its publication in 1928 until 1959, when it was the subject of a watershed obscenity trial: the Obscene Publications Act. This trial argued that an obscene book could be published only if publishers could demonstrate its literary merit. Both a signed copy of the 1928 first edition and a first printing of the 1961 Penguin edition will be on display at Firsts. The book has also inspired a new movie adaptation, which is being shown at the upcoming BFI London Film Festival.

Image courtesy of Jonkers Rare Books

Nicolas Copernicus, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543)

Nicolas Copernicus, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543)

This scientific text radically changed humankind’s perspective on its relationship with the universe. It refuted the widely accepted Ptolemaic model that placed the Earth at the centre of the universe and suggested the heliocentric astronomical model, which sees the sun at the centre of our solar system. Because of its revolutionary theories, considered heretical by the Catholic Church, the book was eventually included in the Vatican’s infamous Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Prohibited Books) from 1616 to 1758. 

Image courtesy of Sophia Rare Books

Animal Farm, George Orwell

George Orwell, Animal Farm (1945)

This satirical novella took aim at the early stages of the USSR, using a group of farmyard animals as an allegory for the machinations of Stalinist politics. As such, the Russian translation of the novella was banned in the USSR for many years. The first edition of this translation which will be presented at Firsts is one of a rare few still in existence.

Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses

Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (1988)

A first edition, and limited issue of this major work in the magical realist canon will be on display at Firsts. The Satanic Verses ignited furious controversy, leading to the book being banned and protested across the world, and the author being placed under police protection for several years following several failed assassination attempts on Rushdie, and attacks on several connected individuals, including the murder of translator Hitoshi Igarashi. Sadly this novel has recently been in the news yet again after the tragic attack on Rushdie at an event in the United States.

Image courtesy of Peter Harrington Books

Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller

Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer (1934)

Much like Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer was banned for many years in the United States for its language and portrayal of sexuality. In 1961, when Grove Press legally published the book in the United States (after the lifting of the ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover), over 60 obscenity lawsuits in over 21 states were brought against booksellers who sold the novel. One judge described the book as ‘an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity’. When the issue of the novel’s obscenity was finally brought to the Supreme Court in 1964, it was finally argued that the novel was not pornographic (illegal at the time), with Justice Potter Stewart famously quipping ‘I know it when I see it’.

Image courtesy of Jonkers Rare Books

Boris Pasternak, Dr Zhivago (1958)

Boris Pasternak, Dr Zhivago (1958)

Although published in translation in Italy in 1957, Boris Pasternak’s masterpiece Dr Zhivago was not available in its original Russian until 1958, when the CIA acquired proofs from its Italian publisher with the intention to publish the book in Russian and distribute copies to be smuggled into the USSR, where it was banned as ‘anti-Soviet’. A copy of this CIA-backed edition will be present at the fair.

Image courtesy of Peter Harrington Books

Salome, Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde, Salome (1893)

Wilde’s play was banned in the United Kingdom for its depiction of biblical characters. It tells the story of John the Baptist’s attempted seduction by the title character, and her later execution. Although banned in the United Kingdom, the play became popular in Europe, later being used as the basis of Richard Strauss’s opera of the same name in 1905. Wilde himself was never able to see the play performed, as its only run during his lifetime (in Paris) took place whilst he was imprisoned at Reading Gaol for his homosexuality.

Image courtesy of Jonkers Rare Books

Marquis de Sade, 120 Days of Sodom

Marquis de Sade, 120 Days of Sodom

This unfinished text by the French writer and nobleman (and origin of the term ‘Sadist’) Donatien Alphonse François, the Marquis de Sade is one of the most provocative and obscene texts in literary history. Sade wrote the text in secrecy whilst imprisoned in the Bastille, hiding it in the walls of his cell, but the text eventually made its way to the public and was published in 1904. Featuring harems, orgies and graphic torture, the novel naturally attracted considerable controversy and has been banned in many countries since its publication.

Image courtesy of Voewood Rare Books

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)

Depicting its protagonist Humbert Humbert’s obsession with its pre-teen title character, Lolita was described by the Sunday Express’s books editor as ‘the filthiest book I have ever read’ in a smear campaign against the novel, which was banned shortly after being imported into the United Kingdom. Despite its controversial subject matter, the novel has later been reappraised as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, featuring on many prominent lists of great novels.

Image courtesy of Shapero Rare Books