James Joyce’s “Ulysses” turns 90 today. The nearly 800-page behemoth, long regarded as one of the best (and most difficult) novels of all time, has spawned an international annual holiday (Bloomsday, on June 16) and enjoys a permanent place in English Lit syllabi around the world year after year.
But before it became part of the canon, the novel was banned in the United States and the United Kingdom for its explicit sexual content. For those who have taken the plunge, this doesn’t come as a too big a surprise. The story revolves in large part around Leopold Bloom’s struggle to come to terms with his wife Molly’s promiscuity. Masturbation and scatological imagery abound, and the novel closes with a 50-page rant from Molly expounding on her long sexual history and insatiable carnal desires.
The book legally debuted in the U. S. in 1932, a decade after its initial publication, after a landmark censorship ruling that found that, far from being merely prurient, the novel successfully portrayed each character’s “stream of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions.”
In the decades since, censorship laws have largely relaxed, and yet every year hundreds of books are pulled from library and store shelves, including a surprising number of cherished young-adult titles and bestsellers. Here, the unusual suspects:
“The Giver,” by Lois Lowry: Too Much Suicide Talk
Lois Lowry’s 1993 novel, about a dystopian society in which the government has outlawed love and grief, was one of the year’s bestselling young adult books and won the coveted Newbery Medal. But communities in several states took issue with the book’s focus on suicide and euthanasia. The government of the novel routinely “releases” many innocent civilians for arbitrary offenses (twins, for instance, are illegal, and one is always killed). But parents found a scene in which a young girl suffering from painful memories and melancholy injects herself with a fatal chemical particularly ruffling, arguing that it promoted suicide as an escape from grim circumstances. Efforts to ban the book, though, have mostly failed, with one South Carolina librarian pointing out that “if we waited for every kid to be ready, we’d be in the same kind of world” as the novel.
“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” by Jonathan Safran Foer: Dirty Mouth and Imagination
It’s hard to reconcile this popular novel about a brainy 9-year-old coming to terms with his father’s death on 9/11 with the allegations raised against it by a Washington D. C. school district in 2010. Parents found the book’s “profanity, sex and scenes of violence” unsuitable for their children. Maybe seeing the book’s Oscar-nominated film version starring Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks (can you get anymore wholesome?) will put their worries to rest.
“Snow Falling on Cedars,” by David Guterson: Characters Keep a Little Too Warm in a Snowstorm
David Guterson’s 1994 PEN/Faulkner-Award winning novel about a Washington State murder case became a classroom fixture because it explores the complexities of American-Japanese racial tensions following World War II. That’s all well and good, said the several U. S. and Canadian communities that fought to have it banned, but there was just one problem: too much sex. Admittedly, the setting—a remote Puget Sound island in the grip of a devastating snowstorm—sounds a bit like the premise of a bodice-ripper. Ultimately the book was allowed back on school curricula, and in 1999 fans were treated to an even steamier film version starring Ethan Hawke.
“The Grapes of Wrath,” by John Steinbeck: The Truth Hurts
John Steinbeck’s novel about an Oklahoma’s family’s fraught migration to California was an instant hit when it came out in 1939. But authorities in Kern County, California (where the family of the novel ultimately settles) found Steinbeck’s harsh representation of their town—and some of its prominent officials—to be less “fictional” than they might have hoped. Deemed libelous, the book was banned from all county schools and libraries for a year and half, until a nationwide backlash led to its reinstatement.
“The Lovely Bones,” by Alice Sebold: Too Morbid
Sebold’s 2002 novel is about a 14-year old girl watching from heaven as her family and local investigators piece together the puzzle of her murder. It was one of the bestselling books of the year, had its day in the sun as an official Oprah Book Club selection, and has since been made into a movie. But it was not without its detractors. Several communities have asked to have it pulled from school shelves, due to the simple fact of the protagonist’s brutal demise (raped and murdered by—well, you’ll have to find out for yourself).
“The Handmaid’s Tale,” by Margaret Atwood: Chilling Social Implications (And Too Much Sex)
“The Handmaid’s Tale” (1985) is perhaps Atwood’s most famous novel, but its picture of the future isn’t a pretty one. Straight white men rule the world, subjugating blacks, homosexuals and Jews, and harvesting females for their reproductive abilities. The narrator is one such sexual servant; things go awry when she falls in love with a man who’s not her “assigned partner.” In Judson, Texas, the book was banned from an AP English curriculum, due to scenes of explicit sex and what was believed to be an anti-Christian sentiment. The decision was later overruled after a committee appeal.