The most controversial books of all time

Updated May 01, 2018

Books have an undeniable power. A good book can bring a grown man to tears, evoke childish laughter from an 80-year old, inspire dramatic life-changes and bring about intense moments of self-reflection. The great thing about books is that they express ideas that are central to humanity, they depict our struggles, they teach us about the world and they present challenging opinions. Some people, however, believe that certain ideas shouldn’t be expressed and some themes should never be explored. The furore books can create is truly remarkable, and these rank amongst the most offensive of the pack.

“The Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin

You may argue that science can’t be offensive, but that didn’t prevent Charles Darwin’s immortal thesis on evolution and natural selection from ruffling a lot of feathers. Christian institutions decried the book, as it contradicted the creationist view that humans were created in current form by a creator. Darwin himself didn’t think evolution and the notion of a creator were mutually exclusive, but it remains a controversial topic to this day.

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“The Catcher in the Rye” by J. D. Salinger

“The Catcher in the Rye” is a story about a sixteen year old struggling with teenage angst and generally whining about the world around him. It features a lot of smoking and drinking, a good dose of profanity and plenty of subversive attitudes. An English teacher was fired for assigning the book to his class in Oklahoma in the 1960s, and since then people have attempted to ban it several times. In 1980, Mark David Chapman killed John Lennon, and he was obsessed with the book. This caused a new wave of controversy, particularly because the choice of Lennon was thought to reflect the themes of the book.

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“120 Days of Sodom” by the Marquis de Sade

“120 Days of Sodom” makes “50 Shades of Grey” look like a children’s novel. It’s essentially an exploration of the darker side of human nature, and particularly sexual perversion. In it, four French libertines capture some teenagers and proceed to torture, rape and defile them for 120 days. Eventually they’re murdered, but there’s plenty of room for atrocities on the way. It was recently banned and then un-banned in South Korea, and wasn’t published in the UK until 1954, even though it was written in the 18th century.

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“Lady Chatterley’s Lover” by D. H. Lawrence

The controversy surrounding “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” resulted in a six-day trial at the Old Bailey in 1960. The book details the protagonist’s love affair with her gamekeeper, and its explicit nature deemed it too “obscene” to publish. However, Penguin won the court case, and D. H. Lawrence’s work was a complete sell-out. The victory was a landmark moment for the publishing industry, because censoring books became more difficult from that point onwards.

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“Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov

The comically-named narrator of “Lolita,” Humbert Humbert, is a paedophile. In the book, he marries a woman specifically to gain access to her twelve year old “nymphet” daughter Dolores. It was banned in France, England, New Zealand and Argentina following its release in 1955, but was strangely popular in America. The truly disturbing thing about the story is the fragile, human portrait of Humbert in the novel. He is remorseful, pathetic and claims only good intentions.

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“The Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie

Published in 1988, “the Satanic Verses” is controversial because of its attitudes towards Islam. Rushdie refers to Muhammad as “Mahound,” which essentially means devil, and names prostitutes after his wives. Copies were burned and there were widespread riots, and a translator of the book was assassinated. Rushdie spent just under a decade under police protection.

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“American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis

“American Psycho” is a book about the corporate, testosterone-infused atmosphere of the American business world, and it sparked huge controversy in 1991 because of its lurid, graphic content. The book tells the story of Patrick Bateman, the unreliable narrator. He is meticulous in his description of things like his daily skincare routine but wild, grotesque and savage when he’s torturing, maiming killing and even eating his (largely prostitute) victims.

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“The Anarchist’s Cookbook” by William Powell

Powell wrote “The Anarchist’s Cookbook” at age 19 when he was in the Vietnam War – a conflict he wholly disagreed with. It’s hugely anti-government, and includes things like bomb recipe, which although inaccurate, are a pretty reliable way to stir up controversy. Unusually, the writer is now ashamed of his work and actually tried to censor it himself.

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About the Author

Lee Johnson has written for various publications and websites since 2005, covering science, music and a wide range of topics. He studies physics at the Open University, with a particular interest in quantum physics and cosmology. He's based in the UK and drinks too much tea.