A Map of Forbidden Books in 2019
For almost as long we’ve been writing, governments and religious groups have attempted to censor what we read.
In 35 AD, Homer’s The Odyssey was banned by the Roman emperor Caligula because it contained dangerous ideas about freedom. The contents of the famed library in Alexandria were used as fuel for the public baths in 640 AD. And Pope Paul IV published one of the first book ban lists with his Index of Prohibited Books in 1559, a list that was updated until 1948.
Think that book banning has been consigned to history? Sigh. Books are still being censored today.
From Animal Farm (United Arab Emirates) to The Satanic Verses (too many countries to list) to all works by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning author Liu Xiaobo (China), classic books are off-limits in certain countries around the world.
Even in countries with laws protecting the freedom of speech and press, books are being effectively banned. Public pressure often leads to book banning in schools and libraries due to content deemed inappropriate for children—including picture books, such as Little Blue and Little Yellow by Leo Lionni (Italy). Lawsuits like the ones for Noir Canada (Canada), and Roberto Carlos em Detalhes (Brazil) are another common tool for removing books from circulation where outright censorship is not possible.
Thankfully, banning books usually makes reading them more appealing. Many banned titles become more popular after the ban thanks to an underground market for legitimate or pirated copies, or increased notoriety.
In the Kingdom of Jordan, for example, a bookstore is dedicated entirely to banned titles. Into the River by Ted Dawe saw a surge in interest in New Zealand after the country’s Film and Literature Review board restricted public access to the book.
After all, who doesn’t like reading a book deemed so dangerous it shouldn’t be read?
At the end of September every year, the American Library Association and Amnesty International partner together to host Banned Books Week. They highlight books previously and currently challenged in bans across the United States.
In the spirit that people should be able to read whatever they want, the following map shows nearly 50 countries with books currently banned (or were banned in the recent past). The map shows that, unfortunately, freedom of information is still being curtailed around the world.
Below the map you’ll find a brief description of each book and why it’s too dangerous to read.
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Argentina: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Lolita is both a modern classic and a common subject for bans and restrictions because of the controversial subject matter—a middle-aged narrator obsessed with a 12-year-old girl.
Australia: American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
A Wall Street psychopath goes on a gruesome adventure of rape, torture, cannibalism, murder and necrophilia. Officially, American Psycho is only banned in the state of Queensland, but even in the rest of the country, the few copies available for sale are shrink wrapped and only legal to sell to adults.
Austria: Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler wrote this autobiography and political manifesto while in prison in 1923. In addition to bans designed to limit Hitler’s influence, including the Austrian ban, Mein Kampf was illegal to copy or print in Germany from Hitler’s death in 1945 until the copyright expired in 2016.
Bangladesh: Rangila Rasul by Pandit Chamupati M. A.
Rangila Rasul concerns the marriages and sex life of Muhammad. Not surprisingly, it generated some controversy. The book was published anonymously and incited so much ill will that the publisher was imprisoned and later stabbed to death for refusing to reveal the author’s name.
Bosnia: The Mountain Wreath by Peter II Petrović-Njegoš
Banned in Bosnian schools, the epic poem-play The Mountain Wreath focuses on the struggle for freedom and autonomy in historical Montenegro. One of the reasons for its ban is that the play has become a rallying point for many opposition political groups that use it as support for their particular agendas.
Brazil: Roberto Carlos em Detalhes by Paulo César de Araújo
Paulo César de Araújo’s biography of the singer Roberto Carlos was sued by the singer himself over the rights to his life history, leading to the book being censored and banned across the country in accordance with Brazil’s strict biographies’ law. Writing biographies in Brazil today is only possible with permission from the subject or their relatives.
Canada: Noir Canada by Alain Deneault
The author and publisher of Noir Canada were sued in 2008 by two Canadian mining companies represented in the book, which attempts to examine ways in which Canadian companies exploited African countries for their own gain. As a result of the subsequent settlement, the book was pulled from store shelves across the country.
Chile: The House of Spirit by Isabel Allende
The House of the Sprit is by Isabel Allende follows multiple generations of the Trueba family through the events of the Chilean revolution. The book was banned in Chile at the time of publication, possibly because of the author’s connection to a previous president of Chile, who was her uncle.
China: No Enemies, No Hatred by Liu Xiaobo
All works by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning author Liu Xiaobo are banned in China, including this collection of poetry devoted to peacefully defending human rights. The author, an intellectual-turned-activist, is a renowned critic of China’s authoritarian ruling class.
Cuba: The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa
Armando Lucas Correa’s new book, The German Girl, tells the story of a Jewish family fleeing Germany for the promise of safety in North America. The author is an exiled Cuban and critic of the dictatorship. The German Girl was recently banned from importation into Cuba, whose publishing houses are entirely state owned.
Egypt: Feast for the Seaweeds by Haidar Haidar
A book about gender equality, liberalism and dictatorship in the Arab world. What could go wrong? Feast for the Seaweeds was banned in Egypt at the time of its publication in 1983. When university clerics reprinted the book in 2000, the backlash was so intense that the newly printed copies were all confiscated as a result.
El Salvador: One Day of Life by Manlio Argueta
Set in the days leading up to the Salvadoran Civil War, One Day of Life follows a family of women through their daily struggles for freedom and survival. The book was banned by the government of El Salvador after its 1980 release for its descriptions of human rights violations by its paramilitary intelligence organization.
Eritrea: My Father’s Daughter by Hannah Pool
My Father’s Daughter is an honest look into the life of a journalist adopted as a baby from Eritrea and raised in England. As an adult, she returns to Eritrea to meet her birth family and chronicles her experience and what she discovered there about herself and about the two countries she calls home. It was banned in Eritrea in 2014 for its political content.
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Hong Kong: Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami
Declared “indecent” by censors, Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami, written in homage to The Great Gatsby, can only be sold wrapped to legal adults because of adult content.
India: Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry
Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry won multiple awards and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It is not banned in India, but was withdrawn from the Mumbai University reading list because of its portrayal of the nationalist Shiv Sena political group. The book remains hotly contested throughout the Indian state of Maharashtra.
Indonesia: Five Cities that Ruled the World by Douglas Wilson
Theologian Douglas Wilson examines critical moments from history’s most influential cities ―Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, London, and New York. Five Cities that Ruled the World was banned in Indonesia because of accusations of blasphemy. After protests, the nation’s largest bookstore chain burned thousands of copies of the Indonesian translation in June of 2012.
Iran: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Without giving any specific reason, the Iranian government banned all of Paulo Coelho’s books, including his most famous novel, The Alchemist. Millions of readers have been forever changed by the tale of an Andalusian shepherd traveling the world in search of its greatest treasure.
Ireland: The Dark by John McGahern
The Dark is a coming-of-age novel set in rural Ireland filled with tense looks at violence, religion, and life in the middle of the century for many Irish young men. 50 years ago, the country’s Censorship of Publications Board deemed that the novel posed a risk to public morality because of its “indecent or obscene” content.
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Israel: All the Rivers by Dorit Rabinyan
The very premise of All the Rivers by Dorit Rabinyan sparks controversy in Israel—an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man fall in love while she is visiting New York for the summer. In 2014, the book was banned from high school literature class, with the Minister of Education somehow deeming it a threat to Israel’s national identity.
Italy: Little Blue and Little Yellow by Leo Leonni
In 2015, the mayor of Venice famously banned nearly 50 books he considered inappropriate in Venician schools, including the picture book Little Blue and Little Yellow by the renowned Italian author/illustrator Leo Leonni. Apparently, this famous tale of two colors (yes, colors) who share wonderful adventures undermines “family values”.
Japan: Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman
The Story of Little Black Sambo, a worldwide favorite for over 50 years, has fallen out of favor due to accusations of racism. Although not explicitly banned in Japan, Japanese publishers recently self-censored its publication and removed the book from sale over worries of copyright infringement.
Jordan: The Joke in the Arab World by Khaled Qashtin
The sarcastic way Khaled Qashtin’s The Joke in the Arab World examines the history and rulers of the Middle East has led to its ban in various places, including the Kingdom of Jordan.
Kenya, Kuwait, Liberia, et al.: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie is a novel that follows the life of two migrants through changes in fortune, the hard work of forgiveness, and the poisoning power of jealousy. Rushdie’s literary crime was to briefly challenge the divine nature of the Quran. Published 30 years ago, it immediately set off angry demonstrations around the world and remains banned in many countries today.
Lebanon: Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally
Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally, inspiration for the award-winning film Schindler’s List, is banned in Lebanon because of its positive depiction of Jews.
Libya: The Bible (in Arabic)
While it’s legal for foreign Christians to own Bibles in Libya, it is illegal to import or distribute the Bible in Arabic.
Malaysia: Fifty Shades of Grey (and sequels) by E.L. James
E.L. James’ bestselling erotic romance, Fifty Shades of Grey, is banned in Malaysia for its explicit sexual content. The Malaysian Censorship Board also refused to grant certification to the film. The head of the Malaysian Film Censorship Board, Abdul Halim Abdul Hamid, said the film “is more pornography than a movie”.
Maldives: The Bible
Not a fan of anything plural, The Maldives considers itself a country with one race, one language, and one religion. As such, Islam is the only religion allowed in the country, and The Bible is banned from distribution in any language.
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Myanmar: Better to Stand and Die by Chang Lin and Shu Yang
Better to Stand and Die, which chronicles the heroic efforts of Chao I-man, a Chinese young woman who fought for women’s rights, is written by Chinese authors Chang Lin and Shu Yang. The book was banned by the former military government.
New Zealand: Into the River by Ted Dawe
Into the River, a coming-of-age story written by Ted Dawe was briefly banned in the very country where the story is set. After multiple bans and repeals of bans, the award-winning book is now available without restriction.
Nigeria: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie
Set during the Nigerian Civil War, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie was originally banned in Nigeria. The ban on the book was later removed, although the movie remains banned.
North Korea: The Quran
The Quran, the central religious text of Islam, is banned in North Korea along with just about all other religious texts. In this totalitarian state, the only thing their people are permitted to worship is the nation’s dictator, Kim Jong-un.
Pakistan: Jinnah of Pakistan by Stanley Wolpert
Jinnah of Pakistan is a biography of Muhammed Ali Jinnah—considered the founder of Pakistan— written by Stanley Wolpert. Although it is widely considered one of the best biographies about Jinnah, various claims in the book about his personal life led to being banned in Pakistan.
Qatar: The Boys by Garth Ennis
The Boys is a comic book series by author Garth Ennis and illustrator Darick Robertson. It is banned from import into Qatar for being too offensive and sexual in nature.
Russia: Apocalypse Culture by Adam Parfrey
Russian translations of Apocalypse Culture by Adam Parfrey were confiscated and burned to prevent the book from being sold. Since the confiscation and burning, however, pirated versions of the text have become incredibly popular throughout Russia.
Saudi Arabia: Queen of Sheba and Biblical Scholarship by Bernard Leeman
Bernard Leeman’s academic examination of the Bible, Queen of Sheba and Biblical Scholarship, presents evidence supporting Old Testament history but argues that the events likely took place in Arabia instead of Palestine. If this were to be accepted, it would require a total reassessment of Biblical, Arabian, and North East African history.
South Korea: Bad Samaritans by Ha-Joon Chang
Bad Samaritans by Ha-Joon Chang argues that free trade and capitalism imposed on developing countries by larger, more established countries is doing more harm than good. In 2010, the Constitutional Court of Korea declared Bad Samaritans too dangerous to be read by the military and put a ban in place on the book for all military members and bases.
Spain: Farina by Nacho Carretero
The Spanish government pulled Nacho Carretero’s Fariña out of circulation after the former mayor of Galicia sued the publisher over the book’s contents. In 2018, the Booksellers Guild of Madrid highlighted certain words of the text of Don Quijote online to allow readers to get around the ban.
Thailand: The Devil’s Discus by Rayne Kruger
The Devil’s Discus is banned in the very country whose history it follows. The book presents an in-depth look at the circumstances surrounding the death of King Ananda Mahidol of Siam in 1946. In Thailand, the royal family is not to be dissed—it has some of the strictest lese mageste laws in the world.
United Arab Emirates: Animal Farm by George Orwell
Animal Farm by George Orwell has been banned around the world since it was originally published in 1945. Written in the context of the rise of communism in the Soviet Union, the book is about absolute power and how too much power leads to corruption. Not hard to see why authoritarian governments around the world haven’t taken a shine to it.
Ukraine: The History of the Russian State by Boris Akunin
Multiple books by one of Russia’s best-known contemporary authors, Boris Akunin, are banned in Ukraine, including certain volumes of his nine-part series on Russian history. Each book in the series combines history, folklore, and fiction from the relevant time period.
United States: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Although the United States government no longer bans books, most school districts and some libraries around the country do. The Absolute Diary of a Part-Time Indian has been one of the 10 most banned and challenged books for 7 of the 12 years since its publication.