Despite the heated controversy surrounding these books, they continue to exist in hearts, minds and libraries around the world. Here are ten of the world’s most controversial books.
1984, by George Orwell
George Orwell’s 1984, published in 1949, was controversial because, at the time it appeared, “The Thought Police” and “Ministry of Truth” were strongly felt in a society that had been divided after a global war. The classic paints a bleak picture of a future world ruled by “Big Brother” under a society robbed of free will and privacy. It has been adapted into plays and films and continues to be revered for its prescient themes, especially now that privacy is under threat around the world.
Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron
In Sophie’s Choice, written by William Styron, the reader takes an unimaginable journey through a woman’s war-torn past that would haunt her forever. Sophie, a mother from Poland, survives Auschwitz, only to resettle into a new life in Brooklyn. There, she falls in love with troubled Nathan and finds herself confiding in her new Southern novelist neighbor, Stingo. The story of her past unfolds at Stingo’s and is as heartbreaking as it is controversial.
The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie
It is arguable that Salman Rushdie wrote the most controversial book of all time. The Satanic Verses, first published in 1988, is based in part on the life story of the prophet Mohammed. The book, considered by many followers of Islam to be incredibly offensive, has infuriated Muslims around the world. After publication, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini even ordered a fatwa, ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie. Despite the controversy, threats and subsequent bombings of bookstores selling the book, despite threats on Rushdie’s life and the banning and burning of the book in countries around the world, it received critical acclaim and continues to be sold today.
The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, categorized as a young adult title when it was published in 1951, was a mix of profanity, sexuality, and a host of other subversive elements. Its famous protagonist Holden Caulfield was considered by many to have stirred juvenile tendencies in young writers across the globe. That said, her perceptive study of the teenage mindset still makes her a popular choice in American classrooms today.
The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath
The book, as controversial as it was, has secured a place on almost every bookshelf in every library in America. Published in 1963 under a pseudonym, Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel takes a hard look at her protagonist Esther’s journey to mental illness. Esther struggles with crippling depression and multiple suicide attempts as she tries to make her way through young adulthood on the New York publishing scene.
Go Tell It On the Mountain, by James Baldwin
“James Baldwin’s Go Tell it On the Mountain was a brilliant debut about a 14-year-old African-American boy who is rescued in a Harlem Christian church. The book, published in 1953 in a racially divided America more than a decade before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, tackled highly controversial issues sweeping the nation: racism, homosexuality, and the injustice of segregation. The book’s controversy was seen by many as a denial of the first-hand experience of racism in its many names and forms.
Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
Lolita, published in 1955, is one of the most controversial books of all time. It is the story of middle-aged literature professor Herbert Humbert’s unhealthy obsession with 12-year-old Dolores Haze, whom he nicknames Lolita. As shocking as this predatory tale was, Nabokov’s psychological masterpiece was popular enough to become a pillar of popular culture in all media. In fact, the film version is still considered one of Stanley Kubric’s most recognizable films.
Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller
Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, published in 1934 in France, was controversial because of its rampant misogyny, graphic sexual content, and themes of toxic masculinity. Its publication in 1961 in America led to dozens of famous obscenity lawsuits across the country. One judge called it not a book, but rather “a cesspool, an open sewer, a rotting pit, a gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity.”
The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier
Robert Cormier’s 1974 novel The Chocolate War stirred controversy for its dark themes of physical and mental abuse inflicted on Jerry, a teenager at an all-boys Catholic high school. The book’s sexuality, bullying and profanity raised eyebrows, infuriating thousands of parents across America. Despite the controversy, Jerry’s courage in the face of his nonconformity still resonates today.
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
Dan Brown’s bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, offended many Roman Catholics around the world with its ideas about an alternative Christian doctrine: did it lead the relationship between Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene to an ongoing secret bloodline, protected by a secret society? The book has sold millions and billions and has been translated into dozens of languages.