Books for the News, Reading list

What to Read for Banned Books Week

This year, Banned Books Week arrives amidst a flood of attempts to remove books from schools and public libraries. Last week, reports from both the American Library Association and PEN America outlined the scale of these efforts. Comparing data from the first eight months of 2023 to the same period last year, the ALA identified a 20% increase in the number of unique titles challenged. PEN America found that instances of book banning in public K-12 schools rose 33% between the 2021-22 and the 2022-23 school years. Both organizations observed that book challenges frequently target works by or about people of color and members of the LGBTQIA community.

To commemorate the freedom to read, we’ve collected a sampling of titles that address the history of book banning, censorship, free speech, and controversial texts. From prohibitions on medical volumes in early modern Italy to essays by a Nobel Prize winner, these books span time periods, geographies, contexts, and disciplines. As a result, the types of censorship referenced below vary considerably.

A graphic that depicts five book covers in a row against a blue background: Forbidden Knowledge, The Index of Prohibited Books, Slandering the Sacred, When Freedom Speaks, and The Book Lovers Miscellany.

Dangerous Children: On Seven Novels and a Story

Kenneth Gross

Gross explores our complex fascination with uncanny children in works of fiction, including Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, which was once banned for obscenity in Argentina, Australia, England, France, New Zealand, and South Africa.

“An original spin on literary criticism.”—Publishers Weekly

Forbidden Knowledge: Medicine, Science, and Censorship in Early Modern Italy

Hannah Marcus

An exploration of the censorship of medical books from their proliferation in print through the prohibitions placed on them during the Counter-Reformation.

“Offers an invaluable meditation on the processes meant to distinguish good knowledge from bad, and the fluidity of those categories.”—Times Higher Education

Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship

J. M. Coetzee

A coherent, unorthodox analysis of censorship from the perspective of one who has lived and worked under its shadow. 

“A disturbing and illuminating moral expedition.”—Los Angeles Times Book Review

Slandering the Sacred: Blasphemy Law and Religious Affect in Colonial India

J. Barton Scott

A history of global secularism and political feeling through colonial blasphemy law.

“A gripping voyeuristic account of the sinuous ways in which law’s religion and religion’s law together conspired in the racist and sentimental effort to regulate speech and affect in colonial India . . .”—Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Indian University

From Bodleian Library Publishing

The Book Lovers’ Miscellany

Claire Cock-Starkey

The Book Lovers’ Miscellany, a cornucopia for bibliophiles, includes a collection of lists, including unfinished novels, books that have faced bans, books printed with mistakes, the most influential academic books of all time, and the longest established literary families.

“A perfect little gift book of bibliophilic wisdom.”—Fine Books Magazine

From Brandeis University Press

When Freedom Speaks: The Boundaries and the Boundlessness of Our First Amendment Right

Lynn Greenky

Chronicles the stories behind our First Amendment right to speak our minds.

“Greenky’s easy-to-read primer offers general readers and students a telling history and framework for understanding the basic assumptions, ways of thinking, and methodologies courts commonly use to negotiate clashing and competing constitutional values and individual rights to free speech.”—Library Journal

From Karolinum Press, Charles University

Samizdat Past and Present

Edited by Tomáš Glanc

Illuminates the complexities of a literature written under censorship and the struggle for freedom of thought in a totalitarian regime.

From Reaktion

The Index of Prohibited Books: Four Centuries of Struggle over Word and Image for the Greater Glory of God

Robin Vose

The first comprehensive history of the Catholic Church’s notorious Index, with resonance for ongoing debates over banned books, censorship, and free speech.

“Vose is evenhanded, lamenting the consequences of censorship while carefully distinguishing its early modern form from the more familiar authoritarian types of censorship that came later.”—New York Review of Books

From Seagull Books

Censoring Sexuality

Paul Bailey

In Censoring Sexuality, Paul Bailey examines and analyses the various kinds of censorship—political, literary, cultural—which have oppressed and silenced homosexual men and women.

From the University of Wales Press

Theatre Censorship in Spain, 1931–1985

Michael Thompson and Catherine O’Leary

A comprehensive study of censorship in twentieth-century Spanish theater.

Find these books on our website or at your favorite bookseller.