The Most Controversial Books of All Time


When an author writes a book that explores violence, racism, political views, religion, sexual content or excessive use of language, it often becomes controversial. When a book doesn’t match up with the public’s standards and society views, it attracts a lot of negative attention and feedback. Some of these controversial books created disputes and were announced as path-breaking literature. It’s common for controversial books to be declared scandalous and become banned. Here is a list of controversial books that you might add to your reading list. These five controversial books are well written however cover controversial topics which have contributed to notable events in history and have influenced many perceptions and beliefs.

1.Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Published in 1955, Lolita tells the disturbing story of a 12-year-old American girl who is trapped in a paedophiliac relationship with her stepfather Humbert Humbert. The perpetrator justifies his actions towards the pre-pubescent rape-victim by labelling her not as a child but as a nymphet. Nabokov struggled to find publishers due to fears of jail time. Bans in Britain and France only lasted a few years before demands for the book were hindered

Despite the controversy, the book is included on Time Magazine’s 100 greatest books of all time. While the content of the book can be incredibly difficult for many to digest, critics have dubbed Nabokov’s writing skills as extraordinary

2. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

Tropic of Cancer was originally banned due to its heavy pornographic exploration, becoming the subject of several obscenity trials. Set in Paris in the 1930s, the story follows an American writer who lives a bohemian life among prostitutes, pimps and artists.

Published in France in 1934, the book was smuggled into other countries. The book was banned in US and UK for more than 30 years, with more than 60 obscenity trials in the US. In 1964, the Supreme Court defined it a work of literature, allowing it to be sold and read in America

3. Lady Chatterley’s Love by D.H Lawrence

Lady Chatterley feels trapped in her loveless marriage with her husband who is impotent. Through her dreary life she is drawn to her gamekeeper Mellors, who Ms Chatterley begins to have an affair with.

As a 21st century reader this book may not seem too controversial, however it certainly was back in the day. Published in 1928, the book was banned in the UK, Australia, Canada, Japan, US, and India. It was the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 that relaxed the previous laws, allowing the book to be published by penguin in 1960.  An interesting read that explores an unhappy marriage

4. The Catcher In The Rye by J.D Salinger

Published in 1951, the Catcher in the Rye quickly became a bestseller. The protagonist, 16-year-old Holden Caulfield, was the embodiment of adolescent angst. The book is known for its exploration of sexual references, blasphemy, vulgarity, subversion of family and moral values. It features various use of profanity, including the Lord’s name in vain, underage drinking and slurs towards women and minorities.

Ironically, in 1981, the book was both the most-taught and second-most censored book in American high schools. Salinger acknowledged that the book was actually intended for adult audiences.  

The book becomes more controversial when it’s been paired with several high-profile assassination attempts. After killing John Lennon in 1980, Mark David Chapman brought a copy to the murder and read the book while waiting for police to arrive. Chapman also read a passage at his court sentencing, calling the book his statement. After the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan, John Hickley Jr, cited Chapman as his inspiration. The murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer in 1989 found her killer Robert John Bardo with a copy on him.

With over 65 million sold worldwide, an exploration of innocence and identity resonates with many of its readers.

5. The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang con Goethe

This book dates back to 1774.  It tells the story of a young artist who falls in love with a woman. When his love ends up marrying someone else, Werther believes that only suicide will end his suffering, taking his own life.

The result of this book was a mass suicide at the time. Copycat suicides occurred with lovers wearing the blue frock coat and yellow waistcoat of the protagonist, while carrying the book in their pockets. A read that has resulted in many controversial views.

Books are a powerful expression of thoughts, morals and desires. Our 21st century world of writers seem to be more politically correct and careful in their articulations, considering the consequences of authors past and present. As we can see from some of the books listed above, what defines controversy in the past, has changed in the 21st century and will likely change again in the future.