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The Book as a Cultural Icon: 20th -21st Century

Many highly controversial books were published during the 20th century. Many of these works were used by political and social groups to represent their point of view. Unfortunately, book burning as a weapon in wartime increased during this time period.

Literary Forgery

In 1903, the anti-Semitic work The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was published. The work described the exploits of Jewish financiers trying to rule the world. In fact, the book was written by members of the Russian secret police and forged from the political satire The Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu by Maurice Joly.

jungleSocial Activism

One book and one author can have an impact on policy change.

In 1906, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair exposed unhealthy and dangerous practices in the meat industry. The book was met with public outrage. Sinclair's book became the rallying call for those interested in passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. It drove the movement to make the meat packing industry plant owners responsible for their actions.


During the early 20th century, a growing number of books focused on sexuality. From erotic literature to self-help books, these were viewed as scandalous at the time.

loveIn 1918, British author Marie Stopes (1880-1958) published the book Married Love. It became an instant best seller. The first book to note the connection between women's sexual desire and ovulation, the book argued that men and women should be equal partners in marriage. The book was banned by the US Customs Service until 1931, when John M. Woolsey overturned the decision.

Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928) by D.H. Lawrence is an excellent example of this focus on sexual content and profanity. The first versions available in the United States in 1928 were heavily censored. It was banned in many countries including Australia and Canada. Originally published privately in Italy, it wasn't publicly available in the United Kingdom until 1960 after being found "not guilty" of breaking the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 in Britain. In the United States, uncensored publication of Lady Chatterley's Lover was seen as a significant event in the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s. The book became part of popular culture and was referenced in poetry, music, plays, and television.

Icons of War

Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) could easily have remained unknown to the world if he hadn't been inspired by Marxist writers like Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Halford Mackinder to author Mein Kampf. Nazi leader Adolf Htlter wrote Mein Kampf or My Struggle. Published in two volumes in 1925 and 1926, it was an autobiography exploring Hitler's political ideology. Although written for the followers of National Socialism, it grew in popularity while he was in prison. Upon his rise to power, the book gained increasing popularity. During his years in power, the book was given free to every newlywed and soldier. By the end of the war, 10 million copies had been distributed in Germany. The book was used as a political icon by members on both sides of the war.

Books as Weapons

soccerWhether spreading misinformation or being burned in piles, books have been used a weapons throughout history.

John Heartfield (1891-1968) created photomontages that were used as political weapons. He is best known for his works in the 1930s intended to exposer German Nazism. He used satire as a way convey his ideas.

Working with author Kurt Tucholsky (1890-1935), Heartfield and Tucholsky created works like Deutschland in 1929 that spoke out about militarism and social injustice. Tucholsky's books were listed on the Nazi censorship list as Entartete Kunst or Degenerate Art and burned.

Browse Deutschland. Although written in German, the photos are fascinating and sometimes equally difficult to interpret.

Fishburn, Matthew (2007). Books are weapons: wartime responses to the Nazi bookfires of 1933. Book History, 10, 223-251. IUPUI students can view the article online.


Holman, Valerie (2005). Carefully concealed connections: the ministry of information and British publishing, 1939-1946. Book History, 8, 197-226. IUPUI students can view the article online.


Borin, Jacqueline (Fall 1993). Embers of the soul: the destruction of Jewish books and libraries in Poland during World War II. Libraries & Culture, 28(4), 445-460. IUPUI students can view the article online.

Book Burning in the 20th century

Throughout the 20th century, book burning was once again a common practice.

germanyIn 1914, the university library in Leuven Belgium was intentionally destroyed by the German army. People around the world were stunned by the loss of over 300,000 books. During World War II, the German army once again burned the university library destroying another 900,000 books.

On April 6, 1933, the German Students Association for Press and Propaganda proclaimed "action against the Un-German spirit". Activities included the "cleansing" by fire with the focus was on maintaining what was perceived as a "pure" natural language and culture. Nazi book burning ceremonies were planned in great detail and carefully staged for maximum impact.

Beginning May 10, 1933, thirty-four university towns participated in burning 25,000 volumes of what were considered "un-German" books.

The image on the right was taken on May 10, 1933 at the book burning.

View the book burning on May 10, 1933 in a video titled Books Burn as Gobebbels Speaks.

Book burning wasn't confined to the beginning of the war. Between 1933 and 1945, Nazi censorship policies resulted in an estimated 100 million books being destroyed throughout Europe (Rose, 2001). Hundreds of thousands of books were destroyed across China.

At the end of World War II, the Allied Control Council issued a list of over 30,000 book titles related to Nazism to be destroyed.

The symbolism associated with book burning in World War II had a direct impact on American culture. ray

Fahrenheit 451 (1951) by Ray Bradbury reflected the horror of a book burning culture. Written during the McCarthy Era, Bradbury was concerned with the actions of the US government during this time.

In the introduction to the 1967 edition, Bradbury wrote

"I ate, drank, and slept books. . . . It followed then that when Hitler burned a book I felt it as keenly, please forgive me, as his killing a human, for in the long sum of history they are one and the same flesh. Mind or body, put to the oven, it is a sinful practice, and I carried that with me."

Unfortunately, Bradbury was subjected to the censorship portrayed in his book. Beginning in 1967, the publisher modified seventy-five passages including expurgation of words like "hell" and "damn." In 1979, Bradbury realized that his work was being edited and demanded that the original version be published.

Like other classics, the book continues to be challenged in school curriculum. In 2006, parents challenged Fahrenheit 451 because of its portrayal of Christians and firefighters along with concerns about violence.

In addition to large-scale book burning, individual books were also targeted. In 1935 in the small town of Warsaw, Indiana the public library board of trustees ordered that all copies of local author Theodore Dreiser's novels be burned citing obscenity and leftist content.

All over the country, John Steinbeck's novel Grapes of Wrath was burned for its political content and perceived vulgarity.

In 1973, Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse Five was burned in the Drake North Dakota school furnace by the school board. The author wrote a letter to the school board stating,

"I am among those American writers whose books have been destroyed in the now famous furnace of your school. Certain members of your community have suggested that my work is evil. This is extraordinarily insulting to me. The news from Drake indicates to me that books and writers are very unreal to you people. I am writing this letter to let you know how real I am."

Book burning has continued into the 21st century with J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. Deemed by some as satanic. The books were burned at churches across America including South Carolina, New Mexico and Michigan. The clergy responsible indicated that they had not read the books.

McCarthy Era

The McCarthy era marked a particularly scary time in American history for those concerned about open access to information.

McCarthyism became known as the practice of making accusations of subversion, disloyalty or even treason without the support of evidence. Named after Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, the era was marked by reckless attacks on political adversaries.

In early 1953, McCarthy sent aides to U.S. Information Service libraries abroad to burn books he found objectionable. The Eisenhower administration allowed the removal and destruction of the books. However on June 14, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave the Dartmouth College Commencement address.

"Don't join the book burners. Don't think you're going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don't be afraid to go to your library and read every book, as long as that document does not offend your own ideas of decency. That should be the only censorship." (Eisenhower)

rec channelsSometimes called the "Second Red Scare" or the witchhunt, thousands of Americans were accused of being communists or communist sympathizers.

Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television was an anti-Communist book published in 1950. Focusing on 151 actors, writers, musicians, and others in the entertainment industry that were suspected of subversive behavior, it became a document for blacklisting individuals. This short pamphlet came to represent the "red scare."

The image on the left is the cover of Red Channel.

Comic Books

In the mid 20th century, comic books came under attack. They became associated with juvenile delinquency. In towns across America including West Virginia and New York, comic books were publicly burned in 1948.

Fredric Wertham (1895-1981) published Seduction of Innocent in 1954 condemning comic books. His book began a crusade to protest what he felt were the harmful effects of violent imagery on children. This book prompted the American Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency to investigate comic book as contributing to social ills. In response, the Comics Magazine Association of America established the Comics Code Authority to self-regulate the content of comic books in the United States. Members submitted comics for evaluation and were given an approval seal for the comic book cover. Many considered this approach de facto censorship. Known as the "Comics Code," it was abandoned by the 21st century.

Read Tilley, Carol L. (2012). Seducing the innocent: Fredric Wertham and the falsification that helps condemn comics. Information & Culture: A Journal of History, 47(4), 383-413. IUPUI students can view the article online.

In the 1960s, underground comics arose in response to the Comics Code system. Distributed in head shops and other unconventional channels, these comics didn't contain CAA approval.

The Comics Code Authority was updated a number of times to allow for specific types of criminal behavior and specific types of monsters such as vampires and werewolves. However zombies were not allowed. To get around this requirement, some comics called their monsters zuvembie instead of zombies.

Obscenity Acts

In the 1950s and 1960s many laws originally written in the 19th century were updated.

In the United Kingdom the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 reformed the law. This law provided exceptions for materials with artistic or literary merit such as Lady Chatterley's Lover. It also allowed works that are in the "public good". Books like The Obscene Publications Act of 1964 made minor revisions. They are still in force today.

In the United States, the Three Prong Obscenity Test, also known as the Miller test was developed in 1973 in the case Miller v. California. The test includes whether the average person based on community standards would consider the book prurient, whether the book contains illegal sexual conduct, and whether the item lacks literary, artistic, political, scientific, or social value. All three conditions must be satisfied.

Profanity and Sexuality

The use of profanity and sexuality in novels continued to cause an uproar in the mid part of the 20th century.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger was published for adults in 1951, however the coming-of-age story is often read by high school students because of its complex examination of teenage angst and alienation. Most critics reviewed it positively when it was published. More than a quarter million copies have been sold.

The controversy began when a high school teacher in Oklahoma was fired for assigning the novel in 1960. The teacher was later reinstated. During the 1960s through 1980s, The Catcher in the Rye was the most censored book in high schools and libraries in the United States. At the same time, it was also commonly taught in public high schools. The book was the tenth most frequently challenged book of the 1990s according to the American Library Association.

The book has become part of popular culture including references in other novels, in movies, and in television.

lolitaLolita by Vladimir Nabokov published in 1955 in Paris and 1958 in New York dealt with a controversial subject related to sexuality. Described as an erotic novel by some and a work of irony and sarcasm by others, it was initial turned down by well-known publishers. The book received polarizing reviews. Some called it one of the best books of the year, while others described it as the "filthiest" and a "unrestrained pornography". The book was seized in both the United Kingdom and France. In the United States, it was the first book to sell 100,000 copies in its first three weeks since Gone with the Wind.

Over the past half century, the book has become part of the popular culture and was adapted for the stage and screen.

With recent awareness of the long-term damage of child sexual abuse, Lolita has once again been in the spotlight.

To Kill a Mockingbird

birdTo Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee won the Pulitzer Prize and is considered by some to be the best novel of the 20th century. While its initial reception was mixed, it has since been reviewed favorably selling more than 20 million copies. Dealing with issues of race, class, compassion, and tolerance, the book has been widely taught in American schools since its publication. In a 2008 survey, it was identified as the most widely read book in high school.

Because of its use of racial epithets and frank discussion of rape, it is commonly challenged. The first incidents of book censorship in 1966 were focused on the depictions of rape. In the 1970s, challenges centered on issues of racism.. In the 2000s, it was number twenty-one on the American Library Association's most frequently challenged book list.

The book quickly began part of American culture being adapted into a movie in 1962. The book has been cited in numerous books, songs, movies, and television shows. Some historians have cited the novel as one of many reasons for the success of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Broad Distribution

redQuotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung became a cultural icon not because of its contents, but because of the number of books distributed. Published between 1964 and 1976, it is second to the Bible as the most printed book. Some researcher claim as many as 6 billion copies were made, however others estimate 1-2 billion.

The goal of the Ministry of Culture was for ninety-nine percent of the population of China to physically possess the book. At one point during the Cultural Revolution it was an unofficial requirement that every Chinese citizen carry a copy of the book at all times.

Containing the speeches and writings of communist party leader Mao Zedong, the most popular version had a red vinyl cover and was known in the West as the Little Red Book.

Even today, admirers of Mao Zedong wave the book in their right hand during demonstrations and chant slogans.

The Environmental Movement

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1907-1964) was published in 1962. The pesticide lobby and chemical industry threatened Carson with lawsuits, worked to discredit her, and even called her an "hysterical woman". However her book accurately detailed the devastating impact of DDT on bees and birds trumping her critics.

In What a Book Can Do: The Publication and Reception of Silent Spring, Priscilla Coit Murphy (2007, 1) describes the publishing history of Silent Spring. She notes that

"For more than a year, the controversy raged publicly throughout the media, in editorials, opinion columns, news articles and broadcasts, book reviews, and letters to the editor. From garden club meetings to the floor of Congress, Silent Spring drew its advocates and its detractors into sometimes acrimonious debate, one not only covered by the media but engaged the media as participants as well. Remarkable as it is that one author was able to set forth her message and to teach audiences at every level - from neighborhood to statehouse to White House - it is even more remarkable that she was able to do so through a medium whose paradigm is the simple dyad of author and single reader."

try itTry It!
Read Chapter 1: Silent Spring and Its Contexts: "The Right to Know" from What a Book Can Do: The Publication and Reception of Silent Spring by Priscilla Coit Murphy (2007).

Select another book that you think had an impact. Use the basic structure of Murphy's chapter as a guide for writing your own article about the publication and reception of your selected work. In other words, rather than simply writing about the book's history, place the book in the context of the time and place it was written.

Censorship and Youth

Concepts of obscenity introduced in the 19th century, carried through the 20th century particularly as they related to the idea that children must be shielded from information related to sex. Heins (2007, 8) notes that much of the

"contemporary concerns about shielding children and adolescents from corrupting sexual ideas are traceable directly to the Victorian-era fears that libidinous thoughts would lead to the 'sexual vice' of masturbation."

According to Heins (2007, 9),

"When, in the mid-20th century, courts began to realize the censorship of the reading matter of adults should not turn on what might be thought appropriate for a child, new doctrines ('variable obscenity', 'indecency') were created to maintain society's special interest in restricting information, ideas, and entertainment available to youth. The Supreme Court's pronouncements in this period zigzagged dizzily - on the one hand recognizing minors' free-expression rights and on the other moralizing about government's interest in protecting them from a too vigorous exercise of those rights, particularly when the subject was sex."


Throughout history, literary hoaxes have been perpetrated.

In 1969, Naked Came the Stranger was published. Using the pseudonym Penelope Ashe, a group of twenty-four journalists led by Newsday journalist Mike McGrady deliberately wrote an awful book containing lots of sex to demonstrate the mindlessly vulgarity reflected in American literary culture.

Each chapter was written by a different author adding to the intentional poor quality, inconsistent writing, and mediocre story. It became a best seller. The hoax was revealed after a few months adding to the success of the work.

Fake Authors and Works

During the 20th century, the number of fake autobiography and memoir rose. These invented works were often works of misery focusing on illness, abuse, sex, or violence.

In some cases, authors misrepresent themselves as well as their work. For instance, Danny Santiago published the novel Famous All Over Town winning literary awards in 1984. Although writing from the standpoint of a young Latino, he was actually a middle-aged Caucasian.

The best seller A Million Little Pieces by James Frey was published in 2003 as a memoir, but was later found to contain many exaggerations and fabrications.

try itTry It!
Read a banned book published prior to 1970. Connect the cultural values of the time to the book. Why do you consider the book a cultural icon?

Book Banning in the 1980s and Beyond

verseThroughout the 20th century and into the 21st century, pressure groups had a chilly impact on intellectual freedom. According to Foestel (2006),

"Indeed, in the early years of the twenty-first century, faith and fear are still prominent in determining our right to free expression. The most spectacular international act of book banning in the twentieth century was surely Iran's death sentence on the British author Salman Rushdie, and America's response to it has not been encouraging. Rushdie went into hiding in 1989 when his novel The Satanic Verses offended Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, who called for his execution and placed a $1 million bounty on his head. The Tehran underground publisher of The Satanic Verses had already been killed. 'The real book is struggling to get out from under all the rhetoric', says Rushdie. 'But I've always said that the best defense of the book is the book itself, when people read it openly and realize that some terrible injustice has been done not only to me, but to the book.'

Book Destruction in the 2000s

Conflict caused the loss of many books in the 21st century. In 2003, Iraq's national library and the Islamic library were burned.

Often, books are an indirect target. For instance during the 2011 clash between protesters and the military in Egypt, the original manuscript of the Description de l'Egypte was destroyed in a fire at the Institute for the Advancement of Scientific Research.

The images below are from Description de l'Egypte.


Recently, the Quran has been under attack by book burners in the United States as well as other countries.

Books of the Future

Over the past decade, people have gradually adjusted to the electronic book format. Transmedia works, interactive books, and other new technologies may once again change the future of books.

Read Wilsoker, Ken (Winter 2013). The future of the book as a media project. Cinema Journal, 52(2), 131-137. IUPUI students can view the article online.


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