How scandalous is your reading list?


It’s #BannedBooksWeek! Prepare to get hot, heady, and deeply bothered. You may even smell of charcoal and get your sensibilities singed by week’s end.

My recommendation for #BannedBooksWeek? Read a book banned or challenged, historically or currently. The more controversial and the more taboo, the better. Resist thought-policing altogether, even if such liberality lets through things that make you uncomfortable, that undermine your interests. Dryden said, in what I think remains a worthwhile sentiment, that “the truth has such a face and such a mien, as to be loved needs only to be seen.”

For reference, try to find a copy, perhaps at your local public or university library, of “Banned Books,” Facts on File, Library of World Literature, 2006: Vol. 1, Literature Suppressed on Political Grounds (ISBN 0-8160-6270-6); Vol 2., Literature Suppressed on Religious Grounds (ISBN 0-8160-6269-2), Vol. 3, Literature Suppressed on Sexual Grounds (ISBN 0-8160-6272-2); Vol. 4, Literature Suppressed on Social Grounds (ISBN 0-8160-6271-4).

It may be a sign of an unwholesome psychological predisposition of mine against any sort of overt control, but the moment I learn that a form of media — especially books, but also the visual arts, music, and film — has been challenged or banned in a way that smacks of thought-policing and mob-control, I go out of my way to read, to listen to, or to watch it.

This necessarily means that I’ve been far more worldly in my consumption than many would deem appropriate. It’s how I encountered Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, Wilmot’s collected verse, Baudelaire in accurate translations, The Color Purple and short stories of Alice Walker; or Thomas De Quincey, Georges Bataille, Gottfried Benn, Rudolf Schwarzkogler; the films of Bernardo Bertolucci or more recently Lars Von Triers; the art of René Magritte or Marcel Duchamp. Even when I was a Roman Catholic (Baaa…), I used to scan through the old volumes of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum at St. Bonaventure University and use it as a card catalogue for my to-be-read list.

I won’t pretend that I enjoyed even half of it, but if confessional literature is the new norm, that’s my confession. Miserere mei, Deus. It’s also probably why I have such a hard time judging people for transgressing what were once normative moral conventions, but equal difficulty not judging those who continue to enforce them. I am myself ennui-inducingly conventional in my mores, but so rabid in my commitment to open culture, communication, information exchange, etcetera, that I’ve exposed myself to things that are not natively appealing and which might shock and dismay my more reserved acquaintances.

By the way, so-called liberals are just as bad as their conservative counterparts, although they seek to dishonestly excise what they deem to be the “sins of our forefathers,” the very things conservatives seek to uphold. I’m in favor of letting everything stand as it is, to be judged individually and collectively for its merit, whether moral, aesthetic, whatever. This may be the one instance where I’m in favor of the completely unregulated flow of something, ideas and images and experiences.

If we censor the bad, however potentially injurious, we establish a precedent that prohibits the full and unmitigated manifestation of the good. My commitment to individualism begins and ends here, in the arena of expression. Financial markets, for instance, are not as well-provisioned in my philosophy.

Sex, it is worthwhile to note, is especially taboo and characteristic of so many banned or challenged media. Call me crazy, but I think we should be less terrified of our biology and more broadly accept, in the words of John Henry Newman, that

It is a contradiction in terms to attempt a sinless Literature of sinful man.

Newman goes on to explain,

You may gather together something very great and high, something higher than any Literature ever was; and when you have done so, you will find that it is not Literature at all. You will have simply left the delineation of man, as such, and have substituted for it, as far as you have had any thing to substitute, that of man, as he is or might be, under certain special advantages. Give up the study of man, as such, if so it must be; but say you do so. Do not say you are studying him, his history, his mind and his heart, when you are studying something else. Man is a being of genius, passion, intellect, conscience, power. He exercises these various gifts in various ways, in great deeds, in great thoughts, in heroic acts, in hateful crimes. He founds states, he fights battles, he builds cities, he ploughs the forest, he subdues the elements, he rules his kind. He creates vast ideas, and influences many generations. He takes a thousand shapes, and undergoes a thousand fortunes. Literature records them all to the life,

Quicquid agunt homines, votum, timor, ira, voluptas, Gaudia, discursus (trans. everything humanity does, its hope, fear, rage, pleasure, joys, business)

He pours out his fervid soul in poetry; he sways to and fro, he soars, he dives, in his restless speculations; his lips drop eloquence; he touches the canvas, and it glows with beauty; he sweeps the strings, and they thrill with an ecstatic meaning. He looks back into himself, and he reads his own thoughts, and notes them down; he looks out into the universe, and tells over and celebrates the elements and principles of which it is the product. Such is man: put him aside, keep him before you; but, whatever you do, do not take him for what he is not, for something more divine and sacred, for man regenerate.

Let us remember, too, the words of Milton in the Areopagitica,

And though all the windes of doctrin were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licencing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falshood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the wors, in a free and open encounter.