Newspaper article International New York Times

Why Read Books Considered Obscene?

Newspaper article International New York Times

Why Read Books Considered Obscene?

Article excerpt

In those "grown up" books I found clear, intricate exposition of adult desire, foibles and needs.

In those "grown up" books I found clear, intricate exposition of adult desire, foibles and needs.

A while ago, tickled by a "Saturday Night Live" skit about "Fifty Shades of Grey," I proposed to my book club we read that novel, alongside the 1950s succes de scandale "Story of O," by Pauline Reage (a pseudonym), for contrast.

When several members threatened to quit rather than submit to such raunchy fare, I changed the selection. I imagine they were joking, on some level; but I could tell their distaste for the genre was genuine, which I thought was a shame. Two millenniums ago, the Roman playwright Terence wrote: "I am human; nothing that is human can be alien to me." I concur, and I also share the conviction proclaimed by the mathematician and satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer some 50 years ago, introducing his song "Smut": "Dirty books are fun."

That said, I do have standards. In 1957, the Supreme Court inveighed against "obscene material," defined as works "utterly without redeeming social importance." Like those justices (presumably), I like my literature liberally salted with cultural relevance. But unlike them (probably), I consider some of the saltiest authors to number among the most literary -- even if "Fifty Shades," when I eventually read it, was not my cup of Earl Grey.

As an adolescent in the late 1970s, while my junior high friends were reading Judy Blume's Y.A. sex primer, "Forever," I sneaked "The Great Train Robbery," "The Thorn Birds" and "The Water-Method Man" (among other unexpurgated volumes) from my parents' shelves. In those "grown up" books, which were not "obscene" on the whole but had their lurid bits, I found clear, intricate exposition of adult desire, foibles and needs, spanning continents and centuries.

I remember being struck by the precocious pragmatism of the child prostitute in "The Great Train Robbery," who feigns virginity to earn rich payment from an unhealthy customer (in the Victorian era, the narrator explains, many believed intercourse with a virgin could cure venereal disease). …

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