Sunday 20 September 2015

Banned Books Week

That would be today and for the next six days. Banned Book Week was pushed out into the stream of public discourse in 1982 by libertarian + librarian Judith Krug while head of the Freedom to Read Association.  It is important that us intellectuals draw attention periodically to the fact that people are not able to read certain books because certain other people think they are naughty. Naughty is the appropriately schoolmarmish mummy-knows-best word to apply to almost all cases . . . except those where my prejudices are endorsed: then censorship is necessary to uphold the rule of law, the fabric of society and indeed life as we know it.  Mein Kampf, for example, is still banned in Austria.  That seems a bit bolting the cattle-wagon door after the train has left for Birkenau. If it was studied in schools today, it could be exposed as badly written, poorly argued and logically inconsistent and, well, silly. In the modern world, such island bans are fatuous: you could drive from Vienna to Szombethely in Hungary and back in about four hours and bring back a copy of Mein Kampf . . . and a family of Syrians in the same trip.  I had a piece a couple of years ago about a BBW hoax that exposed the knee-jerkiness of our reactions to shibboleths like 'censorship'.

Back in 1973, I came to Ireland equipped for college. I brought a steamer-trunk full of clothes, some pencils, a slide-rule, and a ratty musk-rat Ondatra zibethicus fur coat. I also brought a 25x25x45cm box full of books - mostly cherished Penguin paperbacks. Included in there, because it was funny, because it was set in Trinity College Dublin (where I was bound) and because it was banned in Ireland was J.P. Donleavy's The Ginger Man. I was entirely alone and a long way from home and the TCD accommodation bureau had assigned me digs in Sandymount Irishtown where there was nothing to do in the evenings. One evening, two weeks after term started, I was warm and dry in The Phil, the room assigned to the Dublin University Philosophical Society which I'd been induced to join during Fresher's Week. I was curled up in a corner of a sofa in the far corner of The Phil laughing out loud at The Ginger Man. When I settled in at about 7 o'clock the place was full of other 'philosophers' discoursing about Wittgenstein, chatting to their pals or reading the newspapers which were supplied by the Society.  But as time and chapters wore on, I was chortling more or less to myself, because almost everyone else had drifted off home or to the pub or the library. Eventually there was nobody there except for a strikingly pretty girl who had cast up at the other end of the same sofa. I was far too British to talk to her but she asked me a question and we chatted for a bit before College started to close down for the night and we both went to our respective unhomes.  We met again, and then again, and have been together now for more than forty years. So thanks are due to John Charles McQuaid the Archbishop of Dublin and certain prim others who banned that book. "Two years later her [Edna O'Brien] second novel, The Lonely Girl, was also banned after Archbishop John Charles McQuaid complained personally to Justice Minister Charles Haughey that the book “was particularly bad." It would have been a different road in the yellow wood without their definition of obscenity.

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