Welcome to the newest edition of The Why. “Why do people read obscene books?” Good question. (OK, it’s a little literary but again it beats answering your odder, intimate inquiries. Seriously? We thought “The Hindenburg” was just a book about the 1937 airship disaster, mmmkay?)
Book censorship is nothing new. It has been going since shortly after the first book was published. So if these censored books pulled from libraries and burned in bonfires are so terrible—so obscene, if you will—then why do people read them?
Some people read them to make a point. Yours truly has specifically added books to his reading list only after someone decided they should be banned. Some people like to make sure they don’t allow a small group of folks or even a single person to tell them what they should or should not read.
Some people read obscene books to shock and annoy their more conservative acquaintances. Some others believe in supporting artists who are being targeted unfairly.
But there are other reasons as well. James Parker, contributor to The New York Times online, says so-called obscene books offer an aesthetic experience other books may not.
He references Nabokov’s Lolita stating it is “a special case — the special case, perhaps. Like old, gray, mad Nijinski, we rise to a phenomenal altitude while reading it. But there are plenty of other gains to be got and gots to be gained from scandalous books.”
He adds that some obscene books such as Earl Thompson’s 1974 novel Tattoo expanded his “sexual consciousness. Henry Miller did something to me too, gave me something, although that’s harder to put into words: a kind of absolution, I think. After Miller I had the feeling that it might be all right, sexually speaking, just to lie on the floor of the universe in a dirty coat and wait for the restoring touch of Anaïs Nin.”
Parker references a court case to further explain why people read obscene books. He states:
“Appealing an obscenity charge against Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn in an English court, the brilliant lawyer-novelist John Mortimer advanced what would come to be known as the ‘aversion defense’ or the ‘repugnance theory’. The idea was that, far from tending to ‘deprave and corrupt’ its readers, a work like Last Exit to Brooklyn, precisely by being so disgusting, would induce a moral counter- reaction. “
He concludes: “Mortimer won the case . . . but I’ve never been sure about the repugnance theory. The great naughty books, it seems to me, do not trigger our fastidiousness — rather they put us on better terms with our own naughtiness . . . our deep-down desires.” (In other words, people also read obscene books for purposes of self-discovery and maybe even . . . self-exploration, huh?)
Why do people read obscene books? Now you know.
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