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Monday, November 15, 2010

Forbidden Books

Remember how somewhere deep into their darkest period the Nazis had an exhibit of degenerate art? Art so expressive, it must have been made by outsiders? This as a kind of interesting bookend to the art made for public display by those sequestered in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, turned into art puppets, art as pabulum for the guilty conscience?

Well, I don't know why exactly, or I do, as I write this, but I was thinking of the Nazis in relation to the idea of taboo art: what, really, in our hellbent age is taboo anymore? Where, in other words, can you get the thrill of a book that seems to have toppled off some kind of shelf not really meant for your sensibility?

And the quick two-step: do you remember which books your parents read -- to themselves! the great unimaginable of that! -- which seemed to you to be so insuperably adult?

For me, two signal taboo-book events occurred: one was my mother's creased copy of FEAR OF FLYING, with its cover boasting a woman's waist in peach tones -- odd, actually, now that I realize this; the cover of this next novel seems to share some lineage with this new cover for LOLA, CALIFORNIA.

The other had to do with my witnessing my mother receiving a cardboard shipment of books by Lawrence Durrell, THE ALEXANDRIA QUARTET -- the exoticism of that, back in the Quality Paperback Club era, prior to Amazon -- a set of books whose random purple phrases, whenever I could sneak a peek, far better than the dictionary page in my elementary school's anatomical diagrams, or the 1970s classic lying around, OUR BODIES, OURSELVES, connoted a world of travel and passion.

A few years later, still a kid, I chanced upon the book MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS by Lawrence Durrell's little brother Gerald, a memoir, in my memory at least, about the time the family lived on Corfu with a whole range of British expostulations and friendly eccentric locals, heir and ancestor both to the hoary literary lineage that sets up the traveler as composed of equal parts sensitivity, sensibility and prejudice approaching the great unknown.

The reader as prejudiced traveler: how in our time can the taboo ever again be restored to reading? The frisson felt by, say, readers picking up the first edition of Defoe's MOLL FLANDERS, not knowing whether the hybrid beast in their hands qualified as the newly minted concept of fiction or not.

Do adults ever feel that kids' frisson when reading?

Recently I had to say no to reviewing a book -- don't want to say which one -- which felt as if it were a kind of provocateur's play on a huge societal calamity, sort of a jeu des mots borrowing the shock of the extratextual reference without bringing in anything of worth. No play, insight, articulation or expansion of human boundaries.

Taboo as a kind of border-patrol.

I'd be interested in hearing of others' taboo books: which seem(ed) to promise the kind of magic kids now scramble toward Harry Potter in pursuit of --? You fill in.


  1. Edie, it's lovely to read you again; makes me want to see you again, too. In the vein of your FEAR OF FLYING, I distinctly remember visiting some groovy friends of my parents and finding their creased copy of THE JOY OF SEX and the hirsute, joyful couple therein. This is probably not what you meant when you asked for our memories of the frisson of literature, but it was a notable moment that I imagine 12-year-olds these days recreate in much more digital, virtual, hairless ways. -- erin

  2. Hirsute does seem key.

    But what did happen to all the hairy lovers of yore that they ended up spawning such hairless cyberkinetics?

    Yours in the world of cyberkinesis,