Invitation to a Book-burning

In today’s topsy-turvy world the liberals are in favor of censorship and the conservatives are the ones being censored. The High Ayatollah of Iran can post whatever he likes on Twitter–unless he mentions QAnon, claims that the election was stolen from Trump or that hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment for Covid-19. Meanwhile, the former president, having mentioned all three, is banned from the platform. For life.

In this world, giving the High Ayatollah a platform that reaches millions is permissible. Denying that platform to a former president is permissible as well. As far as I am concerned, they both should be allowed to post, as should their political opponents. The High Ayatollah jails his opponents for speaking out, but he has no problem posting his own political commentary, thanks to his access to Twitter. There is something seriously wrong with this picture.

The latest book to be added to the pyre–Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth–was consigned because Bailey groomed middle and high school girls, then waited for them to turn 18 and them tried to have sex with them, assaulting at least one. In at least one case, Bailey gave a fourteen year-old a copy of Nabokov’s Lolita. R.M. Koster’s comment was prescient: “If Nabokov submitted the manuscript of Lolita today, someone in the mail room would call 911.”

Still, I read more than one review–one in the Atlantic stands out–where the reviewer counted herself lucky to have had a chance to have read Bailey’s book before it was censored. Because the reviewer’s own moral character is so high that she can withstand the evil of the text? No, she was happy to read the book before it was thrown on the pyre, as Bailey’s—and Roth’s—punishment. The prelates of the Catholic church have, it is said, the world’s most comprehensive collection of pornography in the Vatican library. How could the List of Condemned Books be compiled, after all, unless someone wiser than thou had access to read them?

Meanwhile, the original manuscript of the One Hundred Days of Sodom sold most recently for over six million dollars; was then declared a French national treasure and enshrined at the French National Library. No one would dare suggest that the work of le divin Marquis be consigned to the flames: it is a national treasure. This, despite the fact that the good Marquis was, in his lifetime, condemned for this and his other books. And why not? De Sade wrote approvingly of pederasty, cannibalism, murder and of course, sodomy, a once condemned practice. The Marquis was freed from prison in the tumult of the Revolution. Today, he is viewed as one of the giants of French and dare I say world, literature.

I have so far read about half of Blailey’s condemned biography of Roth and have found nothing as bad as is found on almost every page of De Sade, not to mention Bukowski1 The closest Bailey comes to an objectionable statement is when he quotes Roth praising the bliss obtained from the transgressive sin of incest. Strong stuff certainly, but trivial compared to DeSade. Have we not learned that burning books is not the best way to show our disapproval of them? And why should we blame Roth for the sins of Bailey? Is there proof that Roth knew of Bailey’s sins? Roth may not be a sympathetic character, but millions bought Portnoy’s Complaint. Should that book be consigned to the flames as well? Should we similarly condemn those who read the now-condemned text?

You can drop by your local Barnes & Noble and pick up a Bukowski or a copy of Sodom but Blake’s bio? Unavailable.

What books would you like to add to the pyre?

  1. With Post Office being the sole exception. Maybe his poetry too. [return]