Obscenegasm: An Editorial on Vandalism as Censorship

Last week, during my morning walkthrough, I found a book in my store that was vandalized. If you follow me on Instagram, you likely saw my photos of the cover of the book Moregasm: Babeland’s Guide to Mind-blowing Sex by Claire Cavannah and Rachel Venning, which was vandalized by some Random Crusader Against The Orgasm by writing the word “obscene” across the cover in black ballpoint ink.

The culprit then shoved the book behind The Guide to Getting It On and left it there. So forgive me, but the rest of this post is written directly for the culprit.

Booksellers and librarians will tell you, we have to make constant decisions on where we place things that balance the security of our inventory and the privacy of our patrons. Do I want to move my sex section to a place that is more visible by either booksellers or our security cameras? No. Absolutely not. People have the right to browse in private. Does that mean that I have to do more work replacing the shrink wrap on books that have been opened that shouldn’t be? Yeah. Does that mean I wash my hands a lot more at work than I would on a day off? Hell yeah. I guide people to the information they seek. I’m not in the business of telling people what information they can have and what information they can’t. They can do that for themselves.

And this is why this pisses me off so much. You only get to decide what is obscene for yourself. Unless you’re a Supreme Court Justice, you don’t get to decide what’s obscene for anyone else–especially not by writing in ball-point pen across the cover of a book for which you did not transact ownership. (A general rule: if it’s not yours, don’t fuck with it.)

So who gets to decide what’s obscene? Well, the Supereme Court for one. In Miller v California (1972)–a case involving the distribution of actual pornographic materials (not an informational book)–the Supreme Court refined its definition of obscene material as lacking “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” Considering that Moregasm contains information on safely and comfortably performing an activity that nearly everyone does (go home and thank your parents), that encourages open communication resulting in mutual pleasure for all parties, it’s pretty apparent that it contains informational socialscientific (and possibly political) value.

But if what you’re looking for is obscene material, and because National Banned Books Week is right around the corner–a magical time when booksellers, librarians, teachers, and information professionals celebrate the works of literature that citizens like you decided to police for the sake of other people’s sensibilities (which, the did not ask you to do)–here are some books that are on our shelves that are far more obscene than Moregasm:

Tropic of Cancer

by Henry Miller

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller book jacket

Published in 1934, on trial for obscenity in 1961 (after a reprint). “This is not a book in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty… what you will.” I’d say his aim was pretty clear here. This is not art. Or is it? What can be described as art?

Still from Martin Scorsese's After Hours

Paul read Henry Miller in public before it was cool. Have a great night, Paul!


Naked Lunch

by William S. Burroughs

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs book jacket

Challenged for obscenity for its depictions of child-murder, rape, homicide, orgies, drug abuse, cop-killing, auto-erotic asphixiation, graphic depictions of homosexuality, and more. Banned in a Boston trial in 1962 for depictions of child murder and pedophilia (decision reversed in 1966) Burroughs claimed that you have to peel away the veneer of artificiality to really see out what you are consuming on the end of your fork. This book lays it all bare.

Gif from the film Naked Lunch directed by David Cronenberg

Must be one of them metaphors.

Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure 

by John Cleland

Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland

Published in 1748 while the author sat in debtor’s prison, this novel is known as the first original English prose pornography, and the first pornography taking the form of a novel. This title sat on the banned books list in America 145 years as a result of the first obscenity case in the United States in 1821 until a Supreme Court decision in 1966 declared that it was not obscene material.

Oh snap! Free Fanny Hill ebook download! 

The number one book challenged for obscenity in 2013 was Captain Underpants. It didn’t stop hundreds of children and parents from showing up to BookPeople in support of Dav Pilkey when he celebrated the release of the latest Captain Underpants installment last week.

The bare fact is, by challenging these titles, you bring more attention to them. To challenge a book is to step up to the line of censorship: a line that booksellers, librarians, teachers, and information professionals consider something of a firing line. We will fight tooth and nail against censorship. And whether you know it or not, you directly contribute to these titles’ increased circulation as more attention is brought to them. In most cases, you revive interest in books that may well sit on the shelf, untouched. I suppose that’s why my first instinct is to lay bare the most obscene books I can think of.

For the rest of you, enjoy National Banned Books Week! I will be reading two books challenged this past year: John Green’s Looking For Alaska (yep, the same John Green who is getting all of his books optioned into highly successful films) and Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (because this girl is a freaking hero.) What are you reading for Banned Books Week?

Gif from the Francois Truffaut film Farenheit 451

It was a pleasure to burn.

2 thoughts on “Obscenegasm: An Editorial on Vandalism as Censorship

  1. Funnily enough I’ve just started Naked Lunch. Have you read Henry Millers ‘The Air-Conditioned Nightmare’? I haven’t read ‘Tropic of Cancer’ yet, but just like you said, you’re bringing it to the light has encouraged me to do so.

    Great post!


    • Well, I can’t say “Hope you enjoy Naked Lunch” because I feel a bit weird about that, but I can say “Hope you think deeply about it!” (which I’m sure you will). Don’t forget to check out David Cronenberg’s 1991 film adaptation starring Peter Weller. It’s very different from the book, but Weller puts forth one hell of a performance, and the imagery is spectacular. I haven’t read “The Air-Conditioned Nightmare” but it’s going on my TBR list now!

      Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

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