A Mickey Spillane thriller with an enthusiastic blurb. The Adventures of an Amorous Gentleman of Quality , a slim volume with a plain cover, privately printed in Paris. A paperback of the Kama Sutra from the early s, with line drawings of couples in posed, illustrative conjugation. I turn to the next box. Hardcover books lie inside, covered in thick brown paper. The books in this box are older, with thicker pages and rounded cloth bindings, prohibited in the s and s.
This is the very copy that decided the prohibition of the title: all editions refused entry and circulation stopped. A forbidden object, the aura of the proscribed still seems to surround it, carried through its decades of hibernation. So it arrives into the light of the reading room like a nocturnal animal, alien, out of time, perhaps wild.
More and more boxes. Two trolleys arrive with a dozen lined up, containing serious-sounding books with titles like The Sexual Relations of Mankind as well as predictable examples of erotica and soft- and hard-core pornography: books featuring sexualised fetishes or fantasised violence; books about the purported desires of schoolgirls; books depicting flagellation with various titles in multiple copies.
I pick up The Sexual Adventures of Robinson Crusoe , a tongue-in-cheek porn classic published by the provocative Olympia Press in France, featuring long descriptions of masturbation and bestiality. There are magazines, calendars, thin paperbacks about drugs and, in one or two boxes, comics.
Interdisciplinary Literary Studies
From , , , they are the kind of vintage comics that collectors now pay handsomely for, beautifully lurid in purple and green, blue, red and yellow. Weird Science and Tales of Terror : the titles reside in hybrid genres such as sci-fi horror and fantasy romance, featuring vampires from outer space or zombies in love.
They were collected in full sequences at the moment of publication to be bundled up and locked away. The library holds publications removed from readers, sellers and importers that were then carefully held, catalogued and sequestered. Seven-hundred and ninety-three boxes, perhaps 12, titles, perhaps more, sometimes moved between departments, housed in different offices, but kept safe and intact for six decades.
The library dates from about and stretches to , when the Office of Film and Literature Classification handed it on to the National Archives of Australia. It was for reference, a tool that enabled the success of the censorship system. Researchers had long suspected that Australian censors kept a reference library of banned books within the federal department of Trade and Customs, responsible under its Act for the prohibition of imported publications as obscene, blasphemous or seditious for much of the twentieth century. Few had ever seen it, however, or even verified its existence.
Certainly it was mentioned in correspondence and seemed a necessary part of the systematic regime maintained by the department, but no part of it had been sighted. Senior librarians from the National Library of Australia speculated with me when I began inquiring about the missing books.
Censorship and Literature
Or perhaps sold them on the black market. Perhaps they had circulated to shadowy collectors, perhaps even to knowing parliamentarians. And so the library disappeared. The books, which Perlez estimated then to number or , were housed in locked grey steel cabinets.
Professor Nicole Robyn Moore | UNSW Research
Until May I mentioned the library to staff at the National Archives and we started to look. Among the many uncatalogued file series from Customs, one was suspiciously large. The search went seven stories underground, to the basements of the NSW branch in western Sydney. There we found, stacked in quiet rows, boxes of books. I held my breath as box after box was retrieved. Thousands of different titles, neatly covered and catalogued. So far, it had been a mere symbol, a metonym for the secret exercise of power over knowledge.
He describes the quandary faced by late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century Italian and English archaeologists who unearthed the cities buried beneath Vesuvius and discovered a late Roman culture in which erotic images and obscene objects were so numerous as to be unremarkable, even conventional. What were they to do with the many statues of Priapus, the god of generation always identifiable by his erect phallus, which decorated the thresholds of Roman households? But how to display the Pompeii finds? The public was literate in the cultures of ancient Rome and Greece and excited about the wealth of new finds, but needed to be protected from objects and images strongly offensive to dominant Victorian morality.
Confronted with these priceless obscenities — marble contradictions that could explode any necessary link between absolute morality and aesthetics — cataloguers revived an old word. The finds were housed in a special room in the Museo Borbonica in Naples, to which only gentlemen with appropriate qualifications could be admitted; women, children, the poor and the uneducated were excluded. Even the room was kept as secret as possible. Censorship is a taxonomic process, a system of classification that establishes special categories of distinction for more or less offensive meaning, and isolates and removes that meaning from everyday production, distribution or consumption.
But this is not an Australian library. This is a purloined library, made of the confiscated trade of a small ex-colonial nation with a large reading appetite. The books are not a national collection but foreign contraband, either banned on the spot by Customs officers or banned later after being referred to expert literary boards.
It takes a new and closer look at the content of the banned items themselves. My approach, as a literary historian, is to take for granted neither the outrage of censorship nor its necessity, and to probe further into what made up the offence as it sat on the page.
What factors made it offensive? Why were these books banned and how? What was at stake in prohibitions? What mattered enough to be banned? What was it that we were kept from knowing? The discovery of the library makes it possible to answer these questions in a way that could not be done before. The book draws on the voluminous archived records of federal censorship left by the Customs department and other government agencies, much of which has not been examined or even catalogued before. With more than fifteen government departments and agencies involved in censorship, just the records held in the National Archives of Australia amount to more than 70 file series, and the shelf-space for some of these series measures metres or more.
Besides placing the scandals and notorieties of Australian book-banning in a full context, the records bring to light many unknown prohibitions, revealing diverse titles whose offence has been obscured. The records expose the motivations and mechanisms of censorship as well as its blunders. I have tried to reanimate the lively and argumentative assessments of the censors, the stormy in-house debates, personalities and pedantries, administrative triumphs and legal sleights-of-hand, political brutalities and social scandals that underpinned the extraordinarily expansive and rigorous system of bureaucratic control.
It required a kind of civil service unknown to us now, and coordinated and systematic surveillance that can appear both alien and familiar. The book is underpinned by Banned in Australia , the first comprehensive bibliographic list of literary titles banned by federal censorship from until , which I produced with Marita Bullock in Even then, only literary titles were listed or those that were deemed to have some public interest.
Popular, technical or scholarly, and pornographic publications were not listed. Bringing it into public view allows us to see not only that which we have been prevented from seeing or reading, but the frame through which censorship organised that view — the rationale and limits, specified in exact proscribed objects, of power itself. The history of literary censorship is a narrative about narrative, one of the most exact examples of stories about the circulation of stories.
First, Plottner Verlag, Leipzig; London, pp.
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