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-by J. Bottum
I Say Yes, You Say No
In 1932, while lawyers argued in a Manhattan courthouse about obscenity in James Joyce's Ulysses, the dapper and immensely popular mayor of New York, Jimmy Walker, scoffed to reporters, "No girl was ever seduced by a book." America's intellectuals and literary critics, many of whom had submitted testimony about Ulysses for the trial, howled in outrage at this proof of American provincialism.
And they were right to howl: The man who does not understand that books are dangerous things is a fool. Clarence Darrow, fighting in 1924 to save the student murderers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb from the death penalty, argued that the theories of Nietzsche they had read in their college courses were more to blame than the students who insanely put those theories into practice. The federal judge in the obscenity trial of Ulysses eventually allowed Joyce's book into the United States precisely because he did not find in it what he knew books could contain: the "leer of the sensualist" and an "aphrodisiac" effect. In a powerful chapter in last year's widely noticed study Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography (St. Martin's Press, 369 pp.; $26.95), the literary critic Roger Shattuck demonstrates a connection between the unspeakable "Moors Murderers" in Britain in the 1960s and the Marquis de Sade's accounts of sexual torture.
But Mayor Walker nonetheless had a point that his critics-caught in the curious position of having to argue both that books are dangerous and that Ulysses isn't-were incapable of appreciating. If any girl ever did get herself lured into bed by a book, the book is much less likely to have been a censorable volume like Joyce's Ulysses or the Marquis de Sade's Philosophy in the Bedroom than it is to have been something like Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese or one of those Harlequin Romances that clog the checkout counters in local supermarkets. A book's danger exists within a set of social conditions so complicated and rapidly ...