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Words, Words, Words

A catalog of my comments and thoughts on books, reading, and writing as well as anything I come across that seems interesting. I used to sell other people's words at an independent bookstore but now I hope to get by on selling my own.

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The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce�s Ulysses - Kevin Birmingham

A portrait of censorship in our own country. Our own legal and cultural moment has swung so decidedly in the way of free expression (though challenges persist) and our national story has been one  of freedom contrasted with the tyranny of fascist countries. I knew Ulysses was once banned for over a decade in America and I assumed it was a bureaucratic matter, a negotiation between the government and publishers, something like television today with the FCC. 


What it actually took to get a modern classic into America, and the risks many took along the way to make that happen is the subject of Kevin Birmingham's The Most Dangerous Book: the Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses. A good bit of set-up is required for the story, and much of  the book details the operations of early 20th century publishing house and their challengers in the vice societies which policed obscene material, along with biography of James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Sylvia Beach and other colleagues in the defense of literature. Birmingham writes about the sting operations on bookshops, publishers going to jail, publications shut down over the printing of shit or fuck or descriptions of bodies and sexuality. It is, at times, accidentally comical how joyless the societies are in how reluctant they are even in carving out exemptions for classics. Birmingham quotes a decision by Judge Augustus Hand asserting the authority of the US Postal Service to declare material obscene and take action which exempts classics, "because they have the sanction of age and fame and usually appeal to a comparatively limited number of readers."


It seems amazing today that a man who had to watch his own eye surgery while awake(a spine-chilling episode in a book which dwells on Joyce's litany of health problems) would face a decade-long court battle over frank discussions of the body and sex. In a world with real problems (throughout this book I thought  back to the show Scrubs where the character Turk, while getting ready for the birth of his daughter, warns his coworkers not to tell her that she has a vagina until she is 18).


The Most Dangerous Book is an interesting story and a good read, particularly for fans of Joyce. It does a good job answering the questions it wants to address, but that framing is very specific. Birmingham is definitely more interested in the biographical elements than in constitutional history. He provides the required background the context we are given for battle for Ulysses is the development of Modern literature more than the legal battles toward free expression.