I subscribe to A Word a Day, a free service which sends me an interesting word each day. Today’s word is comstockery – a word I had never heard of. Anu Garg is the Wordsmith and he introduces his word for today by writing that librarians and booksellers are two of his favourite people. (Well since I am both of those I think I would like to meet the man.) He goes on to write that he feels it unfortunate that some people feel threatened by certain books and call for them to be banned or destroyed. He feels that people have a right to be offended by any book, but in that case all they have to do is not buy or borrow it. The problem begins when they try to impose their views on others by trying to ban it.
As an antidote to banning, the last week of September is observed in the US as Banned Books Week. So this week Anu Garg is going to feature five words relating to censorship and mutilation of books.
Even though people after whom some of these words are coined have long gone, censorship is still alive. But there’s hope. Anu leaves his readers with this thoughtful letter from a librarian to a patron.
From the Wordsmith:
noun: Overzealous censorship of material considered obscene.
After Anthony Comstock (1844-1915), founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. He crusaded against anything he considered immoral. Nothing escaped his wrath — even anatomy textbooks for medical students and the draping of mannequins in public view in shop windows were obscene to him. He lobbied for laws against mailing any material that could be perceived as promoting immorality.
He was appointed postal inspector and he seized books, postcards, and other materials by the boatload. He boasted that he had arrested more than 3,000 people and driven more than 15 to suicide. George Bernard Shaw coined the word comstockery after him when he attacked the American production of Shaw’s play “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”.”
My encounter with censorship – I worked in the library of the American International School in Bangladesh for close to 5 years and eventually reached the position of head librarian. One day, a mother of a child in the lower grades, came in to browse and select some books for herself. (We had a rather large adult section to serve the needs of parents and friends, books in English being rather scarce in Bangladesh at that time.) I knew this parent socially and thought her reasonable enough. However, she came into the library and upraided me in no uncertain fashion for having a book by Raoul Dahl on our shelves. I cannot remember which book it was – this was about 25 years ago. I was puzzled by her outrage but did not feel articulate enough to counter her. And I decided it was no big deal to just quietly withdraw the book and say no more. Then I put it back on the shelves when this particular parent had moved on. It wasn’t as if the book was in great demand anyhow – it probably hadn’t been taken out in years.