An incisive history of the futility of censorship.




The combative life of a man who “spread shame.”

For 40 years, Anthony Comstock (1844-1915) mounted a vigorous, often obsessive campaign, in the courts and in the press, to stamp out vice. For much of his notorious career, he was the sole arbiter of obscenity. Werbel (History of Art/Fashion Institute of Technology; Thomas Eakins: Art, Medicine, and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia, 2007) offers a richly detailed examination of Comstock’s life and mission, which she presents as a cautionary tale for our own time, when evangelical Christianity seeks to impose its values on the nation. For Comstock and his supporters in the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, repressing sexuality was “the only solution to pressing social problems.” He opposed women’s empowerment, condemned abortions and the women who died from botched procedures, and viewed “child sex trafficking as largely the fault of the victims.” Fueled by religious zeal and supported by others who shared his Christian ideology, Comstock worked to initiate and expand state and federal anti-obscenity statutes that criminalized “anyone who facilitated the arousal of lust and sexual gratification other than for procreative purposes within marriage.” As Secretary of the NYSSV, he energetically ferreted out lust, collecting material from a wide range of sources, including publishers, artists, photographers, merchants, theatrical producers, brothels, men’s clubs, and art galleries. By 1876, he had sent to pulp mills more than 21,000 pounds of books and 202,000 images and photographs. For the bulk of the book, Werbel draws on Comstock’s three-volume “Records of Arrests,” his detailed chronicle of his “efforts to defeat Satan in America.” This material reveals the trajectory of Comstock’s influence and power, which plummeted after 1884, when artists, wealthy art collectors, and lawyers, judges, and juries thwarted him, questioning his credibility as a judge of “depravity.” He became a butt of jokes, skewered in derisive cartoons and criticized widely in the press.

An incisive history of the futility of censorship.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-231-17522-7

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Columbia Univ.

Review Posted Online: Jan. 22, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.


An engaging, casual history of librarians and libraries and a famous one that burned down.

In her latest, New Yorker staff writer Orlean (Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, 2011, etc.) seeks to “tell about a place I love that doesn’t belong to me but feels like it is mine.” It’s the story of the Los Angeles Public Library, poet Charles Bukowski’s “wondrous place,” and what happened to it on April 29, 1986: It burned down. The fire raged “for more than seven hours and reached temperatures of 2000 degrees…more than one million books were burned or damaged.” Though nobody was killed, 22 people were injured, and it took more than 3 million gallons of water to put it out. One of the firefighters on the scene said, “We thought we were looking at the bowels of hell….It was surreal.” Besides telling the story of the historic library and its destruction, the author recounts the intense arson investigation and provides an in-depth biography of the troubled young man who was arrested for starting it, actor Harry Peak. Orlean reminds us that library fires have been around since the Library of Alexandria; during World War II, “the Nazis alone destroyed an estimated hundred million books.” She continues, “destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never happened.” The author also examines the library’s important role in the city since 1872 and the construction of the historic Goodhue Building in 1926. Orlean visited the current library and talked to many of the librarians, learning about their jobs and responsibilities, how libraries were a “solace in the Depression,” and the ongoing problems librarians face dealing with the homeless. The author speculates about Peak’s guilt but remains “confounded.” Maybe it was just an accident after all.

Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.

Pub Date: Oct. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4018-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: July 2, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

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