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

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

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

Did you like this book?

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2015

  • Kirkus Prize
  • Kirkus Prize

  • New York Times Bestseller

  • IndieBound Bestseller

  • Pulitzer Prize Finalist

  • National Book Award Winner



The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

Did you like this book?