Gabriel García Márquez, Banned Books & Porn

This story appears in the Fall 2014 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below. 

Story by: Joanna Berliner

"The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin.”

(“Call me Ishmael,” it looks like you’ve been topped.)

So begins Gabriel García Márquez’s racy final book, “Memories of My Melancholy Whores.” It was the only book of his I hadn’t read at the time of his death this past spring. I cried when I heard the news. Dramatic, perhaps — but I’d spent my entire adult life in awe of the master of magical realism. He was my Alexander McQueen; my John Lennon.

The night his death broke, I bought “Memories of My Melancholy Whores” and told my regimented no-later-than-midnight bedtime to shove it. In the name of mourning, I had whores to read about. Or, rather, a 90-year-old man and his adoration of a prepubescent prostitute. Several hours later, book complete, I was moved. It was racy, yes. But it had also proven to be far more than its title. What so easily could have been back-of-the-shelf porn was, true to its author, a lyrical story of an old man’s first taste of love. As John Updike put it in The New Yorker, it’s really “a love letter to the dying light.”

I had to share. So the next morning, bleary-eyed, I packed the book into my work tote and dropped it off on the desk of my direct report, an exceptionally sharp copywriter, with a note: “Just a little light reading.” The deed was done.

The Aftermath: 45 Minutes Later Back at my desk, I flipped. Something in my gut — or was it HR’s required “harassment training”? — alerted me: not safe for work. I mean, this is a book that debuted in Iran in 2007 under another name, “Memories of My Melancholy Sweethearts,” so the local publish- ers could get it past censors. (All 5,000 copies sold before the authorities realized what they let slip through the cracks.) It’s a book that, in 2009, turned the conversation in Mexico City to sex between old men and young girls, sparking bitter debate over child trafficking and the glorification of the sexual exploitation of children, halting a movie based on García Márquez’s book mid-production.

Was I, by giving this strange, little story to my subordinate — a woman who spends her life writing words — acting in bad taste? Was passing along these sexually bold, beautiful words the same as silently dropping off a copy of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” pages dog-eared at every gag-worthy mention of “my inner goddess”? As forwarding a suggestive BuzzFeed list or handing her a Maxim magazine, centerfold proudly open? Where is the line between porn and art?

There, sitting at my desk ignoring the ping of emails piling up in Outlook, I suddenly didn’t know anymore. Taken over by what I can call nothing else but “word fear,” I rushed to her desk to snap that book right back up. Bless my heart, it was untouched and unseen.

The rest of the workday, I moped. All my life, raised to truly believe in freedom of speech (thank you, forefathers), I thought I was above this. Words — even the raciest — are worth reading when they’re handled with beauty. Even if they go against every truth I’ve ever known.

But the workplace complicates things. There is no defined “what to do when you want to give your coworker a book about whores” section in our company manual. So I did what we all tend to do these days when at an absolute loss: I Googled. And Google, as it always does, welcomed me with answers.

Word Fear: A History Apparently, this “word fear” started thousands of years ago. In fact, the first-ever book was banned way back in 466 B.C. Athenians had just learned to read and write. (Before then, all reading meant reading out loud.) A philosopher by the name of Anaxagoras penned the first scientific publication, On Nature, declaring that the sun was actually a “white-hot stone.” Sure, it wasn’t porn, but at the time, the Greeks believed that Helios, god of the sun, was actually the sun itself. Which meant oops, Anaxagoras — too racy. The text was declared derogatory to the Greeks’ theological beliefs and burned. The philosopher was banished, just barely escaping death.

After such a terrifying welcoming party for the written word, who are we not to fear it? For the next thousand years, the Vatican continued to perpetuate this fear — believing that they, not the individual, could define the line between heresy and art. During the Middle Ages, entire libraries were burned to the ground; manuscripts lost forever before the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press could manufacture copies in volumes too great for the Vatican to censor.

But this isn’t simply ancient stuff. In 19th century Manhattan, a man by the name of Anthony Comstock worked with states to censor everything from erotic dime store novels to the racy works of prodigies like D.H. Lawrence and George Bernard Shaw — an alleged 160 tons of “indecent” literature by the time of his death in 1915.

And today? The American Library Association reported 5,099 book challenges — or attempts to remove books from a curriculum or library — between 2000 and 2009 alone.

Let Freedom Ring: A Revelation I read all of this. And then I read some more. And when I thought I was done reading? I stumbled on Banned Book Week — an entire week in September dedicated to the freedom to read; to read anything, even what others feel is unorthodox or objectionable. A week for people who care about books and ideas to come together to support the concept that an individual should be free to choose the books they wish to read.

And then it hit me. Thousands of miles away from the Vatican, I was the Vatican. By refusing to give my colleague the book, I was actually contributing to its censorship. I was no better than Athens banishing Anaxagoras or Comstock declaring D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” unfit to read.

Who was HR to decide whether a book written by one of the world’s most brilliant authors (call me biased) is worth a read? And who was I? If I truly valued freedom of speech, I would let the individual decide on her own. I would give “Memories of My Melancholy Whores” to my direct report and let her open the first page and pause over each and every word: The. Year. I. Turned. Ninety. I. Wanted. To. Give. Myself. The. Gift. Of. A. Night. Of. Wild. Love. With. An. Adolescent. Virgin.

I would grant her the power to weigh in — porn or art? The power to report me as a heretic. To banish me from the office. Or to stay up the night reading and in the morning, bleary-eyed, pass those sexually bold, beautiful words along to someone else: “Just a little light reading.”

And that is exactly what I did.