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Stories of clandestine reading

What are the implications of our reading choices and why do we choose to keep them hidden?

Vicky Baker
17 December 2015
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Secret reading. David D/Flickr. Some rights reserved.As whistle-blowing goes, it was a tame example: a misguided volunteer at Japanese library leaked the rather innocuous teenage reading records of the country’s most famous contemporary author Haruki Murakami. There followed an outcry among Japanese librarians.

The story emphasised just how personal our reading choices are. They’re off-the-record unless we want to share them. And perhaps that’s even truer today, when many of us hide behind our non-descript e-book covers, often indulging in guilty pleasures that we have no desire to broadcast to the world. (There’s a reason why Fifty Shades of Grey became Amazon’s best-selling e-book of all time.)

Our reading choices are off-the-record unless we want to share them.

I’ve been researching stories of clandestine reading for the latest issue of Index on Censorship magazine and, inspired by the Murakami story, I watched more readers start coming out, online and in the media, to share their own experiences. There were tales of hiding controversial, erotic or trashy titles in highbrow jackets, or secretly passing risqué titles around classmates at school. Some of them were wonderfully entertaining, including one, posted on Reddit, about finding a stash of 1960s porn novels in grandma’s basement: “I picked one up and read a story and by the end I was like 'damn that was hot’ – but then felt weird for a long time wondering if me and my grandma read the same porn.” 

In Murakami’s case, there was plenty of speculation over his borrowing the complete works of the French writer Joseph Kessel, famed for his 1928 erotic novel Belle De Jour about the life of a prostitute. But media-shy Murakami left us all in the dark as to whether he rated it, or even read it.

In the dark

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Japanese writer Murakami. Morton Lin/Flickr. Some rights reserved.It’s never wise to make too many presumptions over book ownership. Working at Index on Censorship, we get stories from all across the world where hasty judgments don’t just cause readers embarrassment, but much more serious consequences. 

Earlier this year an Angolan book club was raided and its members were arrested. Not only were they reading peacefully at the time, even the book they were reading was about retaining peace: From Dictatorship to Democracy, by multiple nominee for the Nobel peace prize Gene Sharp. The 1993 book is described as “a blueprint for nonviolent resistance to repressive regimes”.

It’s never wise to make too many presumptions over book ownership. 

The Angolan authorities proclaimed to have caught them “red-handed”. After five months in jail without charge, the group of young men were charged in November with plotting a rebellion. The prisoners, including rapper Luaty Beirão, could now face 12 years in prison if convicted. They are nicknamed 'the barefoot activists' after turning up to their first day in court without shoes. They said they’d been asking for boots for five months, only for them to turn up at 4am on the day of the hearing. The act of leaving them behind was another peaceful protest. On Tuesday, it was announced that their pre-trial detention would be replaced with house arrest, under a new law that is not yet valid. 

“You are a powerful but insecure man,” wrote Luanda-based human-rights journalist Rafael Marques de Morais in an open letter to the president that has ruled Angola for 36 years. Paranoia often fuels such fear about books. In the UK, there’s has been so much concern about extremism this year, that one Muslim student at Staffordshire University was taken aside by suspicious library staff because he was carrying a textbook with “terrorism” in the title. He explained he was enrolled into the university’s terrorism and crime master’s degree, but an investigation was still launched.  

Private people

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Deception, secrecy or something hidden. Charlie Barker/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Paranoia puts readers on edge, too. I will never forget a visit I once made to my friend’s mother on the outskirts of Buenos Aires in Argentina. During the country’s brutal dictatorship in the 70s and early 80s, she buried a book about Che Guevara in her back garden, just in case the military police came round. And in those days, they did come knocking. If someone you knew, a friend or perhaps a fellow student, had already been “disappeared”, the forces would go through their belongings, notes and address books, and promptly come after anyone with even the loosest degree of separation. Almost 40 years later and with the dictatorship long over, her book remains buried to this day.

Paranoia puts readers on edge, too.

Today, people are finding other ways to keep their reading choices under wraps, from e-books to anonymously buying books on the dark net. Some people do so because they fear criminal charges, others simply because they are private people. Index looks at all the techniques in its latest issue, a taboos special.

Pope Francis recently wrote a prologue to a youth version of the Bible, saying it remains “a highly dangerous book – so dangerous that you are treated in some countries as if you were hiding hand grenades in your closet”. The same applies to many religious texts worldwide. From scriptures to self-help books to political tomes and porn, there remain lot of books hidden in closets, turned with spines facing inwards, or even buried in gardens. 

Vicky Baker is the deputy editor of Index on Censorship magazine. She writes more on secretive reading, from Victorian eroticism to the uncensored book clubs on the dark net, in the new taboo-themed issue, which can be ordered or downloaded here

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To: Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

We’re calling on you to immediately release details of the secret NHS data deals struck with private companies, to deliver the NHS COVID-19 datastore.

We, the public, deserve to know exactly how our personal information has been traded in this ‘unprecedented’ deal with US tech giants like Google, and firms linked to Donald Trump (Palantir) and Vote Leave (Faculty AI).

The COVID-19 datastore will hold private, personal information about every single one of us who relies on the NHS. We don’t want our personal data falling into the wrong hands.

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The datastore could be an important tool in tackling the pandemic. But for it to be a success, the public has to be able to trust it.

Today, we urgently call on you to publish all the data-sharing agreements, data-impact assessments, and details of how the private companies stand to profit from their involvement.

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