Monday, July 10, 2017

Mount TBR #34

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Forbidden Apple: A Century of Sex & Sin in New York City – Kat Long

This readable overview of risqué entertainment in the Big Apple describes how the enemies of vice sought to protect the public, only for the purveyors of vice to think up ingenious ways to deliver sex, liquor and male-oriented attractions to the ever-interested public.

For instance, Long describes the Raines law, an 1896 act that was designed to regulate alcohol consumption. One provision was to prohibit of the sale of alcoholic beverages on Sunday except in hotels. This was typical class-warfare stuff for elites to control the poor and working class. Since working men put in a six-day week, Sunday was the one chance for drinking at saloons. The law stipulated, though, that hotels could serve liquor on Sunday, to guests exclusively, only if it were served during a meal or in the hotel’s bedrooms. It stipulated that any business be considered a hotel if it had 10 rooms for lodging and served sandwiches with its liquor (if you lived in New York State, like I do, you’d know how typically convoluted these kinds of stips are). Saloons were quick to speed their carriages through this loophole by adding bedrooms and applying for hotel licenses. Scores of "Raines Law Hotels," strangely located directly above saloons, opened to great business. And side businesses...

Long is strongest when she is giving mini-biographies of figures we’ve all heard of but never really knew why they were important. Anthony Comstock's ideas of the labels "obscene, lewd, or lascivious" were so wide-ranging that as US postal inspector he lumped brochures about birth control with pornography. This put him on a collision course with Margaret Sanger, a real American hero. She opened the first birth control clinic in the US and established organizations that evolved into Planned Parenthood, which the "moral eunuchs" (Emma Goldman) of our own day are currently doing their best to destroy.

Another major topic in the book is 42nd Street, the theater and red-light district of Manhattan with its burlesque shows and Prohibition-era speakeasies. Peep shows also drew huge crowds; the lucky originator lugged to the bank in one day $15,000 in quarters (about $200K in our money). From the late 1950s until the late 1980s, cheap grindhouse movie theaters showed sleazy films. Long also covers spots where gay men would meet such as bath houses and the Y and the famous Stonewall incident, whose details I never knew before. Her overview of the AIDS crisis and activist Larry Kramer during the Reagan administration was news to me, since I was out of the country at the time.

Long tells the story of another champion of free speech, Ralph Ginzburg. In 1962, Ginzburg began publication of a magazine, Eros, a high-class quarterly featuring provocative articles and translation of erotica as well as photo-essays on love and sex. He published only four issues of Eros before he was indicted under federal obscenity laws for the fourth issue. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, incensed at anti-JFK material in the magazine, called for a fine of $280,000 and 280 years in a federal pen. Ginzburg was sentenced to five years in prison but was released after eight months, an experience that scarred him. He went on to publish Avant Garde, a slick I saw a time or two when I was in high school in the early Seventies. I seem to remember a naked picture of a heavily pregnant subject, but I can’t recall what I thought of it beyond feeling awe-struck. Reproduction - creation - is mysterious, stunning, impressive after all, and I was an impressionable youth.

The book illustrates the two classic orientations: authority opts for virtue and resistance chooses freedom. Authoritarians value obedience and submission to authorities such as religion and the state while rebels take keen pleasure in questioning authority in both word and deed. Or maybe it speaks to even deeper default settings. Alan Watts once spoke of materialists and abstractionists. Materialists are devoted to the physical and immediate present (and its attendant pleasures of lust, gluttony and good old sloth) while abstractionists are, in Watts words, “so preoccupied with saving time and making money that they have neither taste for life nor capacity for pleasure.” The abstractionists do their damnedest to make us scamps and slackers “fit” or “productive” or “compliant” or “regular” – “You’ve had your nose in that book all day; get outside and play” – and all we readers want is to be left alone….

“It is not when he is working in the office but when he is lying idly on the sand that his soul utters, ‘Life is beautiful.’” – Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living

"A good idea doesn’t come when you’re doing a million things. The good idea comes in the moment of rest. It comes in the shower. It comes when you’re doodling or playing trains with your son. It’s when your mind is on the other side of things.” Lin-Manuel Miranda, MacArthur genius and creator of the blockbuster musical Hamilton

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