Array of banned books shows Australia on a more innocent page

Shortly after the Nazis started burning ''un-German'' books in 1933, the Commonwealth Customs Department banned Intimate Romances featuring short stories about child brides, sharing a husband and being ''a traitor to my marriage vows''.

Customs also did not think much of Road Floozie, a 1941 pulp fiction by Darcy Glinto, and proscribed it until the 1960s.

They are among a collection of banned books that have emerged from the vault at the National Archives of Australia showing 20th century Australia boasted one of the western world's strictest censors.

A cafe display of the books, titled Banned, at the National Archives in Canberra, illustrates how much Australian society has changed in the past 60 years, with modern readers possibly at a loss to understand why certain books were ever locked away.

Popular and pulp fiction with lurid covers and titles such as Road Floozie, Mad for Murder, , Stoned, and Crimes of Passion were often seized by customs officers without a second glance. But books deemed literary classics by Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, D.H. Lawrence, Norman Mailer and Honoré´ de Balzac were also deemed unsuitable for Australian minds because they were considered blasphemous, indecent or obscene.

The National Archives curator Tracey Clarke said why some bans were imposed remained a mystery. ''For example Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell, was banned before the Literature Censorship Board came into existence,'' she said. ''When it came to the notice of the board in 1953 they were puzzled as to the reason and lifted the ban immediately.''

J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye was banned in 1957, without reference to the Literature Censorship Board.

''It caused national embarrassment when a copy was found in the Parliamentary Library and it was discovered that the United States ambassador had presented copies of the book to foreign countries as an example of his country's fine literature,'' Ms Clarke said.

It was only after this embarrassment that the censorship system was overhauled, with the banned list being made public. Before this, even booksellers were not privy to the list and often ordered books that were popular overseas only to have them seized on arrival.

Curiously, customs would frequently ban what was considered suitable reading in England, Europe and America.

While bans on literary work by Boccaccio, Orwell, Lawrence, Vladimir Nabokov, Gore Vidal, and William Burroughs outraged many middle-class readers, the National Archives display shows customs' censorship came down heaviest on working-class reading habits.

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