Shelf Life

Cautionary tale

Jack Kerouac listening to himself on the radio in 1959. Jack Kerouac listening to himself on the radio in 1959. (Deborah Bell Photographs)
By Jan Gardner
Globe Correspondent / September 19, 2010

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For about a decade in the early 1900s, censorship in Boston was a secret business. Under a gentlemen’s agreement, a committee of booksellers and Brahmin moral crusaders banned books. The titles were never announced. “The public had no idea what was going on,” said Neil Miller, author of the new book “Banned in Boston: The Watch and Ward Society’s Crusade against Books, Burlesque, and the Social Evil” (Beacon).

Bookstores were notified and threatened with prosecution if they did not comply within 48 hours. As many as 75 books deemed unacceptable or obscene, including works by John Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson, and Aldous Huxley, may have been suppressed in Boston during this period.

This private agreement fell apart in the mid-1920s when the influential leader of Boston’s moral crusaders died, and H.L. Mencken battled against censorship in Boston, as did Upton Sinclair, who famously wrote, “I would rather be banned in Boston than read anywhere else because when you are banned in Boston, you are read everywhere else.”

Miller, who teaches journalism at Tufts University, finds that “banned in Boston” means little to his students. “They shrug their shoulders,” he said. Miller will discuss the colorful characters behind the phrase at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Brookline Booksmith.

One city, one book
Let the citywide book club begin. At 6 p.m. tomorrow, residents will gather at the Boston Public Library to talk about “Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919” (Beacon). Author Stephen Puleo and Globe book editor Nicole Lamy will lead the session. Puleo’s book was the top vote-getter in a poll this summer when Boston residents were asked which book the entire city should read.

On Kerouac
Novelist Russell Banks, who years ago wrote a movie adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” for Francis Ford Coppola, is a keynote speaker for the annual Jack Kerouac Literary Festival Sept. 30-Oct. 3 in Lowell. In addition to tours of sites important to the writer’s life and literature, Kerouac’s brother-in-law John Sampas will read from a collection of letters between Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. On the festival’s closing day, Billy Koumantzelis will reminisce about his friend Kerouac, who died in 1969. His gritty stories can be heard on a new CD, “On the Lowell Beat: My Times with Jack Kerouac.” Details at

Contemporary tales
When Jessica Treadway was a girl, she was a sprinter. Maybe that’s why, she told one interviewer, she loves writing short stories. Her new collection, “Please Come Back to Me,” a winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, was published last week by the University of Georgia Press. In her contemporary tales of domestic life, Treadway, who teaches writing at Emerson College, lays bare the influence of the past. She will read from the collection at 2 p.m. today at Newtonville Books in Newton.

Coming out
■ “The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living” by Mark Boyle (Oneworld)

“Gold Boy, Emerald Girl” by Yiyun Li (Random House)

■ “The Shape of Inner Space: String Theory and the Geometry of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions” by Shing-Tung Yau and Steve Nadis (Basic)

Pick of the week
Grant Novak of the Vermont Bookshop in Middlebury, Vt., recommends “C” by Tom McCarthy (Knopf):

“Finishing this novel was like waking from a long curious dream. Serge Carrefax’s family is wealthy, prolific, and eccentric, and Serge drifts through life as though viewing it from a great height. McCarthy’s writing is both brilliantly inventive and, at the same time, familiarly classic.”

Jan Gardner can be reached at