Several years ago I was fossicking through the national archives researching the regulation of pornography in Australia when I stumbled across a reference to a box of items confiscated by customs officials. The box included something called a ‘boob bath mat’. Intrigued, I approached the archive staff to see this contraband for myself. Because it was unclear which national legislation it fell under – the Archives Act (in which case I would be permitted to see it) or the Customs Act (in which case I would not) – I never did get to see that bath mat. Two decades after it was confiscated, I was still being ‘protected’ from whatever subversive influence mammary-inspired manchester could produce.

Imagine my feelings, then, on reading Nicole Moore’s new book The Censor’s Library and coming across a reference to said bath mat, which, Moore informed me when I interviewed her recently, is legendary. Alas, she never got to see that mat either, but what she did see is nothing short of mind-blowing: 793 boxes that make up ‘the censor’s library’, a collection of material banned in Australia from the 1920s through to the 1980s.

Scholars had long known of the collection’s existence but assumed it had been destroyed or dispersed. Yet Moore found the collection, intact and meticulously preserved, a fact which she says left her ‘Astonished. Gobsmacked’. Moore described how visually compelling the 12,000-odd objects making up the collection are:

most of them still wrapped in brown paper, with pencil marks, stamps and annotations telling of their treatment by Customs officers, members of the Literature Censorship Board, the Post Office or even the courts. Inscribed with a B for banned, R for restricted, P for passed, in red pencil. Then underneath the brown paper, lurid pulp covers, pristine comic illustrations from the 1950s, early magazine photography, first editions of major writers, obscure underground titles produced for collectors: everything from cheesecake calendars to surrealist poetry, birth control pamphlets to blaxploitation material from the 1960s. And of course fetish literature, bestiality, child porn.

The collection enabled Moore to piece together what she calls in The Censor’s Library a ‘counter history of what we couldn’t read, didn’t read, didn’t know – and why we didn’t. When we open it up for viewing, we discover what a nation was not allowed to know’. What was kept from us includes books like Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

I asked Moore which instances of banned texts she, as Associate Professor of English at the University of New South Wales, found particularly painful. It wasn’t the classics like Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Ulysses, which, she points out, were going to find their way to readers somehow or another, but ‘books like Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, prohibited from 1950 to 1966, which had a real and measurable effect in the US in allowing for sensitive and reflective portraits of gay men’s lives’. Moore also cites restrictions on representations of US race relations in the mid-twentieth century as ‘particularly egregious’.

Moore’s interest in censorship was piqued when reading Australian authors like Christina Stead, Dymphna Cusack and Eleanor Dark with an interest in ‘their representations of sex, pregnancy and abortion … it became clear that these needed to be understood in the context of Australia’s severe censorship regimes’. Moore intended to produce a ‘short and snappy study’ of a few major cases but discovered the  ‘historical bedrock just wasn’t there’ to build from.

The Censor’s Library provides that bedrock. It is the most comprehensive study of text-based censorship in Australia since Peter Coleman’s 1962 book Obscenity, Blasphemy and Sedition. Moore does foray into video porn, terrorist material and the internet, but the bulk of the book centres on the work of the customs department and the Literature Censorship Board in keeping books and comics well away from the populace.

The Censor’s Library asks probing questions about the relationship between reading and the state. Faced with Forever Amber, Kathleen Winsor’s racy historical tale of an adventuress courtesan, the censors were ‘suspicious of a book’s ability to garner the sheer volume of attention that Amber did and, correctly, under obscenity statues [sic], wary of the effect of this reading on newly literate, mass populations of readers’ (see Elaine Showalter’s piece on reading the book as a pre-teen). It was almost certainly the heroine’s frank sexuality and derring-do that unnerved the postwar censors and made them desirous of ‘protecting’ (read: discouraging) women from such an example.

I had a laugh to myself about this folly, until I paused to reflect on my own frequent mutterings about readers’ readiness to lap up trash, leaving more difficult and more worthy books on the shelf. Perhaps I have the makings of a censor after all.

S.A. Jones is a Killings columnist, and the author of the novel Red Dress Walking and of numerous essays.