It is close to impossible to browse a serious library’s collection of porn and porn criticism without getting sucked into big, sexy historical theories. Within an hour of my visit to Harvard’s Widener Library, I was beginning to suspect that smut had been behind the rise of … everything. I discovered that pornos caused the French Revolution, and that the Renaissance really got going when images of hard-core, swan-on-guy action began to circulate among the people. Every pornographer of note, it seemed, was a pop philosopher; every philosopher, a closet pornographer.
According to our porn books, the library, once a hothouse of eros and a laboratory of realism, has become a burial site. But somewhere on those shelves there’s still a memory of when books were really subversive, when being a libertine was actually about Voltaire and freethinking, and young girls were guarded from the corrupting influence of novels. The fantasy of awakening the librarian is also a fantasy of awakening the subversive power of the book, of excavating life from a dying cultural monument—or else scratching a bit of graffiti on it.