Why a book about censorship?

The Economist talked to Nick Cohen about his new book, aptly titled You Can’t Read This Book.

First question was

What made you want to write a book about censorship?

Now what do you suppose he said.

Firstly, it was watching a Russian oligarch with a criminal record using the libel law in Britain to silence all newspapers that wrote articles about him. Secondly, a great feminist writer, Ophelia Benson, co-wrote a book called “Does God Hate Women?” which was denounced overwhelmingly by the liberal press in Britain, including the paper I write for, the Observer. So once you start with an idea, the logic of the book then takes over.

That’s not bad. Almost worth having one’s book overwhelmingly denounced by the liberal press.

It was you know. I went over it all at the time, naturally, but not everyone who is reading now was reading then, so just by way of a reminder or a quick background – that’s exactly what happened. The Independent denounced it, the Observer denounced it, the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ denounced it. BBC 3’s Night Waves invited not one but two defenders of religion to tell me how wrong we were and how feminist Islam and Catholicism are. One of the best and least mendacious reviews the book got was in – wait for it – the Church Times. Seriously.


  1. anne says

    Oh, yes, I vaguely remember: I’d been minded to read your book until I kept finding negative reviews and felt I should wash out my mouth for even reading your blog. You and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, those well-known neo-con apologists… Seriously, I think those reviews did a lot of damage. Life is swift and full of business: the moment passed and the book remains unbought. I’m going searching for it right after posting this.

    I shall definitely be reading Nick Cohen’s book, though I see he is already persona non grata in some circles, “monomaniacally obsessed with Islamism, Islam and Muslims, and an ardent defender of the US, the UK and Israel.” I shall just have to grit my teeth.

  2. says

    Oh yes, I’m sure the reviews did do a lot of damage, as they were intended to. The thing that was interesting about them was that they were all in outlets on the (sort of) left. The Observer gave it to Cristina Odone to review, for fuck’s sake. What’s that about? What’s the Observer doing helping Odone defend the Vatican?

    Anyway yes; it didn’t sell, didn’t get a second edition, didn’t go into paperback, etc. It was what you call shot down, by interested parties.

  3. says

    Ophelia: What’s the Observer doing helping Odone defend the Vatican?

    Let me guess. Got it! Helping her defend the Vatican! After all it can use every prayer it can get right now. And the Observer every reader.

    Anne, I can assure you that Nick Cohen’s ‘What’s Left?’ is very well written and a damned good read. So I have ‘You Can’t Read This Book’ on order. I keep on ordering books I see praised by various people on various blogs, including this one, and I have about half a shelf of them waiting to be read, including ‘Does God Hate Women?’, which is on the way from Fishpond. Plus I am also trying to finish writing one of my own, but other stuff keeps jumping the queue.

    So how do I fit in time to go to Church?

    I don’t.

  4. Fin says

    I have a shameful admission to make: I have not read Does God Hate Women?

    Is it available on the Kindle store?

  5. severn says

    This just reminded me to order a copy of your book, which I now have done.

    But the top three reviews I found through Google (New Statesman, Independent, Washington Post) seemed quite favourable. Obviously the wrong ones, perhaps not from the review pages. I’ll need to search for the unfavourable ones – I like bad arguments.

  6. iknklast says

    I have to say, it was the negative reviews that put me on to Does God Hate Women? I hadn’t heard of it until I read the trashing. I don’t allow people to tell me what I can, or should, read. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and it now resides on my bookshelf not far from Woe to the Women: the Bible Tells Me So.

    I will be ordering You Can’t Read this Book. Thanks for the tip, Ophelia.

  7. says

    The Washington Post? Did I know that? If I did, I’d forgotten.

    True about the Independent and the Staggers. The Indy one…it’s funny about that. There are two. The first was by Sholto Byrnes, and it told outright lies. We thought that was rather unethical, and said so. Joan Smith’s review came later. Interesting.

  8. says

    Oh right, that’s why I forgot the Washington Post one – it’s not a review, and it doesn’t mention the book. It’s a piece by Sally Quinn and it’s about Jimmy Carter.

  9. says

    The Independent denounced it, the Observer denounced it, the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ denounced it. BBC 3′s Night Waves invited not one but two defenders of religion to tell me how wrong we were and how feminist Islam and Catholicism are.

    Wow, that really makes me want to read your book!

  10. jamessweet says

    As Ophelia uncharacteristically* neglected to link to the Economist article, here it is:


    * And really, I’m not trying to be a dick. You are generally quite thorough with appropriate linking and I heartily appreciate it, especially because not all bloggers are good like that, even at FTB. It is a major pet peeve of mine with Ed Brayton, for example, that he is so sloppy about linking to original sources.

  11. says

    It kind of surprised me in a fun way that you were the one mentioned after the jump. I’m sorry the reviews hurt the book’s sales, but it appears that they were the kind of negative reviews that one should be honored to have received everything else notwithstanding.

  12. says

    I don’t suppose she read it (or ever heard of it, unless Bunting made a point of telling her about it). Bunting probably had to because of the Night Waves discussion, but Armstrong didn’t.

  13. says

    In his book, Nick Cohen mounts a formidable critique of certain liberal and left poseurs who chose, after the 2004 murder in Amsterdam of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s colleage Theo Van Gogh by an Islamist, to attack and dismiss Hirsi Ali. At the time the latter’s life was also under threat. The Anglo-Dutch journalist Ian Buruma and the Oxford don Timothy Garton-Ash were both in the front rank of the charge. In the words of Cohen, they

    “…dwelt on Hirsi Ali’s brief interest in the Muslim Brotherhood when she was young. She had walked away… but they decided that the change in her politics was more superficial than real. She was a Muslim fundamentalist then, and an ‘Enlightenment fundamentalist now… Garton-Ash concluded by turning Hirsi Ali’s good looks against her. ‘It is no disrespect to Ms Ali’ he said with the condescension Oxford dons habitually mistake for wit, ‘to suggest that if she had been short, squat and squinting, her story and views might not have been so closely attended to.'”

    Oxford dons are by no means the only people who mistake condescension for wit, but the line on its own is worth the price of the book. On the other hand, Garton Ash’s conjecture “if she had been short, squat and squinting, her story and views might not have been so closely attended to” is both nasty and guarded. “Short, squat and squinting” is in a position in the sentence where it is likely to provoke those fond of reading Garton-Ash into guffaws of mirth, increasing the chance that they will miss the academic guardedness of the phrase that follows: “…her story and views might not have been so closely attended to.” (p 112)

    They might have been just as closely attended to. People with sight problems who also happen to be ‘short and squat’ will get a hearing from those discerning enough to know that the physique and/or visual abilities of a given thinker contribute little to the thinker’s legacy. Witness Socrates.

    Being guarded while nasty is regarded by some as being simultaneously clever and wise. In reality, it’s bloody shameful and pathetic.

  14. agenoria says

    I’ve just borrowed Nick Cohen’s book from the library. It wasn’t in their catalogue and I think they bought a copy after I requested it. I can’t renew it because someone else has reserved it!

    I agree with his comment, (p27) “…religion and politics are too important and too dangerous to risk handling with kid gloves.” But what do you do about death threats?

    I bought Does God Hate Women? when it was first published. I only saw the review by Joan Smith, not the articles denouncing the book. (I’ve kept the cutting with the book.) There was a copy on the shelf in my local Waterstones. When I went to pay for it, the woman behind the counter had a headscarf on, the sort worn for religious reasons.

    There’s a very positive comment by Nick Cohen on the back cover of Does God Hate Women?. In You Can’t Read This Book he describes Does God Hate Women? as a scholarly study (p67) and mentions the Sunday Times reaction. He concludes (p81):

    “Because two intellectuals write a study of feminism and religion, and a journalist invites extremists to find offence, an editor calls in a religious adviser to rule if he can publish a book in a country that was once proud to number John Milton, John Stuart Mill and George Orwell among its greatest writers.”

    BTW the book title, Does God Hate Women?, is in the index, but the authors’ names aren’t.

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