As American Psycho showed me, banning ‘immoral’ books makes them more compelling

Oxford University’s decision to display the Bodleian library’s collection of “immoral” books has reminded me of my stint in the restricted section. At 17, I successfully borrowed Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho from my local library in New Zealand, where it was (and still is) classified R18 and kept behind the counter.

The librarian did not ask to see my ID – not because I looked 18, because I definitely didn’t. I can only assume the futility of her gatekeeper role in the internet age must finally have got to her. I spent the summer holidays immersed in sadistic violence, drug use, offensive language and sex scenes, despite being seven months shy of the classification office’s assessment of when I could be expected to understand that it was satire.

I do recall being disturbed by some scenes – but not, I think, to the lasting detriment of my “mental wellbeing and developing worldviews”, as prophesied by the classification office. If anything glamourised American Psycho, it was not its “elite and sophisticated setting”, but the lurid R18 sticker on its cover.

No text is more compelling than one that is supposed to be off-limits. When my older sister was 11, a post-watershed broadcast of Jaws left her seeking shelter on top of the kitchen table. My colleague remembers, at 14, seeking out the 1980 horror film Cannibal Holocaust (“I thought it was a documentary”). At high school, my flatmate staged illicit lunchtime screenings as part of “Secret Video Club” – A Clockwork Orange landed him and five others in detention, but he remembers the film fondly: “It got me into Rossini.”

I am inclined to say that what doesn’t damage our worldview makes us stronger (or, in the classification office’s language, “inures” us). Classification systems are inevitable and well-intentioned, but – equally inevitably – counterproductive. My lasting impression of American Psycho is that it is surprisingly insipid, for all the violence. Being handed it at 17 felt like getting served at a bar. Not that I would know, because I was at the library.