Even the word seems not to belong: Taboo. It has neither an Anglo-Germanic feel, nor spelling – and that’s because we owe it to the kingdom of Tonga. The word came back from faraway lands with Captain Cook in the 18th century and quickly found a home in the social consciences of English people, who knew only too well the nature of the forbidden.

We don’t say the word without knowing it. If feels fulsome and warm to mouth. When introduced to a conversation, it usually demands instant attention. We are drawn to taboo by excitement or rebellion – and yet we are often fearful of guilt by association.

Perhaps this is why a book still provides the most accessible and yet private window to the voyeur. From Lady Chatterley to Fifty Shades; In Cold Blood to American Psycho; Dorian Gray to The Line Of Beauty, we choose the kind of ink that doesn’t stain.

Nothing else transports us to other worlds so honestly and completely. We are privy to motives and behaviours that may offend and even disturb, but the nature of the medium forces us to take in a feeling or a thought – and at least try to understand – before turning the page. It’s just us and the tale in those moments. Nobody else has to know.

We can even try on the events we read, wearing them in an imagined version of our own lives. How would I cope if this was me? What would people say? Would my life even survive this? Empathy dressed by literature.

Where we take our newest complexity is then up to us. Do we delve silently, deeper into the genre – or seek out a companion by asking another if they have read a particular title and then trying to gauge their view?

For some who have wondered as to the true appeal of the unspoken, fiction can genuinely provide answers or unlock thoughts and feelings long in search of words. Passion and instinct drive most of what dares to head out beyond the pale. Sometimes a writer speaks for us, because we cannot – or dare not. One thing is for sure, having been exposed to a pure and new perspective, we are never quite the same. When it comes to art – and indeed heart – we cannot un-know what has been learned.

The wider world can live within a single room. All that is needed is a book and an imagination.


First appeared on in October 2017.