Book-banning is an interesting topic—one that almost instantly elicits the following response: “But you don’t mean here? Not in the U.S.?”
Many books, at many times, in many ways, have been censored in this great country: James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” Henry Miller’s work, John Cleland’s “Fanny Hill” and Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” All were banned in the United States in the 20th century. Grove Press, under the leadership of Barney Rosset, launched a series of court battles to get Miller’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and “Naked Lunch” cleared for sale and publication in America. Until these court decisions were made, sale and distribution of the books deemed obscene were prohibited.
“Fanny Hill” was considered obscene in 1821 and wasn’t legally permitted to be sold here until 1973, when Miller vs. California created the Miller Test for community standards, which redeemed them of literary artistic value. Early copies of Miller’s books were published in France, but smuggled through customs in people’s suitcases, stripped of thier covers and wrapped in dirty lanudry.
The “Howl” case was a landmark decision for the First Amendment, which set precedent for many obscenity cases to come (including comedian Lenny Bruce’s trials). “Howl,” Allen Ginsberg’s pivotal poem, was published by San Francisco’s City Lights. Owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the bookstore hosted a plethora of writers, artists and intellectuals throughout the decades. It especially became a groundbreaking independent publisher for items like the Pocket Poets Series, wherein it “aimed to create an international, dissident ferment,” according to City Lights.
Publishing “Howl & Other Poems” in 1956 led to Ferlinghetti’s arrest. The trial shone a national light on the San Francisco Renaissance and its Beat writers. Thanks to the support by prestigious literary and academic figures, Ferlinghetti was acquitted, and he pushed forward a precedence of literary work to be valued with social importance.
These rulings came during the late ‘50s and early ‘70s, when the McCarthy hearings shut down much public discourse in this country. Ridiculous arguments were being made that the black list was not censorship. Had anyone asked author of “The Maltese Falcon,” Dashiell Hammett, he would have assured many he was a political prisoner.
LEARNING MINDS SHOULD KNOW
The First Amendment has done wonders for making most books generally available in this country. When we talk about book banning in a current context, we are referring to censorship in schools and libraries—a very touchy subject indeed.
Children’s books are always a particularly sensitive issue. We have an obligation to protect children from harm, but how that is defined differs from person to person, generation to generation and culture to culture. Just in July, the School Board of Republic High School in Misourri removed “Slaughterhouse-Five” from its curriculum and library, responding to a complaint that the themes of the book were contrary to the Bible. A snowball effect ensued, wherein two additional books were questioned: “Twenty Boy Summer” by Sarah Ockler and “Speak “by Laurie Halse Anderson. “Twenty Boy Summer” was removed, while “Speak” was permitted because it “tastefully” dealt with the description of rape.
The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library responded to the ban by offering 150 free copies of “Slaughterhouse-Five” to the students of Republic High School. Julia Whitehead, executive director of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, noted, “All of these students will be eligible to vote, and some may be protecting our country through military service in the next year or two. It is shocking and unfortunate that those young adults and citizens would not be considered mature enough to handle the important topics raised by Kurt Vonnegut, a decorated war veteran. Everyone can learn something from his book.”
Though we are still engaged in a war, the choice to sign up for military service comes with consequences that are very real—much more real than today’s video games kids are engaging. The list of children’s and young adult books “challenged” or asked to be removed from schools and libraries each year is astounding. From “The Wizard of Oz” to “Where the Wild Things Are,” Shel Silverstien’s poetry to Judy Blume’s books, and Roald Dahl in-between, the learning opportunities and imaginative sparks kids miss become vast if schools continue removing classic literature from their hands.
“Harry Potter” had lots of people mobilized after many schools and libraries wouldn’t accept it because of its magical content and fantastical messages. Yet, the fact that a 9-year-old is begging to read a 700-page book appears to be immaterial. In reality, the anti-Potter hoopla has probably done more to sell the books than the marketing.
THE LAST FRONTIER OF PRIVACY
Part of the Patriot Act gave the FBI the right to subpoena library and bookstore records—this includes membership rewards cards that track purchases and Amazon buying records. The American Library Association and the American Booksellers Association—representing independent booksellers across America—began campaigning against this infringement of our First and Fourth (probable cause) Amendment rights. Bernie Sanders of Vermont introduced the Freedom to Read Protection Act to address these concerns. At the time readers, librarians and booksellers took principled stands for the right to the privacy of a person’s mind. In May 2003, Mitchell Brown, then general manager of Kramerbooks and Afterwords in Washington D.C., said, “God help me if they try to subpoena my memory.” (Kramerbooks has been at the forefront of the privacy battle, refusing to turn over Monica Lewinsky’s reading lists to Ken Starr.)
At present, bigger issues are at stake in the world of censorship. Sure, it is hard for us to believe that “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was ever the subject of forbiddance. That a book filled with innuendo and suggestion could have brought the ire of the moral majority. But it would surprise many to know that there are people in this town who consider romance novels—Harlequin romance novels, in which nothing more exciting than “her bosom heaved” appears on the page—as inappropriate for adults. “The New York Times” reported that on the anniversary of “Howl” the New York-based WBAI radio station refused to air it due to FCC regulations. Not that they weren’t allowed to, but that the tight rules of the FCC would result in prohibitive fines.
Now, I agree this is not a poem to air in the a.m., when the kids are in the car on the way to school. But why not at night? As part of a larger celebration? Freedom does not come without responsibility, but is it not part of that responsibility to protect our freedoms wholly? People have died for these ideals that we seem prepared to give away so cavalierly.
American journalist Edward P. Morgan stated once, “A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face. It is one of the few havens remaining where a man’s mind can get both provocation and privacy.”
Still, we no longer have privacy for our thoughts and curiosities. Every book we download onto an e-reader is tracked. Every song we put on an iPod is tracked. Somehow, we are willingly creating a profile of our minds and interests. The screens that tracked our lives in Orwell’s “1984” are not government issued and mandated. We are clamoring to shell out hundreds of dollars for the privilege of turning over our most intimate explorations for others to question. This might sound alarmist, but, already, we see prosecutions where a defendant’s Internet history and reading is entered as evidence against them.
I shudder to imagine the response of writers like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Boris Pasternak to the e-reader. The idea that the last frontier of privacy would be willingly thrown open to judgment would be abhorrent to a man who spent years of his life in a forced labor prison, wrote his books in code, sent them out of the country in letters where they were not even published in his native language—and all because his thoughts condemned him.
Thoughts and word choices change from each swing of the pendulum. For example, for years Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” has been stricken from school reading lists and libraries largely based upon objections to language (i.e. the use of the word “nigger” repeatedly throughout the book)—a clear depiction of racial strife in 19th century South. Like it or not, it was a common epitaph used in daily conversation in this country until recently. That is a fact—no amount of revisionism is going to change it either.
This year an edition of the book was released replacing “nigger” with “slave” (there has also been a famous edition printed with “n-word” in all the places it had previously appeared in the book). The struggle of African-Americans to achieve freedom, civil rights and equal accomplishment, and respect in American society, is incredible and integral to the history of our country. Who we are as a nation today will not be served or honored by erasing and refusing to remember the parts that are upsetting to our current sensibilities. Things have been said and done which are terrible, painful and horrific. We should remember them at best so as to not repeat them.
Russian novelist Solzhenitsyn once wrote it perfectly: “Woe to that nation whose literature is cut short by the intrusion of force. This is not merely interference with freedom of the press but the sealing up of a nation’s heart, the excision of its memory.”
One of the most obvious examples of book banning in the United States was the prohibition against teaching people of color to read or write. In 1831 the state of North Carolina made it illegal to teach slaves literacy. Several states had similar laws on the books. It was a ban on an entire population. Thankfully, like many things forced underground, it was not entirely successful (as Phyllis Wheatley or Frederick Douglass would attest), but nonetheless quite real and damaging.
Censorship is not a left or right issue. It is an individual issue. However, the driving force behind it is the desire to limit individualism. We are a herd animal; we have survived by banding together, and it is natural for us to want to fit in, to find acceptance. We fear being cast out. That is why throughout history we have submitted to censorship both self-imposed or otherwise.
The Catholic Church’s famous Index Librorum Prohibitorum, or list of banned books, is a perfect example. It was first issued in 1559, and evolved and changed several times until it was finally put to rest by Pope Paul VI in 1966. One of the first printed books to be banned was an English translation of the Bible. The established church feared that if people could read it themselves, they would not need a priest to interpret it. People reading and thinking for themselves was not part of the agenda of the church trying to stave off reformation.
It would be negligent not to mention the two towering examples of censorship in the 20th century that flourished in the western world. First, the Nazi fires that consumed books, films, music scores and works of art of a “degenerate” nature. The list included anything written by a Jewish person but also some interesting twists: Hemingway and Jack London made the burn pile. This was followed by Stalinism and the Iron Curtain, whose images of repression are ingrained in the minds of all post-war dwellers in the western world. Pasternak, author of the epic “Doctor Zhivago,” had his book smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in the West, first in Italian and then in other languages. It was not published in Russian until the CIA and the British Intelligence decided to humiliate the USSR by getting a Noble Prize in Literature for Pasternak. The book had to be published in Russian to be eligible. They did a small print run, dropped copies in the necessary libraries and with the Nobel Committee.
Pasternak did not attend the ceremony or collect his award. “Dr. Zhivago” was not legally published in Russia until the late ‘80s. In 2008 the literary world lost a great crusader when Solzhenitsyn passed away. Unlike Pasternak, he did receive his Nobel Prize in person—four years after it had been awarded, during the time that he was exiled from the USSR. This came after years spent in the Gulag, smuggling his writings to the West.
When I first purchased a bookstore, one of the great debates I faced was what to do when I came across a copy of “Mein Kampf,” written by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. I dreaded it but knew it would come. A few months in, I unpacked a hardback, one of the early editions to be sold in the U.S., the one with multiple translators. Jock, the love of my life, suggested I put it in the wood stove.
“There’s some justice in a Jewish person burning that book, isn’t there?” he asked.
“No,” I replied, swallowing hard. “It would make me just like them.”
I feel passionately that books and bookstores are about free information of ideas—all ideas—not just the ones I like or agree with. When we have copies of “Mein Kampf,” we sell them, along with a host of romance novels that are offensive. In the end, we stand with Mitchell Brown: All readers’ secrets are safe with us.
BANNED BOOKS WEEK:
Sept. 25th – Oct. 2nd
Saturday, 9/25, 2-4 p.m.
Shel Silverstein Birthday Party and
Children’s Banned Book Read-In.
Readings from “A Light in the Attic” and “Where the Sidewalk Ends.” Followed by other challenged children’s books: “The Wizard of Oz,” “Harry Potter,” “Where the Wild Things Are.”
Tuesday, 9/27, 7 p.m.
Book signing for the “Silver
Pendant”—banned in New York!
Meet real life author of a banned book about financial planning! Haeworth Robertson, actuary and banned mystery writer at Banned Books week.
Wednesday, 9/28, 7 p.m.
First Banned Book Club meeting!
First Book: “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg. The focus of the Landmark Obscenity Trial is still used as a precedent today. The book club continues to meet the last Wednesday of the month. On the book-club list: “The Wizard of Oz,” “Tropic of Cancer,” “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “1984,” “The Giver,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Ulysses,” “On The Origin of Species,” “Slaughter House Five” and “James and the Giant Peach.”
September 30th – October 1st
Daily Banned Books Read-Ins.
Bring fave banned book and read aloud for five minutes. This is an interesting and powerful exercise that presents an opportunity to discover some amazing literature.
Also, Elyse Rodriguez’s essay (printed right), which won the inaugural “Banned Books Essay Contest, will read her entry on the 30th.
October 2nd, 7 p.m.
Banned opera with
tenor Bob Workmon!
An evening of opera banned at different times, when themes and thoughts were unpopular with the powers that be. Workman will choose numerous banned operatic selections to sing throughout the evening.
All events held at Old Books on Front Street Downtown Wilmington
249 N. Front Street • (910) 76-BOOKS (26657)
ESSAY CONTEST: Elyse Rodriguez argues why Aristophanes’ ‘Lysistrata’ was really banned.
Voices of Change:
Aristophanes’ ‘Lysistrata’ banned from sex or fear? [more]