September 2008


098 Prohibited books

E proibido proibir
– Caetano Veloso

If books are outlawed, only outlaws will have books.
– John Leonard

Wifey and I went to the Banned Books Readout downtown yesterday. We caught Lauren Myracle, who was pretty good. She said it affected her pretty deeply when she heard that someone, somewhere decided that her books (for teens and tweens) weren’t fit for public consumption. A couple other folks got up to say similar things, including Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmick.

But, to me, the real surprise of the afternoon was Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, one of those authors without whom there almost would be no children’s or young adult departments in any public libraries, anywhere. And there she was, this nice, older woman laying out in words I wish I had written down the dangers of banning books. First off, it’s a terrible thing to do to a kid to him or her not to read a book. She said she once got what was clearly a form letter from some elementary school students, each of whom had copied the letter in their own handwriting, and each of whom had misspelled the word “vulgar” as “vulger,” in reference to her works. But a couple of the students had snuck in their own words before the envelopes were sealed: “We really like your books,” or something to that effect.

Sarah Palin’s been getting a lot of attention about whether she had any books banned as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. As far as I can tell, she didn’t. But the thing that’s moving from factoid to fact status is that she did ask the town librarian how she would respond if Palin asked her to remove some books from the stacks. This is only speculation, but that sounds to me like the kind of “shot across the bow” question that was meant to send a chill down the spine of anyone who even thought about getting in Palin’s way.

I intend to get in her way. If I don’t, I have a pretty good idea what the future will look like for those of us who believe in open access to information: There was a guy at the readout who had tricked out his bike to have a little library on the front, a “book bike,” if you will. Maybe that’s what he called it. I don’t know; I was feeling too shy to talk to him. It was a totally cool idea, and a great way to get books out into the community.

Another way I have seen to get books into peoples’ hands is to use one of those newspaper boxes. Someone has done just that with a newspaper box outside Reckless Records on Chicago Avenue. It’s called the Community Book Exchange or something like that.

Again, a great idea and a great adjunct to a genuine public library. But not a replacement for same, and neither is the book bike. If book readers have to go underground and start doing the whole samizdat routine, stealing around in the night, passing hastily made copies of contraband books to anonymous associates in alleys, it’d be kinda cool at first. Then we’d realize how much it would suck. We’d be embarrassed to have to admit that we lived in a society that didn’t support the free exchange of information, a society that thinks books are more dangerous than guns. Imagine that, a country without libraries, or one with libraries that are so heavily censored that no one takes them seriously.

It could happen. We already have towns without libraries. Fortunately, Chicago isn’t one of them. I found out last Monday that the city government has approved construction of a new branch for the Chicago Public Library in the Goldblatt Building, also on Chicago Ave. I found that out when I went to talk to my alderman, Manny Flores. Heard it from his administrative assistant. Back to you, Jim.

781.66 Rock music

A couple months ago, a nice young man named Nathan, who reviews music at a site called Weirdo Music, got in touch with me about writing about my experiences with Government Issue. That was 25 years ago. Maybe in another 25, I’ll have enough critical distance to give that subject the fair treatment it deserves. Or I’ll be able to sort out all the thoughts I have about those years in some sort of coherent fashion. Something like that.

Nathan and I did decide, however, that it would be cool to take a look at the whole punk thing from the point of view of those of us who aren’t household names. At least I think that’s what we decided. I haven’t talked to Nathan in a while, so it could be that I’ve bolluxed the whole thing up. But anyway, I asked a friend named Chris to kick the whole thing off with 500 words on “What Punk Means to Me.” And I think she did a damn fine job. Herewith are those 500 words:

What Punk Means to Me

1979 was when I discovered punk, so I was really “post-punk” in my tastes. That didn’t matter. It still had plenty of meaning for me. My first punk album was the first Pretenders album. It was extremely raw and important. I was so sick of mainstream rock; I knew all the words, the drum breaks, the boredom. Punk was like a big surprise party that went on and on. But it was more than that: it was an eye opener and gave me a reason to think there was hope for the future, through personal growth without the need to always be nice to people; “nice” meaning being a perfect girl that didn’t talk about the shit going on in the world and pretending everything would be okay if we just kept smiling.

Through punk, confrontation was encouraged: confrontation of injustice, mediocrity, apathy, phoniness and prudishness, to name a few. Punk also encouraged (and still does) individuality, self-exploration, and self-identification by urging you not to look to others to give your life meaning or to give you the ways to define yourself. Screw keeping up with the Joneses!

There was no need to be afraid of “standing out.” Being different was a goal. Clothing was very do-it-yourself (DIY): buy a pocket T, dip liberally in bleach, or add a safety pin here and there. All those trendy people now might not realize that piercing eyebrows and other areas started as a DIY thing in the 70s (I pierced my second earring holes myself).

I was very shy and insecure before I got into punk, new wave, goth, what have you. It came into my life just as I graduated from high school. I definitely could have used the mindset during high school. The songs themselves ran the gamut, with many different instruments, more synthesizer, amazing vocal styles from operatic to guttural crooning. Mostly they were much shorter than the arena-rock tributes. What a relief that was to me. You could be enraged, amazed, saddened and amused then happy after 10 minutes of listening to the radio. So often, you’d hear several new songs a day. I feel there was no other time in music history like it.

Every day, there were new bands coming on the scene. WBCN in Boston was actually really good and played new stuff from inside the US and tons from Europe. I wrote all the names of the bands that I knew of on my bedroom wall (the wallpaper sucked anyway)!

It’s funny, but every generation thinks their rebellion was the best (since the 50s, I suppose, with the beginning of recorded rock), and I am no exception. I truly feel that if it weren’t for the punk/new wave rebellion, I probably would not be here today. Life was just too stifling and dead-ended (and would have been literally) if I hadn’t had that outlet, and especially the opportunity to be me without apology.

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