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.

098 Prohibited works

If I were a publisher or an author, I would think having someone (say,
Sarah Palin, for instance) ban my book would bring me the kind of P.R. even the most seasoned media flak only wishes he could drum up. Seems to me it would have the same effect as slapping a “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” label (thank you, Tipper Gore) on a CD, or giving a movie an NC-17 rating: gotta have that forbidden fruit, know what I mean?

As we gear up for Banned Books Week next week, I would like to suggest that the nation’s presses consider doing exactly that: proudly trumpeting the fact that someone has deemed their products dangerous, unacceptable, potentially corrupting or whatever the complaint may be. A sticker on the front cover that says, “This book is banned in 17 states,” or “Most vandalized book of 2008,” “Most Burned Book of the Century.” Something like that. We could call these stickers “Badges of Honor.” Shape them like little medals, give them a faux-metallic finish, the whole bit.

A friend of mine ran a public library in South Carolina where he was constantly having to reorder one or another of the Harry Potter books because someone was always defacing them, tearing out offending passages or just stealing the books outright. I don’t even think the books are that good, but actions like these elevate an otherwise mediocre series to hero status, and, more important, probably don’t hurt book sales much, either.

I had another friend who ran a public library in a town in central Massachusetts. A group of parents who educated their children themselves would come in regularly and demand that this or that book be taken off the shelves. These home-schooling parents made life pretty hard for my friend, one of the most easygoing, non-confrontational guys I’ve ever met. He still grimaces when he talks about it.

So, whether we’re talking about Harry Potter, Robert Cormier, Lois Lowry or Daddy’s Roommate, let’s turn my friends’ nightmares into something good. Let’s remind the enemies of free thought just how badly their efforts at suppressing speech can backfire.

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