Thursday, October 1, 2009

In Honor of Banned Book Week, Another Misguided Plea For Banning Books

Many moons ago I wrote a piece for a now defunct online literary magazine about my enthusiasm for book burning, The Internet and the Argument For Burning Books, as the last best defense against what many, myself foolishly included, were perceiving as the decline of proper culture at the dawn of the internet age.

My argument, though a bit muddled in retrospect, was in favor of the book burning methods of Cervantes’ Priest in Don Quixote’s library- rather than burn the things that were a threat to orthodoxy, the Priest basically burns everything that lacks, in his opinion, literary merit. A sort of proto-Bloomian brownshirt burning books purely on aesthetics. Through this tyranny of good taste we’d all be better read, fitter, happier people, the nation’s book groups re-reading Moby Dick again and again until everyone is seasick. At the time, I thought it was paradise.

Upon reflection, I’ve come to the bitter realization that not everyone has my impeccable taste. Ironically, as many despots have learned, the books most often burned are also the books most likely to outlive the burners. My sensible program for protecting the reading public from itself would have led to a hyper-literate dystopia in which zombie-like bookworms would shuffle about mumbling in iambic pentameter while the resistance lived below in the sewers, smuggling James Patterson novels, eating the pages as they read to avoid being imprisoned, waiting for a Nora Roberts led coup.

Banning books has become a bit of lark nowadays, judging from the lists provided by the ALA that we’ve been highlighting this week. There are always the usual suspects most sensible folk cherish as classics: To Kill A Mockingbird, The Adventures of Huckelberry Finn. But The Kite Runner? Who wants to ban that? In fairness, these banned book lists that stores like Warwick’s are promoting in their windows this week have lost the context of why someone wanted them banned in the first place. A boy is raped in the Kite Runner, so few would object ‘banning’ its being read by, say, a class of fourth graders. Not every attempt to ban a book is by a reactionary nutjob trying to censor us. The Gossip Girls series, for example, was banned by numerous school libraries for being sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, and for offensive language. Isn’t that the point? The Gossip Girls certainly would have made my list of books to burn, so wasn’t I onto something profoundly good for society? Also, keep in mind when you hear these lists, that the banned books are often ‘challenges’ that ultimately, because of reasonable people stepping in, do not actually get banned. The Kite Runner though, gets attacked on high school reading lists. And really, even if Harry Potter did turn our children into witches and warlocks, isn’t that worth it, considering it also got them reading books again?

And so it goes. The book banners keep plugging away while the rest of us shake our heads, for in this day and age, can anything really be censored in a hyper-networked culture like ours? You can visit this handy map of book censorship and then with a few clicks, in most cases, you can download an electronic version from Warwick’s new e-book store and be reading the taboo content in minutes. Philip Pullman summed it up best after the banning of His Dark Materials: "The inevitable result of trying to ban something – book, film, play, pop song, whatever – is that far more people want to get hold of it than would ever have done if it were left alone.  Why don't the censors realise this?" Sherman Alexie said, “the amazing thing is these banners never understand they are turning this book into a sacred treasure.”

Books, of course, should be sacred treasure, without burning or banning them, but everyday there is another affront to their relevance and value. The latest was reported by the New York Times, about something called a ‘Vook’, being published by Simon and Schuster. You see, the smart folks at Simon and Schuster asked themselves what it was that books were missing. Editors that edited? No, don’t be silly. They realized the main drawback with a book is that it isn’t enough like watching TV. So they’ve added video clips, hence, a ‘Vook’. Rumour has it that among the ideas the ‘Vook’ beat out were the ‘Cook’ which was a microwaveable book made out of mashed potatoes, and the ‘Flook’, which was an inflatable book that could be, in an emergency, used as a flotation device. I get it, you’re not selling enough books, you have to try something new, it’s just that at some point you’re no longer a publishing house (which would probably make the shareholders happy).

I once heard someone lament that there was no censorship in America, for if books were burned it would make literature a more important part of our culture. I’m sure any of the authors throughout the world who have truly had to suffer for their work would dismiss this as naiveté, but I think of it every time I mail a book at the Post Office. The clerk always asks: “Is there anything fragile, liquid, perishable, or potentially hazardous?” I want to say yes, I think books can be hazardous, can change lives and minds and cultures, but inevitably I say no, it’s just a book. Just a bunch of words that never caused any trouble.

At least for a week then, every year, we’re reminded that there are still people who think books are dangerous and that there are still people and places like Warwick’s willing to defend those dangerous books, even if it does mean, by way of some convoluted logic, that I might end up burning a few. Just know when you see it on the news that my heart was in the right place.

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