Intellectual Freedom is Free! Banned Books Week 2013, September 22-28

Banned Books Week 2013 arrives September 22. Celebrating the freedom to read or pushing back against the troglodytes and fundies, hypocritical liberal parents or rightist political reactionaries. Either way, my kind of activist commemoration. Plus, a chance to share this photograph of Raquel Welch as Myra (Myron) in the classic, wonderful, over-the-top film version of Gore Vidal's 1968 novel Myra Breckinridge. Friends, colleagues, students and participants in past celebrations of local Banned Books Week “read-outs” will have already heard my own testimonial about its meaning to me, intellectually, politically, temperamentally: Downey, California, mid-1970s and the curious, awkward, funny-looking young Mr. Bib (still a child-bride of religious conservatism) has somehow found the sequel to that book, called Myron at the public library read it, been impressed, entertained, aroused, completely charmed by the wit of Vidal, who in protest of a recent Supreme Court anti-pornography ruling, gently substituted the names of members (!) of the Court for presumed objectionable words:  “He thrust his enormous Rehnquist deep within her Whizzer White.” 


Understanding that I'd read the follow-up to the original, I consulted the Dewey Decimal (then, 3 x 5 cards), found the call number but was unable to locate the actual copy of Myra Breckinridge on the shelf. Checked out, missing, stolen? Hmm. I asked the librarian. It was kept, she explained, behind the counter. To her everlasting credit, she checked it out to me, and so was advanced my literary, political, erotic life, not to mention my affection for GV, who I met only a few years later at Cal State Long Beach when he met with supportive students and faculty while running for US Senate.
But why, friends, did the Downey Library feel obliged to check out that particular book only to patrons who asked for it? And why not a dedicated express lane (five naughty books or fewer!) or a self-service line for other precocious kids, for perverts or wise guys or fans of Vidal? Questions, even dumb ones, offer an opportunity for answers, but you already know at least the obvious one. What, exactly, were the librarians afraid of? And who, I wonder? In a weird way I'm grateful for the whole experience, which I might not have completely understood at age 15 but appreciate plenty today. 

I shared the story with Barbara M. Jones of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom – it's just fun to say! – and she chuckled. What a great person. And what a great job, which she cops to in my upcoming Bibliocracy Radio program with this outstanding activist who must certainly enjoy going to work.  She is the official face, spokesperson of boosterism and hoo-rah for my favorite in-your-face commemoration, and has a lot of great stories, all of which go a long way toward echoing that obvious answer, and talking back to those who claim there's no actual censorship of books in the US of A. Hard to limit the definition of censorship to “official,” what with the near-complete hegemony of corporate media, religion, commerce, lowest common denominator entertainment, boring TV sports, but aside from that, Jones won't give in, not one inch. The ALA's five categories of creeping dumb-ism range from nosin' around in the library or bookstore to, yes, campaigns to remove, attack, target books, all of which are of course not about banning books but about limiting freedom, access, curiosity. And, no kidding, the people and movements and organizations most presumably concerned or alarmed by naughty or inappropriate books say they are trying to protect (!) us from, well what?  Mostly sex, it turns out. And mostly “protect” kids from not just sex but sexy homosexual sex. Indeed, Young Adult novels (those most often read by teenagers) even, yes, stupid and derivative and vampire-ridden romance adventure dystopias get the most attention from these nervous parents or their surrogates. Surprise, delight, or maybe sicken yourself sometime with a look-see at the Top 10 books most concerning to, well, who exactly? The potty humor silly-good smart-ass fun of the Captain Underpants series is a lot more easy to read, to get your underpants in a bunch over I'm afraid than The Giver by Lois Lowry (a favorite of my eleven year old just now) so, yes, it's on the list. If only they would read it, they'd discover how dangerous that book really, truly is. 

I love this road sign. Somebody likely erected it in celebration of Banned Books Week. And below you will find a not quite completely gratuitous homage to my hero, the late Chris

Hitchens with some good advice for the liberal and left and nationalistic or ethnic chauvinist “activists” who can't handle Uncle Tom's Cabin or feel misrepresented by an image or find that a book, of all things, makes them feel bad and who want to warn us, coerce us, to ban the book. Yes, and here's some more good advice.  Write your own book, I dare you.  A good book, a better book, which creates an argument, a discourse, a challenge that is not the kind of “challenge” offered by thugs and goofs. Bad books? There are plenty. Guess what? You don't have to buy, read or check them out of the library. 
Okay, that felt good. I love a rant. But what to do, really, as in for reals? First, buy, check out and read a few good banned books. Maybe out loud, maybe in public at an organized or indie “read-out” or “read-in” or some other variety of event supportive of Banned Books Week. You can post your event on You Tube and share with the ALA, which is so happy to promote your citizen activism on behalf of intellectual freedom.  Because, to challenge that too-easy “freedom isn't free” bromide of pro-war and statist violence and coercion, real and imagined, freedom is in fact free. That's why it's called freedom. But you have to exercise it, flaunt it, celebrate it and, for good or bad, make a big noise while you are doing that. I just watched, again, that excellent documentary Ralph Nader: An Unreasonable Man, for all kinds of reasons, but in particular because I get a little shiver (okay, I am a sentimental guy) when he tells the story of his father asking him when he got home from high school if he “learned to believe” that day or if he “learned to think.” Just sayin'. 
Here's this year's cool poster, with redactions pointing to the message of the week. You can purchase a BBW took kit, this poster, a t-shirt and more, or go DIY and make your own. Or, like me, dress up as Myra and recite the names of the US Supreme Court.

For more information on the American Library Association's annual Banned Books Week 2013, visit its most excellent website. Do share your words, actions, gatherings or solitary affirmations with the ALA and me, too.
Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.

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