Would Anyone Notice?

September 12, 2008 at 9:56 pm | Posted in Book Blather | Leave a comment

(Okay, hear me out here, because this is a humor piece, not a political piece).  What could be more irresistible a topic on a book blog than censorship?  It’s in the news lately: The New York Times says Sarah Palin fired a librarian after asking her whether she’d be willing to ban books.  Regardless of the details of the story, one can only be excited that people are talking about censorship.  The First Amendment is a large part of why we have all these great things to read.

Pragmatically, though, let’s talk about book banning in practice.  What do people actually check out from the library?  You know this one:  Mitch Albom, Nicholas Sparks, children’s books and DVDs.  I would estimate that fully 2/3 of the people inside the library whenever I go in are either using the internet stations or waiting in line to do so.  And they’re not researching their dissertations, either; it’s about two parts MySpace to one part video poker to one part Other, including porn.  Another main use of the library in my area is as a pseudo-shelter for the homeless, since most shelters kick out their residents during the day.  Last, it’s a dumping-off place for schoolchildren, whose parents may think they are studying but who are in actuality chasing each other around, giggling, and defacing the library materials.  (I’ve had groups of noisy kids thrown out of a library on a couple of occasions, one of the great pleasures of adulthood).

So the great question is, would anyone notice if books were banned from the library?  It depends on the books.  Any series of children’s fantasy, horror, or manga?  Definitely.  Anything on the current week’s New York Times bestseller list?  Probably.  Anything on the spurious list circulating the internet of specific books Sarah Palin supposedly banned?  (Oh, what I wouldn’t give to know if she ever had the desire to ban a certain book, and if so, what it was).  Let’s take a look.

Okay, I feel safe in saying that nobody is going to succeed in banning Stephen King.  That would just be an outrage to consumers everywhere.  (I love him and I’ve read all his works, but let’s face it, he sells in great stacks at Costco).  Likewise Harry Potter.  Now, Aristophanes, on the other hand… Walt Whitman… Chaucer, Faulkner, Rousseau, Boccaccio, Shakespeare?  Do we really think the average citizen is going to notice if Silas Marner silently walks off the shelves (and freezes to death in the snow – little literary reference for ya there)?

I actually do have a censorship story about Boccaccio.  I was reading my way through this list of recommended books from Johns Hopkins University, and of course the Decameron was on there.  I got a copy from the city library.  There was a section in it, “Putting the Devil in Hell,” in italics.  The editors claimed that this passage was untranslatable due to the obscure medieval Italian jargon related to “magic.”  It caught my attention and I was always curious what it would have said; I would have read any amount of footnotes to find out.  Well.  Then I found a copy at my high school library, and promptly looked up “Putting the Devil in Hell.”  Lo and behold, there was the real story, which in fact is a hilariously bawdy tale that was definitely worth the read.  So the tender teenagers of Aloha High School were privy to Smut of the Middle Ages that the good burghers of Beaverton were not.

On another note, the First Amendment may not be all it’s cracked up to be.  New Zealand does not have “freedom of speech,” yet when I was there I found the populace far and away more informed about current events, better traveled, and better educated in general than my fellow Americans.  On the other hand, censorship is the mark of political and religious repression throughout history.  Controlling people’s access to information is the first step toward controlling their minds.  Or is it… television?  Truly, we’re unlikely ever to issue a fatwa over a novelist, because anyone here who’s reading at all is most likely reading a magazine, or light fiction.  I could survive life without a hard copy of Leaves of Grass or The Canterbury Tales because they have inhabited the interior of my mind for years.  For most of the country, though, the uproar over banning trans fats will always overwhelm any clamor over banned books.

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