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Tom Chaney: Telling Folks What Not to Read

Of Writers And Their Books: Telling Folks What Not to Read. Tom quotes a county librarian: "If that book is banned today, what book will be banned tomorrow?" This column first appeared 23 November 2008.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Of Crickets and Field Mice and Murder Most Foul

By Tom Chaney

Telling Folks What Not to Read

During the late presidential election a question was raised about whether or not the Republican vice-presidential candidate had attempted to ban books in the city library of Wasilla, Alaska, while she was mayor.

The story went that Mayor Palin asked the city librarian how she, the librarian, would react to the directed removal of books from the library. Evidently the matter did not get any further than that. Subsequent attempts to find out just what the soccer mom had in mind were inconclusive.

The books, whatever they were, stayed on the shelves.

That has not always been the case.

James Joyce published his novel Ulysses in 1922 after its being serialized in The Little Review, a Chicago literary magazine. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice objected and the magazine was banned because it contained Ulysses.

The publisher Random House decided to challenge the ban on the novel. They imported the French version and arranged for a copy to be seized by customs officials when the ship docked.

The United States claimed in federal court in New York that the work was obscene. Random House argued the work was protected by the first amendment to the constitution.

Judge John M. Woolsey ruled in favor of Ulysses saying it was not pornographic. Within ten minutes Bennett Cerf of Random House set the presses to running for the first English printing of the novel.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld Judge Woolsey's decision.

Late in the decade of the 1930's John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath was published and immediately fell victim to the censors. In 1939, just after publication, the library in St. Louis banned and burned it because of obscene language. The Kern County Board of Supervisors in California banished the book from the local library.

Supervisor W. B. Camp of Bakersfield, California, who presided over the banning and later burning of the book there declared, "We are angry, not because we were attacked but because we were attacked by a book obscene in the extreme sense of the word."

Kern County librarian Gretchen Knief countered "If that book is banned today, what book will be banned tomorrow?"

Book after book has felt the censor's heavy hand. In 1536 William Tyndale, who partially completed translating the Bible into English, was hunted, captured, strangled, and burned at the stake by opponents of the movement to translate the bible into the vernacular.

Noah Webster and others have published "family bibles" which eliminated passages thought to be "indelicate." And many a lusty teenage boy has been sent leafing through 'The Song of Solomon' ever since.

Lest one think the bible is the only religious book to be judged unfit, we note the Koran fell to the censors in Spain during the inquisition and was restricted to students of history in Russia in the twentieth century. Medieval popes were hell bent to prevent Christians from reading the Jewish Talmud.

To bring it closer to home. In 1996 the Lindale, Texas, schools banned Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird from its advanced reading list because, "it conflicted with the values of the community." Kentucky Repertory Theatre has just mounted a production of a play based on this work.

The founders of this republic took thought just after they crafted the Constitution of the United States of America. They approved the Bill of Rights -- ten amendments to the basic document without the promise of which Virginia and some other states would not have ratified the Constitution.

The first amendment grants freedom of the press and of expression under which censorship of reading material is generally forbidden. But the battle continues.

Sometimes the censorship is not direct. Often it just takes a suggestion that a particular book or play "might be offensive" to cause a librarian not to order a copy or a theatre to decide on a more "acceptable" play.

And Noah Webster has his latter day adherents. I recall preparing to teach Shakespeare's Julius Caesar to a class of high school sophomores some years ago. The textbook police had done a ludicrous job of scrubbing the play of any language that might remotely refer to "improper," hence sexual activity. The bard of Avon referred to Caesar's wife "gladdening the marriage bed." The bowdlerized version read "gladdening Caesar's home." Any hint of sex was unacceptable. But bring on all the blood and violence of the Ides of March. That was fine.

Timidity of expression has done more to intimidate freedom of speech than any board of supervisors with their bans and burnings.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2013-11-24 02:17:17
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