Banned in Boston, Condemned in Cleveland
Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the Library: My 451 on Freedom of Speech, Libraries, The First Amendment and Banned Books
A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face. It is one of the few havens remaining where a man's mind can get both provocation and privacy.
~Edward P. Morgan
In a perfect world, those who screw with The First Amendment would be sentenced to careers-without-parole as testers in ball gag factories. And why not? Why not let them see what it feels like for a change. Just a thought. Or maybe they want to take that away from us too?
Sadly, when it comes to Freedom of Speech, sometimes the last place we’ve been able to find it is in our libraries.
Which seems kind of weird, don’t you think? Shouldn’t at least The Library be hallowed ground? A quasi-church for those of us who actually know how to think on our feet and our knees? And even in between? For those of us who believe that truth is earned, truth is fluid, truth is personal? For those of us who know we will bleed more than we will ever learn, yet pick up the gauntlet anyway?
Because we know that apprenticed truth is the very marrow of all that makes us human. That suffraged truth is ours to keep forever. And that these self-learned truths are what truly sanctify us, make us whole, make us real. Because we know that human-ness and sanctification are one and the same.
Because we know that to keep truth you need to earn it. You need to fight for it, sometimes even die for it. Because borrowed truth just doesn't stick: Won't stick to you. Or inside of you. Or up for you.
But some people try to do just that, over and over again. Unable to find the path, unwilling to pay the price, looking for an easier, softer way -- and missing the irony of their very own actions -- they cling to their cookbooks, their bibles, their leaflets, their doctrines, their scrolls, their index cards, their cheat sheets.
Forsaking the wisdom of their very own hearts, ignoring the axiom No Guts, No Glory, they take the easy way out (instead of the harder way inside), looking to some Petrarchan authority to tell them what to think, what to believe, how to act. And they know they are right: Because they’ve got the rules now. They've got the rules, and by golly the rest of of us better start living by them or else.
And so they set about the business of minding everybody else’s business. What else can you do when you’ve finally got the rules? What else can you do when you know better than everybody else? What else can you do when you've been born again in the stagnant waters of vainglorious superiority, carved anew from the petrified rock of pseudo-enlightenment?
And the dirty little rat bastids just won’t leave our books alone. Forgetting that the very reason they know they are right and we are wrong is because they read it somewhere and that makes it true. Imagining some knighted prerogative to “go forth and cleanse,” they slither into our libraries unannounced (but always invited) to bite the hand that originally fed them.
I’m just kind of sick of it. Books of all types, sizes, shapes and subject matter have repeatedly disappeared from the hallowed shelves on this most-American of institutions time and again. Thanks to the blessed and all-knowing storm troopers, we have to repeatedly fight for the right to read.
So let me ask you this: If someone takes a book away from me, do I get to take one away from them? Do I get to decide for them, like they want to do for me, what they shall read? Because I am the moral conscience for the world? Because I know better than you and them and him and her? And do we do this—tit for tat—until there are no books left? None to be found anywhere, every last shelf picked clean?
Just something to think about as Banned Books Week draws to a close. And I do hope you think about it. Think about it all year round. Think about a world stunted by intellectual pygmies who want to steal every idea ever found in a book, because they’ve never had an original one of their own, and it scares the hell out of them.
Think about a world without music, without poetry and even without prayer, because original thought is original sin…and we can’t have that, now, can we?
Think of a world, of all the worlds, contained inside the covers of each and every single book.
Think about all of this when…
…you visit the library, walk into a bookstore, join a book club, attend a bookfair and your heart thrills at the baunquet of possibilities.
…you catch the musty scent of aged paper and pulp when entering your grandfather's den and remember his smile, the way he held you on his lap and read to you.
…you read a Shakespearian sonnet to the woman you love and see the look of love in her eyes.
…you grieve the ending of the best book ever as a last chapter looms ahead.
…you run across an old school book and remember how autumn always smelled so new, so full of promise, back then.
Think about it.