Booksellers Bring Banned Books Into Limelight [3]

Banned Books Week, observed this year from September 22 - 27, resonated profoundly with booksellers and others concerned about our civil liberties. Established 22 years ago and sponsored by organizations including the ABA, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), and the American Library Association (ALA), it celebrates the freedom to read and to express one's opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular views to all who wish to read or hear them.

With the specter of the sweeping new powers given to federal agents by Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act looming overhead, booksellers, librarians, journalists, and publishers are emphasizing the dangers of institutions -- such as federal or state governments, school superintendents, or town boards -- influencing the public's free access to information. This year, many stores around the country held Banned Books Week events, including some who had never before felt the need to do so.

This year Elaine Mattingly, second-generation owner of Mattingly Music & Books in Newton, Iowa, mounted the store's first ever Banned Books celebration. "We decided that this year, with all the buzz about the impact of the Patriot Act, people could roll around in it a bit. And who says celebrating our freedom to read needs to be serious? We wanted to remind the people of Newton how inspiring, and fun, it is to share books, all books."

The September 25 celebration partnered Mattingly with neighboring Uncle Nancy's Coffeehouse and the Newton Public Library. To engage young people and interest them in the cause, Mattingly enlisted the local high school's improvisational theater group along with activist poet Brett Axel, known for Will Work for Peace: New Political Poems (Zeropanik Press), which he edited. His poetry collection, First on the Fire (Fly by Night), a title alluding to a specific form of censorship, was reviewed prior to the event by a librarian in the Newton Daily News.

"Our event, which also included a local lawyer and public readings from banned books, was listed in 'Top Ten Cool Things to Do,' in Sunday's Des Moines Register. We held it at Uncle Nancy's -- it was packed and wildly successful," said Mattingly.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who is traveling around the country to garner support for the USA Patriot Act, visited New Orleans on September 25, the day independent booksellers, authors, librarians, and other freedom-to-read groups commemorated Banned Books Week at the House of Blues in the French Quarter. Hundreds packed the Voodoo Garden to hear local writers Andrei Codrescu, Poppy Z. Brite, and Patty Friedmann interpret selections from banned books.

Joseph Billingsley, co-chair, with Britton Trice of New Orlean's Garden District Book Shop, of the New Orleans Gulf-South Booksellers Association, reported to BTW that event was "fantastic."

There had been a lot of advance publicity on NPR, in the New Orleans Times Picayune, and on other radio stations. "Twelve local writers did readings…. Some highlights were [novelist and NPR commentator] Andrei Codrescu's hilarious interpretation of The Stupids by Harry Allard with some political changes. Patty Friedmann, whose most recent novel is Secondhand Smoke, smuggled in fifteen pounds of bananas in a violin case and read the section of The Anarchist Cookbook [by William Powell] about using bananas to make an hallucinogenic."

The event, sponsored by the New Orleans Gulf-South Booksellers Association, the New Orleans Public Library, the ACLU of Louisiana, the Friends of the New Orleans Public Library, and the House of Blues, featured speakers from the organizations urging action on the USA Patriot Act and other infringements on freedom of speech. As Billingsley remarked in the advance publicity, "The past year or two have been very tough on our freedom to read. Whether it's the Patriot Act, government searches of bookstore customer records, or library Internet filters that discourage access to information on such basic topics as breast cancer, the threats to intellectual freedom are more numerous now than I can ever remember. It's time to for us wake up and hear the jackboots."

Tattered Cover in Denver, Colorado, encouraged young people to become involved in Freedom of Speech issues with its observance of this year's Banned Books Week. Tattered Cover and Colorado Freedom of Expression Foundation co-sponsored a teen essay contest about the importance of the First Amendment. All Colorado teens, 13 and older, were invited to submit an original essay about our right to free expression for a chance to win cash prices. Displays at both Tattered Cover locations featured banned books and lists of the titles most frequently challenged by groups and individuals over the past year.

Tattered Cover kicked off Banned Books Week on Saturday, September 20, with a benefit for ABFFE featuring composer, saxophonist, and author James McBride (The Miracle at St. Anna, Riverhead Books).

On September 27, Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vermont, held a spirited panel on Banned Books Week with author Judy Blume, Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Russo, and ABFFE's Chris Finan. According to Finan, the event was standing-room-only and full of lively debate. Zachary Marcus, marketing director for the store, introduced the three speakers saying, "We have a responsibility to protect the Bill of Rights. The only censorship should be the right to choose not to read." Proceeds from the event benefited ABFFE.

Tower display of banned book titles at Burke's Book Store in Memphis, Tennessee.

Some booksellers expressed their support for Banned Books Week with dramatic visuals. Ann La Pietra, owner of Kids' Place bookstore in Marshall, Michigan, was featured in the Battle Creek Enquirer on September 21, describing the brick wall she had painted on her store front window, obscuring the view of her banned books display. Each time a customer purchases one of the frequently banned books, a piece of the "wall" is removed. In the article, La Pietra is quoted as saying, "It's so important that people know this still goes on. This isn't a story from the Spanish Inquisition. Most libraries and schools have committees appointed to decide policies on what is proper and what is not. Some state boards of education have committees that make the same decision on a state level."

At Burke's Book Store in Memphis, Tennessee, owners Cheryl and Corey Mesler, used the theme "Open Your Mind to a Banned Book," as a celebration of "the freedom to read, [and a reminder to] Americans not to take this precious democratic freedom for granted." As the graphics for this year's Banned Books Week were based on Andy Warhol's soup can paintings, the store staff designed can labels reflecting banned and challenged titles throughout history. All cans were donated to the Memphis Food Bank when Banned Books Week concluded.

As a graphically charged coda to Banned Books Week, artist Sheryl Oring celebrated the installation of Writer's Block (left), an anti-censorship work consisting of 600 vintage typewriters caged in boxes of rusty construction steel, in New York's Bryant Park. Recalling the May 10, 1930, Nazi-led book burnings in Berlin, Oring's symbolic statement about imprisoning ideas and free expression evokes strong emotions. Prominent authors Rick Moody, Grace Paley, Francine Prose, and Frances Fitzgerald were among those speaking at the September 30 program. The event was sponsored by the National Coalition Against Censorship, ABFFE, and PEN American Center. – Nomi Schwartz [4]