Saturday, September 01, 2007


A while back, The Tonight Show featured a guest showing off dangerous animals. The last one he brought onto the stage and let out of its box was a cottonmouth snake, which struck nastily at everything that moved. Seeing the cottonmouth on national TV got to me just a little because they also exist down around the lake near the place I stay.

The cottonmouth also reminded me of people who want to ban books, striking out at anything that scares or irritates them.
I make that connection because, since 1982, the last week of September is Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Freedom to Read.

The Intellectual Freedom Manual tells us, "Intellectual freedom can exist only where two essential conditions are met: first, that all individuals have the right to hold any belief on any subject and to convey their ideas in any form they deem appropriate; and second, that society makes an equal commitment to the right of unrestricted access to information and ideas regardless of the communication medium used, the content of the work, and the viewpoints of both the author and receiver of information. Freedom to express oneself through a chosen mode of communication, including the Internet, becomes virtually meaningless if access to that information is not protected. Intellectual freedom implies a circle, and that circle is broken if either freedom of expression or access to ideas is stifled."

In 1953, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas put it more succinctly: "Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us."

Among the many books banned (in some way) or challenged in the 1990s were the whole Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Native Son by Richard Wright, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl, Beloved by Toni Morrison, A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, and, ironically, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

From the earlier part of the 20th century: The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Arabian Nights, both the Bible and the Talmud, and,
again ironically, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, which is about book banning.

I've read many of these books, or at least seen the movies. My mission for the rest of the year is to seek out more of them in places like Paperbacks Plus to add to my permanent collection.

One of the writers I like most is poet and essayist Charles Simic, who in September became poet laureate of the United States. I once did a full lecture on him for a literary group in Dallas, and I quote him in my own writing workshop, "10 Elements of Creative Expression."

Simic wrote that lyric poets are exiles, that a true poet is never a member of any tribe. And, "The folk poet knows that it's wise to immediately establish the connection between the personal and the cosmic." And, "The problem in every poem is to figure out how to make less suggest more."