Then, They Came for Steinbeck

Pulling the slim, canary-yellow volume from my parents’ bookshelves, I admired the bold, blue printing along the spine and across the cover. Running my fingers over the cover’s roughly-textured cloth was such pleasure I put off opening the book, but in time I did open it, and began to read.

It wasn’t an especially hard book for a fourth-grader, at least in terms of vocabulary, but there were words I’d never encountered. “Flophouse” was one. It made me giggle, imagining as I did a house filled with children,  jumping and flopping on beds.

I found the word again, then twice more: “flophouse.” Curious, I closed the book and went running downstairs to the bridge party taking place in our living room.

Sidling up behind my father’s chair, I waited. Eventually, he sensed my presence and said, “Need something, sweetie?” I needed a definition. “What’s a flophouse, Daddy?” I don’t remember if he paused, but he never looked up from his cards when he asked, “What are you reading now?”

What I was reading was John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. Unlike The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, the saga of Doc, Dora, Mack, Hazel, and Eddie never was banned, but in my parents’ house, banning would have been irrelevant.

From their perspective, books were written in order to be read. If the reader happened to be a fourth-grader who’d pulled a grown-up novel off the shelves because she was attracted by the cover, so be it. I’d be interested, or not, and if a grown-up book piqued my interest, there would be plenty of time to look up unfamiliar words or talk about life in a flophouse.

My parents’ willingness to allow my friends and I to roam their library at will reflected a tolerance not always associated with 1950’s middle America, but I remember it being common in our community.

In school, we started out with Dick and Jane, then worked our way through classics like Little House on the Prairie. By third or fourth grade we were allowed to browse more grown-up sections of the school library, and at the town library, all that was needed was a note from a parent for older children to gain access to the stacks free to check out whatever intrigued them.

In a world of bookmobiles, neighborhood reading clubs, and Junior Librarians, the importance of reading was assumed. Apart from classroom assignments, I was free to read as I chose. If a book captured my imagination, I might re-read it a dozen times. If I found a book offensive, upsetting, poorly-crafted, or boring, I’d simply put it down and walk away.

In either case, the decision was mine to make. Teachers, parents, and librarians certainly shaped, suggested, and prodded as my friends and I wandered along our literary byways, but censorship in the form of flat prohibition never touched my life.

As this year’s  Banned Books Week  begins, the freedom of those school years seems ever more precious. Introduced to literary classics in the classroom  — Melville, Hawthorne, Shakespeare, Dickens and Tolstoy — we were free to read among more contemporary writers as well.

My own reading list was rich and varied, a feast of contemporary American letters. And yet every book pictured above, and more, have been targeted for removal from classrooms and libraries. Some have been burned. Authors have been threatened with death. Booksellers determined to make copies available have lost their business, or been forced to move. Many authors have fought decades-long battles on behalf of their work.

According to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, at least 42 of the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century have been targeted for banning. Reading through the lists often is bemusing. Contemplating the reasons for such challeges can be horrifying.

While the burning of books by Nazis, Muslims, the Irish, or the East St. Louis Public Library (The Grapes of Wrath,1939) is dramatic, the on-going pressure to silence authors, distort points of view, and manipulate facts remains both insidious and pervasive.

When textbooks are forced to serve as vehicles for particular social and political agendas, the result is what Tamim Ansary calls the “blanding” of education. In the textbook approval process, the need to please politically-appointed state boards and bureaucracies leads to self-censorship on the part of textbook writers, fully as damaging to the educational process and freedom of expression as the blatant removal of The Color Purple from a library, or issuance of a fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his Satanic Verses.

The reasons for censorship vary from one decade to another, and among communities. Prudishness, a variety of prejudices, demands for ideological purity, or the particularly obnoxious form of self-righteousness known as political correctness all play their role. Books are made up of words, after all, and if certain words no longer are permissible, books are at risk. I can only imagine what Joseph Conrad might think about being known as the author of The N-Word of the Narcissus.

In the end, it is fear which underlies this impulse toward censorship: fear of complexity and ambiguity, fear of the stranger, fear that one’s judgments about the nature of life itself may be wrong.  Above all else, the censorious spirit reveals a fearful refusal to see the world as it is, in all of its glorious and sometimes disturbing manifestations.

But our fears are not a writer’s concern. When an author says, “This is how I see the world,” we are free to look away, but we have no right to deny publication of the vision.

That said, in a world still vulnerable to censorship and intimidation, what are we to do?

One of the first recomendations of the American Library Association is to read a once-banned book. That doesn’t mean you have to pick up Tropic of Cancer or Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich would make fine selections for banned-book reading.

One of the happy secrets of life is that banned books often are great books: filled with insight, beauty, and the pure pleasure of words.  To read a banned book is neither a chore nor a distasteful obligation. It simply is another route into the heart of our world’s complexity, and perhaps a way toward increased understanding.

For those particularly concerned with our educational system, it’s important to become aware of challenges to textbooks, literature, and library services and programs. Talk to librarians and teachers. Make an effort to find out which groups are attempting to influence textbook content, and why.  Acquaint yourself with local school board policies. Evaluate them for fairness and appropriateness, then monitor their application.

Finally, become a reader who explores new pathways, and learn to appreciate quality. If you prefer essays, try Neil Gaiman. If you’ve never met a bodice-ripper you didn’t like, sidle into the literary fiction aisle and see what Southern Gothic is about. Take advantage of Goodreads for a variety of reviews and trenchant discussion. Find a book blogger or two, and follow them. Many are rich with recommendations, analysis, and links to authors and critics.

Nearly sixty years have passed since that night I clattered down the stairs into my parents’ bridge party: clutching my first copy of Steinbeck, confident my father would satisfy my curiosity about flophouses. 

The world has changed beyond all imagining since that night, but the larger lessons my parents taught have changed not at all.  Books, they told me, are treasures to be cherished and protected. Reading matters, because life matters. The freedoms to speak, to write, to publish and to read must remain inviolable if other freedoms are to endure. And, finally — censorship violates everyone it touches.

Ray Bradbury put it differently, but the message is the same. “There is more than one way to burn a book,” he said, “and the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”

Keep your garden hose handy.



Celebrating the Freedom to Read: Sept. 21-27, 2014

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Where the Show Still Goes On

In retrospect, it seems fitting that Barnum and Bailey circus rider Josephine DeMott Robinson presided over the naming of the baby giraffe.

Working in tandem with acrobat Zella Florence, Josie already had encouraged an assortment of female animal trainers, wire walkers, hand balancers, dancers, and strong women (including Katie Sandwina, the “female Hercules”) to hold a suffrage rally at Madison Square Garden. Barnum & Bailey’s presentation of an elaborate, Cleopatra-themed show during its 1912 season seemed a perfect opportunity to introduce the world to its first circus suffrage society, not to mention the giraffe, soon to be named “Miss Suffrage.” (more…)

Feeding Bodies, Sustaining Souls

Many years younger, fairly well-traveled but still impressionable, I arrived in Berkeley during the 1970s: a relatively peaceful decade sandwiched between the tumultuous events of the University of California’s Free Speech Movement and the slightly less shattering Livermore earthquake.

Despite the unfortunate closures of the original Fillmore and Fillmore West prior to my arrival, there were consolations to be had. Afternoons, I lingered at Caffé Espresso, breathing in the scents of eucalyptus and French roast. Weekend trips across the Bay allowed for exploration of San Francisco’s tourist sites (Fisherman’s Wharf, North Beach, Chinatown) as well as increasingly confident forays into neighborhoods filled with fabulous architecture, tiny galleries, and expansive views.

Atop the Berkeley hills, views were as varied and compelling as anything available across the Bay. To the east lay Mt. Diablo, wheat straw dry or dusted with sunlit snow. To the west, San Francisco’s skyline shimmered by day and sparkled by night. In season, tendrils of fog twined their way around and through the Golden Gate, wrapping the Bridge in silence and the easy breath of dreams.

Arcing to Arcturus

On July 13, 1977, at 8:37 p.m., a lightning strike at the Buchanan South electrical substation on New York’s Hudson River tripped two circuit breakers.  At the time, Buchanan South was meant to be converting 345,000 volts of electricity from the Indian Point nuclear plant to lower voltage, but a loose locking nut, combined with a faulty upgrade cycle, meant that the breaker wasn’t able to reclose and allow power to resume flowing.

When a second lightning strike caused two more 345,000 volt transmission lines to fail, only one reclosed properly, resulting in a loss of power from Indian Point and the over-loading of two more major transmission lines.  Con Edison tried to initiate fast-start generation at 8:45 p.m., but no one was overseeing the station, and the remote start failed. (more…)

A Ghost of Texas Past

The site of James Briton Bailey’s land grant, known today as Bailey’s Prairie. (Click for larger image)

Twelve years after “Brit” Bailey succumbed to cholera on the hot, humid coastal plain of Stephen F. Austin’s colony, events had taken a turn. Texas had become a Republic, and word of the opportunities to be had there was spreading, particularly among the Germans.

In November 1845, German scientist Ferdinand von Roemer debarked in Galveston. Sent to Texas by the Berlin Academy of Sciences, he had been charged with the task of evaluating mineral assets on the Fisher-Miller land grant west of San Antonio. In the process of meeting his obligation, Roemer not only established himself as the father of Texas geology, through his association with John Meusebach he became an important player in the opening of the Fisher-Miller grant to settlement.


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