I like banned books, book-burning, book-bashing -- anything that has to do with censoring good writing or calling it names. It's literature's best hope, its rare chance to be noticed.
Endangered bibliophiles aside, no one really reads anymore, at least nothing more substantial than Oprah's South Beach Diet-inspired suggestions. Fingers in this cyber-saddled age are more dexterous with computer keyboards and Pavlovian mouse clicks than with the ragged edges of a new hardback's pages, with the satisfying heft of a book about to be cracked, with the spooning feel of its spine in your palm. Lost, too, are the inky smell of a book's virgin pages or the smell of time loosened from them, if the volume had the luck to age in a used bookshop. A book-banning spree is like a coming-out party for the things.
I don't mean the way they did in Nazi Germany or still do in Naziferous parts of the world, where books can be disappeared as effectively as people. We don't have to worry about that sort of thing in the United States. The banning here is more rhetorical. Libraries get in a tizzy when the customary fool attempts to de-shelve yet another Tom (Sawyer), Dick (Nixon, I wish) or Harry (Potter). But we'd be the bigger fools to think that banning the book actually makes a difference to anyone. No one would read the book if it were there, and anyone who really wants to read it would find it even if it weren't. Friends of libraries everywhere still make a big stink of stinkers who ban books because it's good publicity for the books. And the customary fool brandishing the latest book he wants banned still gets attention because it's nice to see fools getting that close to anything in hardcover at all. Everybody wins and nothing is lost.
Except, of course, the point of it all: When it comes down to it, we're still reading rather lousy books when we bother to read at all. Just look at that "Top 100 Banned Books" list The News-Journal ran last Thursday (it's also posted at www.ala.org under "Banned Book Week"). You can read the list as a collection of books most frequently targeted by cultural illiterates. You can also turn the list on its head and read it as a gauge of cultural vigor: What gets banned is a mirror of what's most daringly being read at any given time. And if that's the case, then reading isn't very daring these days. What's attracting censorious attention is a pretty infantile bunch of books.
The list includes the usual suspects, the "nigger"-heavy Mark Twains and Toni Morrisons and Maya Angelous (it's always the wont of idiots to see offense in language rather than in the disease the language portrays), the pubescent sex books for boys and girls (no ban on menopausal books though, or anything to do with prostate cancer), the titles designed to send those with an arrested sense of humor into a trance ("The Antichrist Cookbook," "Mommy Laid an Egg"). There are a few titles that should be banned, if only for the offensively lousy writing therein (Margaret Atwood, Bret Easton Ellis, Alice Walker). And a few that suggest that once in a while book banners can spot the real threats to their stupidity ("Of Mice and Men," "Slaughterhouse Five," "A Light in the Attic"). But on the whole, the list reads like a compendium of bestsellers with the bestseller's bent for topical shock and sellable shtick.
Is banning Howard Stern, Madonna, Stephen King and J.K. Rowling the best we can do? Are R.L. Stein and Harry Allard's "Stupids" series the most subversive things kids are reading? Isn't it time for Derek Humphry's "Final Exit" to be accepted as the conventional how-to book that it is? The fixation of book banners on homosexuality is understandable, given that homophobia is bigotry's last church-approved libido. But it says something about the quality of the material out there when "Myra Breckinridge" (a once-upon-a-time banned-book standard) has been replaced by "The Joy of Gay Sex" and its G-rated companions, "Daddy's Roommate" and "Heather Has Two Mommies." The depths and subtleties of literary explorations, the ambiguities of fiction, have been replaced by the factual and, ironically, the blandly explicit.
Where is today's "Madame Bovary," today's "Ulysses," today's Henry Miller and liver-handy Portnoy -- those books that gave as much joy to those who condemned them as to those who read them? Not only are they not being read; they're not being written. Once in a while we import a dare worthy of the most rabid book bans (think of Salman Rushdie, although his "Satanic Verses" are probably the darling of 700 Clubbers by now). But Philip Roth's continuing biennial surprises aside, the old lions, once as prolific as they could be controversial (Mailer, Morrison, Updike, Vidal, Bellow) are fading away. No one is replacing them, lending credence to how Jonathan Franzen, one of their few potential heirs, recently compared literary America to his native St. Louis -- "a once-great city that had been gutted and drained by white flight and superhighways."
Banned books are like adult shops along those superhighways, eliciting barely a shrug. You might stop in once in a while, but disappointment is certain. Even literary subversion has been franchised by the ordinary and the predictable.
© 2003 News-Journal Corporation