Banned Books Week
Each September, along with many bookstores and libraries across the country, Good Vibrations celebrates Banned Books Week. I remember learning in school how subversive an instrument the printing press was thought to be upon its invention, and how books have been burned in various historical times and places — Nazi Germany, for instance. But I definitely don’t recall being taught that there was a good chance my own school library didn’t carry certain books because they were too controversial. No, the distinct impression I got from my social studies classes was that things like book bannings and burnings didn’t happen in America anymore.
Ironic, because many of the present-day U.S. locales in which book bannings have occurred were very much like my hometown of Glide, Oregon — a small town whose people seemed largely resentful of the cultural changes sweeping the nation in the 1960s and 1970s and which housed a substantial number of townspeople whose prescription for largely economic problems was “traditional values.” I grew up in the ’70s, before the religious right had really brought that phrase back into our daily lives. But towns just like the one in which I grew up, still struggling with unasked-for social change, have become battlefields over the very things that got me through my adolescence — books.
Today school and small-town libraries all across the country fight about books. From Maine to California, from Howard Stern to Heather Has Two Mommies, from Judy Blume to the Bible, books are being taken from libraries or never ordered in the first place. Their absence affects us in ways that are hard to track, yet easy to surmise. For readers, books are everything: a ticket out of town, a taste of another life or culture, a way to hone one’s own ideas and philosophies, a method to continue and deepen one’s education, a means to pursue fascinations and curiosities. When I was an adolescent, and even before, books kept me sane and gave me information I couldn’t get elsewhere. When a certain book, or books on a certain topic, were unavailable to me, my world became a narrower place.
That, of course, is exactly what the book banners have in mind — a narrowing of ideas and possibilities. I often tell the story that when I was about thirteen, I had no one to ask what an orgasm was. Though pretty adept at research, I found nothing conclusive in my school library. For several consecutive Saturdays, then, I became a big fan of the public library in Roseburg, the “big” town, thirty miles away, where my family did its weekly grocery shopping. I hunted until I found a book, Love and Sex in Plain Language, that answered my questions (and gave me some useful information on contraception, to boot).
Why wasn’t Love and Sex in Plain Language in my high school library? It was about the only book in print at that time aimed at a teen audience. But it had never been ordered — out of fear, I am sure, at the controversy its presence in the library was bound to provoke. A substantial percentage of recent book bannings have been over exactly this issue — young people’s access to information about sex and sexual variation, a topic that has great relevance to adolescent physical and emotional health.
Why am I, one of the proprietors of a shop that features the best collection of sex books available anywhere, so concerned about what’s on the shelf in small-town American libraries? Because libraries link low-income and isolated readers to a world of entertainment and ideas that would otherwise be unavailable to them. Most small American towns don’t have well-stocked independent bookstores or even chain bookstores; most American coffee tables don’t have a copy of the Good Vibrations catalog sitting on them; and even when parents are plugged in to what TSL offers, the catalog, with its “adult” subject matter, often doesn’t fall into the hands of their kids. The fact is, we live in a country in which reliable, useful sex information is still barely available to most adults. Youth, who vitally need to know about contraception, HIV prevention, sexual self-esteem, and sexual orientation issues, mostly aren’t getting these needs met at all. And one of the reasons for this is their neighbors who want to ban books.
Sometimes the suspects in book bannings aren’t the usual “traditional family values” folks; experiences like the recent one in Canada underscore the fact that sometimes, objections to books don’t come from the Right. A few years ago our neighbors to the north changed the definition of obscenity to include material that is “harmful to women.” Since then, an already bad situation existing between gay and lesbian bookstores and Canada Customs has been made worse. Customs has historically stopped shipments headed for queer bookstores — it seems Canada’s border patrol has always been on the look-out for depictions of anal sex, at least gay ones — but after the Butler Decision, Customs began to rule lots of lesbian material “harmful to women.” Little Sisters Book and Art Emporium (www.lsisters.com), a small queer bookstore in Vancouver, B.C., fought a horrendously expensive and protracted legal battle with Canada Customs for the right to import and sell books of interest to the gay, lesbian, and bisexual communities. The story of this court battle can be found in Restricted Entry: Censorship on Trial by Little Sisters manager Janine Fuller and Stuart Blackley (Press Gang, 1995). This month our San Francisco store is highlighting the censorship situation in Canada; if you’re in town, drop by our San Francisco store on September 24. An evening of readings and discussion of the Butler Decision and the Little Sisters case begins at 8 pm; a $5 donation at the door will go to benefit Little Sisters legal fees.
Because of our store’s subject matter, of course, we feature lots of books that have been banned in one place or another. Many of these are books that aim to give good sex information to kids and young adults, while others are adult literary classics — Fanny Hill, Henry Miller, The Story of O. Some are aimed at gay, lesbian, and bisexual readers (and the readers who want to learn more about them), and others explore erotic variations like S/M. We’re proud to have these books on our shelves and make them accessible, just as we’re proud to commemorate Banned Books Week. But this is definitely one celebration we wish didn’t have to exist in the first place. Whether books stay out of their intended readers’ hands because of out-and-out banning, government censorship, or the subtle censorship of the marketplace, the results adversely affect the culture as a whole.
But most of all, it affects the lives of individuals, who often have no other source of information except books. Please join us and a host of anti-censorship organizations such as Feminists for Free Expression (www.well.com/user/freedom/), Californians Against Censorship Together (Cal-ACT), the Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org) and the American Library Association (www.ala.org) and raise your voice in protest when an incident of censorship affects you.