Don’t worry, it won’t be only me. I’ll be joined by some other great readers: Review-Journal Publisher Bob Brown, Desert Companion Editor Andrew Kiraly, former state Sen. Joe Neal, Jeanne Goodrich, executive director of the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District, author Maile Chapman, Equality Nevada Director Jane Heenan, Laura Henkel, owner of the Sin City Gallery and author Kris Saknussemm. The event is sponsored by the library district, the Vegas Valley Book Festival, UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute and the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada.
The selections range from the classics (Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury) to the poignant (Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret), but they all have one thing in common: They were all banned at one point.
That word deserves some explanation, since there are degrees of banned. In some communist countries, the Bible was banned, such that anyone in possession of one was considered a criminal. In modern Germany, it’s illegal to publish a book questioning the Holocaust. Here in Las Vegas, anti-tax advocate Irwin Schiff is prohibited by court order from selling copies of his book The Federal Mafia, which contends that no law requires the payment of income tax.
Some of the books in question — think The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example — were not banned outright, such that government prohibited their publication or possession. But they were removed from school curriculums or libraries, ostensibly to prevent exposure of students to outdated and racially offensive terms. (Also probably because rafting down the Mississippi is preferable to confinement in a classroom.)
No matter which way a book is banned, however, there’s an insidious thread that runs through the banning, and it’s not only the desire of a government or gang to keep certain collections of words away from people or off a stage or screen. When somebody tries to ban a book, it’s about more than control of the press. It’s about controlling what people think, what they can and cannot believe, and the actions that they may or may not take as a result.
A more concise definition of evil would be difficult to write.
And it always fails. I recall checking a copy of The Catcher in the Rye out of the Central Library in Huntington Beach, Calif., when I was in high school, specifically because I heard it was a “dirty book.” I was disappointed at the level of filth, and later thought I’d been conned into consuming a classic. How have English teachers not tried to get Moby Dick banned so as to use prurient interest for educational purposes?
When we read banned books, it’s about more than a five-minute journey into the mind of a writer whose times were unprepared for his words. It’s about defiance of those who would — ostensibly for our own benefit — think in our stead. It’s about demanding the right to knowledge so we can think for ourselves, reason for ourselves and ultimately, decide for ourselves. It’s about redeeming one of the most fundamental rights the founders won in the Revolutionary War, that the government should not be permitted to regulate the press. That’s not just newspapers, or, today, the Internet. It’s books, pamphlets, hand-drawn signs held aloft by protesters at political events.
My friend Alan Stock closes his daily radio show with this tagline: “Keep on thinking free.” In order to do that, we have to stand for the proposition that all ideas — no matter how despised or hated by a government or interest group — must be available.
I’ll be reading a banned book tonight. Won’t you join me? The event will run from 7-9 p.m. tonight at the Clark County Library, 1401 E. Flamingo Road.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/SteveSebelius or reach him at 387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.