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Core Samples

For me, it didn’t take the recent report in Time magazine to reveal Sarah Palin’s true nature. That, while mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, she had "asked the library how she could go about banning books" came as no surprise. Folks from her side of the political spectrum have always felt much more comfortable with the Second Amendment than they have with the First.

Not that I don’t owe these past and present paragons of virtue a huge debt for showing me the righteous path. If not for their guidance, and the lists of subversive materials they provided, it may well have taken me much longer to become radicalized, to realize the true freedoms afforded by our constitution.

No doubt, the likes of Mark Twain’s "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and John Steinbeck’s "Of Mice and Men" would not have seemed so inviting had they not first appeared on such lists. Others, such as Harper Lee’s "To Kill a Mockingbird" and J.D. Salinger’s "The Catcher in the Rye," I would come to as a matter of course, without knowing they had been previously banned.

The repression of text on political, social, or sexual grounds is nothing like it once was in a more puritanical America, of course. Some of this is due to changing mores within the culture as a whole. But when that evolution has proved to slow, the courts have often found themselves involved.

My favorite such decision came down in 1957 when San Francisco Superior Court Judge Clayton Horn ruled that, as it had "redeeming social value," Allen Ginsberg’s poem "Howl" could not be deemed obscene. This particular thread of attempted censorship would take me to Jack Kerouac and the "beats," and, by default, to Walt Whitman.

Ol’ Walt’s "Leaves of Grass," with its non-traditional form, unconventional subject matter and highly personal tone, offended nearly every reader when the first edition came out in 1855. Ralph Waldo Emerson, however, viewed the quite singular work as an instant classic.

"I greet you at the beginning of a great career," Emerson wrote Whitman. "City Lights" publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti would send the very same message to Ginsberg after hearing him read "Howl" for the first time at San Francisco’s "Six Gallery" in 1955, 100 years after Emerson first read Whitman.

What probably got me on Whitman’s bandwagon, before I had actually become familiar with his verse, was more than likely when I read that censors from a century later had cited "Leaves of Grass" as being "too sensual" and "immoral." I immediately accepted the invite and haven’t looked back since.

Similar cautions concerning Henry Miller’s "Tropic of Cancer," Vladimir Nabokov’s "Lolita," and James Joyce’s "Ulysses," among others, have in their own way provided a reading list of sorts. Let me tell you, it makes for a rather "hip" bookshelf.

I had devoured Toni Morrison’s "Beloved," a gift from a friend, well before I became aware that it too had been honored on a banned-book list. That also proved the case for Joseph Heller’s "Catch-22," Aldous Huxley’s "Brave New World," and "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Sometimes you’ll have that. It’s not like the censors are "quick," in any respect.

I try to keep a list of banned books that I have yet to read but, as of now, only Maya Angelou’s "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" makes an appearance. It’s criminal, of course, not to have read such an iconic work of American literature, but it’s also not a good sign that only one book is present. Obviously, with hundreds of titles out there looking for a bit of validation, an immediate update is in order.

What brought all this on is the fact that we are once again in the middle of "Banned Book Week," the American Library Association’s celebration of the freedom to read. If you’ve happened to have darkened the door of a library or bookshop within the past month or so, this, no doubt, is not news to you.

Banned-book displays are everywhere. There almost seems to be a competition. Wasatch County Library has an exhibit and I even ran into a rather impressive mid-aisle manifestation down in Provo with a slew of familiar titles making the case for freedom from censorship.

Which brings us to the "Fighting the Fires of Hate: America and the Nazi Book Burnings," a traveling exhibit from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on display at the Park City Library through November 7.

In conjunction with the exhibit, attorney Dani Eyer will deliver a talk entitled "Freedom for the Thought that We Hate: the Continuing Struggle Against Censorship" at 7 p.m. on Thursday, October 16. "Smother the fire, read a banned book," it seems to say.

So if you’re the type who takes a book along as a security blanket whenever you leave the house, remember, this week anyway, to make sure it has put in at least a quantum of time on a banned-book list of some sort. If all else fails, complain to Sarah about it. Tell her you find it "objectionable."

Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.


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