A recent close encounter of the book-burning kind prompts me to consider the topic. The incident at Casa de Harper was not about censorship, politics nor, heaven help me, “values”. It was more a lesson in prudence for the foolish, that would be me, and, probably an indication that I need to spend more time reading.
One of the most-used areas in Casa de Harper is a room near the front door we call “the office”. The furnishings include a couple of comfy chairs, an ottoman, an antique table, and a desk with shelves. The desk is home to our desk-top PC which I love, being a Windows guy at heart of only a reluctant thrall in the cult of the Apple.
Harper’s Other Dad and I share a bad habit of acquiring books, one way or another, faster than we read books. He keeps his backlog on a shelf in our closet. I keep mine on a shelf in the office. A couple of days ago I smelled something unusual. Investigating, I found that my stack of books had climbed too close to a light fixture built into the book shelves and the heat from the bulbs was burning the book covers. A scary situation, to be sure, but one that was easy to correct.
I think everyone can agree that burning the house down by accidentally setting books on fire is a bad thing. I’d like to think everyone could agree that book burning in all its forms is bad thing but I am not so naive. We live in a world that includes totalitarians, Talibans, Tea-vangelicals and others who think their notions of propriety and intellectual or philosophical purity are more important than my freedom of thought.
Many years ago I heard a discussion about the differences between the British and American perspectives of nudity in entertainment. I have no idea to what extent this may still be accurate but the theory at the time was that the British were more restrictive about content in films than was the case in America while America was much more restrictive than the Brits about what could be seen on television. The explanation offered was that the British view was that people had paid to see a movie and so were harmed economically if they found the material offensive while, if watching television, they could always change the channel or turn the set off. The American view of movies, then-nascent ratings system notwithstanding, was more ‘caveat emptor’ while television, because it came into people’s homes, at that time over the public airwaves, should be free of any potentially offensive content. The notion that anyone, in a free society, has the right not to be offended is a pet peeve of mine but that is a topic for another day.
I think books can be viewed from these same perspectives. People should exercise prudent caution when buying a book lest they get something they don’t want. Why do people who check the dietary fibre content before buying breakfast cereal choose books based on the title and the cover art? If people come across a book in a B&B, in their home, in a library, or in some other venue where they have opportunity to read a book without first having paid for it, and find it offensive there are options. They could close the cover, put it back where they found it and move on to something else. Better still, they could read the book and, if they felt the same way at the end, tell everyone they know how awful and offensive they found it. Setting it on fire so others cannot make the choice for themselves does not rise too high on my list of options. Actually, it doesn’t make the list at all.
We have a poster in our guest room called Hot Books that lists 19 famous books that have been burned, intentionally, by authorities who disapproved of their content. If I hunted through the Library de Harper I believe I could find copies of 13 of the 19 titles. I confess, however, I have only read eight of them.
Like most people, I am not a universal consumer in the marketplace of ideas. Book selling, and I am including the digital varieties, is an area where I think there may be a home for laissez-faire capitalism. I vote and my ballot is my credit card. There are displays in every bookstore that I sprint passed faster than I run through the mayonnaise aisle in the grocery store. I don’t buy Dr Seuss books. I outgrew them. I read Mein Kamp in college but never joined the Fascist Book-of-the-Month club. I used to read Tom Clancy novels but I stopped buying them when I read an interview where he suggested gays should not be allowed in the military because AIDS represented a greater threat to our troops than the weapons of the enemy. I don’t buy books by or about celebrities who have not yet lived through their initial 15 minutes of fame. I’ve heard Justin Bieber’s autobiography is a page-turner but I’ll pass. I don’t buy spiritual self-help books. I’d rather have my teeth drilled than read whatever ghosted monstrosity may be lurking beneath Ann Coulter’s, Bill O’Reilly’s or Rush Limbaugh’s smiling faces. On any given day there is a nearly infinite variety of books I am not interested in buying but it never enters my mind to strike a match to them. If the NY Times Best Seller List is any indication, there is a world of people out there who apply different standards when they buy books. ‘Good on ’em!’. At least they are reading!