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Reading Dirty, An Intellectual Right

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Occasionally, I cheer myself up by going to the American Library Association’s Web page to remind myself that this national librarians’ organization has an “Office for Intellectual Freedom.” Along with my union and hundreds of citizen activist groups, librarians from around the country, including here at UC Irvine, organized an annual collective warning and intellectual love-in. We hope to remind everyone that the power of silly people to misunderstand and miss the point can easily be challenged by honest, free supporters of our shared basic American right to read. And to read whatever we like, thank you very much!

The Office for Intellectual Freedom’s site lists historic examples of “challenged books.” These books include classics like John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” This book, now required reading in most high schools, was banned in Kern County, California, the county where part of the novel was set, for what somebody alleged were “vulgar words.” Another classic, “The Lord of the Rings” by JRR Tolkien, was burned in Alamogordo, New Mexico in 2001 outside Christ Community Church along with other Tolkien novels for being “satanic.” Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” was challenged at the Vernon-Verona-Sherill, New York School District (1980) as a “sex novel.”

The list goes on, filled with books challenged by individuals and organized groups for all kinds of reasons. Harry Potter for “promoting magic” and witchcraft. The book is about a boy wizard with a wand. Go figure.

The American Library Association (ALA) describes a “challenge” as any attempt to remove or restrict materials. This is slightly different from book bans, which entail the actual removal of access to the books at a school, library or bookstore.

The political philosopher Noam Chomsky, another hero of mine and the Albus Dumbledore of Intellectual Freedom, argues the need for teaching and learning “intellectual self-defense” skills. In light of book challenges, I agree with the need to train people to protect our right to think.

Developing these skills depends on seeing a problem for what it is. So appreciating the right to read, having access to ideas and exercising protected speech is not just about ridiculing book burners. It’s about supporting an environment in which we develop the intellectual tools needed to argue a reasoned critique instead of either not paying attention or, worse, lighting a match. “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise,” Chomsky reminds us, “we don’t believe in it all.” That’s a pretty tough challenge; but remember, you would want that freedom when you’re the one somebody despises.

The ALA and my labor union (Librarians and Lecturers) once again join with the UCI community to encourage the celebration of intellectual freedom for everybody. We encourage community members, staff, students and faculty, to join us in a stand against challengers, banners and censors, private or governmental.

We invite you to join us as we take to the stage at the Student Center Terrace to read dirty books to read books which somebody didn’t like, to read challenged but beloved books like “The Catcher in the Rye,” “The Great Gatsby” and “Beloved.” Comic books, novels, science texts, librettos, religious books — bring your favorite and read a line or a paragraph.

Banned Books Week might seem like an unlikely event, but I like it better than the Fourth of July. It’s a real, genuine celebration. It is a difficult, fun and angry exercise. Exercise, friends, is good for you.

Oh, and I’d like to hear who’s against it. And then, of course, invite them to read, too.

ALA Banned Books Week “Read-Out” will take place on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2009 from 11:30 a.m. — 1 p.m. at the Student Center Terrace. The event is sponsored by the Campus Writing Coordinator, the UCI library, the UCI Law School and Law Library, the UCI bookstore and the AS President.

Andrew Tonkovich is a Lecturer in the Department of English and president of UC-AFT Local 2226.