My favorite hinge is the spine of a book. One could wax lyrical about opening a book to a new world and I have, probably will again. But to talk about book burning and banning today is to complain about the horse manure in the streets. Now the stink is in the air itself and it is not fertile. Civilizations will not be destroyed by books because they were only the carriers of the ideas that now stream through handheld devices.
Once it was true that Bible, Koran, Upanishads, and other great synthesizing codexes and scrolls were the carriers of revolution and shock, but also salvation and devotion. Now? A throbbing song with a hard beat. Once it was hopeless to discover slang for sexual parts by looking in a dictionary. Now you can google a photo of it in action. Hiding that information only created a sucking need for it — or so folks thought. Knowing the name of any physical act, even seeing it enacted, is only the beginning.
The control of ideas is what paved the way for Trump. Suppress people’s rancour and resentment enough and you build the legitimacy of lies and slander. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. Authoritarians never know the tropes of oppression. They’re insisting that boys take their hats off in school but not insisting that their fathers not beat them. These days if you challenge a father’s right to beat his boy, the father will come up to the school and beat YOU. Books or no books.
The invention of writing meant the possibility of control and preservation of thought and speech. Law books. The invention of cyber-screens meant the IMpossibility of control. The mistaking of books for the thought they contain adds to their commodification, their value as markers of sophistication, rebellion or illiteracy. One cannot ask a friend “have you read such and such” without them hearing, “if you haven’t read this book, you’re a dummy.” Even if you just want to know if they have that information so you can talk about it together.
But you want to be careful what you leave out on your coffee table if people are coming over, be careful what you read on public transportation unless you put a brown paper wrapper on it. Some people will assume that what you read is what you do. That’s if you’re still using books instead of screens. Screens still seem more imaginary.
I watch what people do when they come to my house and have access to my wraparound bookshelves. Some books have their spines turned to the wall. A certain kind of person will go right to them and take them out to see what they are. One guest actually got down on the floor and crawled behind the furniture to see what I might be hiding. If there is “sex” in the title, some people will grab it out and others will try not to look at it.
Ken Wilber’s “Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: the Spirit of Evolution” was near my “guest chair” but I finally moved it because people’s eyes kept going to it. But it would take a certain amount of education to read. No need to ban it, because it has a built-in fence. I mean, do you realize how difficult it is to read James Joyce or Henry Miller? Especially if you don’t understand irony and reversal, can’t tell what’s a joke or an aside, only read for plot.
But the idea that educated people can handle risky subjects and therefore if something normally taboo is written out in Latin only “safe”can people read it, has turned out to be an evil idea related to the class-based education systems of Europe, because now people associate forbidden things with being elite, which means to them entitled to — for instance — abuse little boys.
Also it plays into the religious idea that only the institution’s designated high priests can read things, know things, own books full of juju and woowoo. It helped to create the nasty chasm between academic anthropologists and the people who were living in a different system that had different taboos. Eventually the human lab rats discovered they could get the Latin translated and were indignant at what was said — as indignant as any shopkeeper’s wife would have been if it had been originally written in “English.” I’m not just talking about Ecuadorean tribes, I’m also talking about sub-cultures and niches of people right down the street.
Books are banned when authorities are afraid of them, when they symbolize that “mud people” can be empowered, when the authorities find they can’t understand them. Banning is about controlling — whether the authority is a Roman Catholic Cardinal or somebody’s inexperienced but righteous mommy who gets hold of a shocking paragraph or a neighbor’s inaccurate account of it.
Books are not banned because of what’s in the book — they’re banned because of what’s in the people and their goofy ideas, often religious nonsense, superstition, or fear of the “other.” The book is just a physical symbol from the material culture. The idea itself is only carried by the book and might not even be in words. The objection to the book might have nothing to do with the actual book, but really be about the author and fantasies about the author.
We’re at a fascinating and ridiculous point in the history of the world. The sexual revolution, powered by the pill, has left housewives reading trivial nonsense. The realization of the vulnerability of children has revealed abuse that some people crave to know about, but don’t know what to do about. A huge percentage of the world’s population is insisting on their women going around in draperies while another “civilized” country is arresting women on their beaches for wearing too much clothing.
A rich man is only presumed to be rich if he shows certain characteristics. If he can manage to talk like a redneck in a wife-beater undershirt sitting on his front stoop with a beer can in his hand, he is suddenly drafted to be the hero of the masses who can’t remember the rules for political correctness. No better, a rich and powerful woman who has been at the table with the top of the top, must produce a cookie recipe to be respected. And just who does she think she is with her entourage, anyway?
Not only do we not know what to ban anymore, we couldn’t do it if we tried. The walls we try to put up to protect us are useless. Now we must go back to building character, the internal compass. Anyway, walls and prohibitions just don’t work. Not even tunnels. Human beings cannot be contained and banning books doesn’t contain them. Not that there aren’t limits and not that we don’t suffer the consequences of knowing entirely too much, constantly wanting what we just found out exists, never having the discipline to choose.
And there I am, finger-waving, ever the school teacher and preacher. I have a heckuva lot of books. I had thought I would write them and be published and all that doodah. But instead it’s blogging, a steady stream of ideas that shock a few, are appreciated by others, and never become monetized. I can’t even sell my books since the really good bookstore got run out of Choteau. Not because they are banned, but because the physical objects that are books cost money to store, to ship, to sell.
When you get right down to the core of the issue, banning books makes them a more valuable commodity in monetary terms. But learning to read and think is where the real value is, which can just as easily be onscreen and just as conveniently be handheld.