OUT AND ABOUT : Banned Books

The story of censorship is like the endless recycling of soap-opera plots. The same books are subject to suppression. Age-old fears motivate those who would stifle "shocking" new work.

For the latest episode in this continuing saga, I'm in Santa Monica with a rotating audience of about 60 on the Third Street Promenade, near Midnight Special bookstore. We're listening to Freedom to Read's third annual, five-hour reading of censored books for national Banned Books Week, sponsored by local booksellers and writers' organizations.

Sitting under the ivy-covered dinosaur (so appropriate), we hear works by stock characters in the drama: J. D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye"; "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinback; "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," and several children's books by Judy Blume. Two dramatic renditions of Allen Ginsberg's much-censored "Howl" remind us of the unbridgable gulf between writer and nemesis. In the poet's grief over suffocating 1950s convention, officials of the Cold War era saw only willful destruction of American values.

Little has changed.

Robert Masullo's new book, "The Things Your Father Never Taught You," a lighthearted look at male grooming, was held up in production, he says by a born-again Christian art director who objected to a description of Japanese furniture arranging as "occultist."

Diana Au of La Verne, the mother of a disabled 9-year-old son, fought a successful battle in the Bonita Unified School District against the proposed censorship of Lois Lowry's Newbery Award-winning book, "The Giver," which describes a future society committed (like Nazi Germany) to euthanasia of the handicapped. One objecting mother (like Au) has a disabled child whom she didn't want "exposed to the ideas in the book," says Au, who was school board president during the fight.

"I'd rather have my children exposed to ideas in a school setting where they can talk about them."

As readers compete for free speech with an a cappella singing group and a persistent barking dog, I flip through the American Library Assn.'s 1994-1995 listing of 760 attempted (often successful) book bannings by schools, libraries and individuals. The 50 or more reasons for saying nyet are headed, as usual, by sex and violence. Close seconds are black magic and satanism (what century are we in?) and homosexuality--with protesters in Kansas and Missouri burning copies of "Annie and My Mind" by Nancy Garden, a young adult novel about two lesbian teen-agers.

Who are these people so threatened by words? Products of their heritage, says writer Carolyn See after reading from "Catcher in the Rye," a book condemned this year in the Corona-Norco school district for being "centered around negative activity." Official censorship may be more strict in other countries. Extremists even threaten writers with murder. Here we willingly quash anything that doesn't fit the sunny optimism of the American dream.

Toward evening's end, Freedom to Read organizer and part-time magician David Groves opens up what looks like a John Steinbeck novel. Whoosh--flames burst out. He douses them by closing the book. It's a melodramatically appropriate finale to the evening's anti-censorship theme. What one side fears as incendiary, the other loves for being ardent. For both sides, there is really only one acceptable choice: To read or shut the books.

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