‘Burn This Book’ edited by Toni Morrison

Burn This Book

PEN Writers Speak Out

on the Power of the Word

Edited by Toni Morrison

HarperStudio: 120 pp., $16.99

If Nobel laureate Toni Morrison edits a collection of famous writers on the subject of censorship and the power of the written word, wouldn’t you expect a firecracker read? After all, what better lightning-rod topic exists for writers than the threat of shutting off their computers?

What you get in “Burn This Book” is something quite different; a much quieter, more thoughtful and intriguing exploration of the writer’s age-old nemesis, developed in conjunction with the PEN American Center and a speech on censorship that Morrison gave at a PEN International Festival dinner last year.

It’s a slim volume, one that can be read in an afternoon, but don’t let this fool you into thinking it lacks power. Morrison’s -- and the book’s -- central thesis is true, if not necessarily original: “A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.”

In 11 essays, we’re given an inside view of the writer/artist as saboteur. PEN writers including John Updike, Pico Iyer, Russell Banks, Orhan Pamuk and Salman Rushdie ponder beautifully what it is to think and write, and thus help shape the world amid constant threats to free expression, or in Morrison’s words, how “the history of persecuted writers is as long as the history of literature itself.”

And word lovers, take note: It’s the book’s writing quality, itself, that speaks the loudest. Given our Internet world of lazy thinkers, it’s almost a shock -- certainly, an awesome delight -- to read writers of such caliber take on threats to reading’s very existence. (A central part of the book’s appeal, to be sure, is that it helps us realize just how dumbed-down our reading expectations have become.)

So Pamuk, also a Nobel Prize winner and Turkish free-speech advocate, chronicles in “Freedom to Write” how shepherding Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter inside Turkey’s post-coup 1980s crackdown years helped to infuse his writing with a sense of political angst. Novelist Ed Park, a Web columnist for The Times’ book section, rages at book censorship in an odd, futuristic Q & A about Robert Cormier’s “I Am the Cheese” (1977), banned in the late 1980s by the school superintendent in Bay County, Fla.

You can also read South African writer and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer’s “Witness: The Inward Testimony” about her sometimes racist upbringing during the worst of the apartheid era. An artist, she explains, inevitably loses his or her own freedom when writing the truth about such matters. Francine Prose descends into the personal-as-political world of late-20th century feminist prose in “Out From Under the Cloud of Unknowing,” while Rushdie gracefully brings writers and the nation-state into conflict in “Notes on Writing and the Nation.” Banks brilliantly considers the protest novel and social change in “Notes on Literature and Engagement.”

The book’s gem, however, is Iyer’s “The Man, the Men at the Station,” about a Burmese trishaw driver named Maung-Maung and about all the Maung-Maungs that Iyer has met on his travels inside walled-off countries. Iyer tells us more about the corrosive evils of censorship in these few short pages than many authors have done in full-length books.

And it’s Israeli novelist and peace advocate David Grossman who speaks for the whole crowd when he states in “Writing in the Dark”: “There are times in my workday . . . when I look up and think: Now, at this very moment, sits another author, whom I do not know, in Damascus or Tehran, in Kigali or Dublin . . . In Israel and in Palestine, in Chechnya and in the Sudan, in New York and in the Congo . . . who, like me, is engaged in the strange, baseless, wonderful work of creation, within a reality that contains so much violence and alienation, indifference and diminishment. I have a distant ally who does not know me.”

Kinosian is a freelance critic.