Erica Eisdorfer: Reader, Writer, Bookseller, Defender of Your Freedom to Read

American Library Association - Banned Books Week poster 2010As we kick off Banned Books Week, we welcome a guest post today from someone committed to the freedom to read. Erica Eisdorfer is more than just a booklover, she’s a novelist and a bookseller, too, and she’s had first-hand experience on the censorship front.–ellen

Banned Books Week 2010 is the 29th annual celebration of our freedom to read. The Bull’s Head Bookshop, here on the UNC’s Chapel Hill campus, is eager to cut the cake. We love Banned Books Week, partly because it’s fun to see students’ eyes widen when they read that, for example, Anne Frank’s diary was removed from Alabama school shelves because “it’s a real downer.” Or that Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States was banned from an AP high school class in Virginia because “it’s un-American, leftist propaganda.” Or that Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the classic look at Native American history from the Indian point of view, was challenged in Wisconsin because “if there’s a possibility that a book might be controversial, why not eliminate it?” Further, when the students realize that many books have been challenged across the country this very year alone—the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary was—Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel & Dimed was—they’re rudely awakened to the strange politics of censorship in America.

This year, the Bull’s Head is working with UNC’s School of Journalism to celebrate First Amendment Day—September 30, 2010. Some of the planned activities include a capella groups exercising their First Amendment rights to sing controversial music; a discussion of the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy; a preview of the upcoming PBS series called “God in America” and more.

The Bull’s Head is hosting a reading of banned books. The Chancellor will read from one of the Big Kahuna banned books, JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (“a filthy, filthy book” according to the Summerville, SC, school board). The Student Body President will read from Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein (which “encourages rebellion against parents” according to the Milwaukee, WI, school libraries). A student will read from the Qur’an in Arabic. Other students, faculty, and staff will read from a delicious assortment of salubrious material such as Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Of Mice & Men. It’ll last an hour, though there’s enough material for days.

There are many reasons to remove a good book from a shelf. Perhaps a well-meaning parent can’t bear the thought of their child reading something demeaning to their race (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) or their religion (The Merchant of Venice). Perhaps a school board thinks that sex is an inappropriate topic for kids (The Grapes of Wrath). Perhaps the pastor of a fringe church thinks ignorance is the right way to approach the Other (the Qur’an).

I worry sometimes that our annual reading/display distracts people from the realness of the danger. Many of the books we display were challenged long ago (1990 is ancient history to someone born in 1993) or in other states. I can see the students’ minds working: where I live, they’re saying to themselves, is way too enlightened for such actions. That could never happen HERE.

That’s why, this year, I’m including a display of items sold by the Bull’s Head that have been challenged within my (admittedly long) tenure. It’ll include a postcard of the classic John & Yoko album cover (she’s clothed, his naked body—back to the camera—is curled around her). It’ll include books with Hillary Clinton’s photo on the cover that I found turned, back cover out, every day for weeks before the election. It’ll include a bumper sticker that says, “Sorry Girls, I’m Gay” and another one that says, “Sure Mom, Gay Can Mean Happy.” It’ll include our Gay Studies section. It’ll include Playboy Magazine. It’ll include the studio art book on how to draw the human body, with diagrams, which a customer brought to me and put in my hands telling me that they didn’t think it appropriate to stock it in a store with a children’s section. It’ll include the book The Speech, which is about Barack Obama’s race speech, which someone defaced by x’ing out the cover image of the president with a ballpoint pen.

First Amendment rights are imperative for a free society. Our customers can choose to boycott us if they don’t like what we sell. But they can’t come in and ask us to remove our stock because they find it offensive. It’d be nice if we all loved one another. Barring that, we can at least tolerate one another.  When even toleration isn’t possible, it’s time to stand against what you don’t like. But, as long as it’s legal, you can’t make it impossible for others to get to it if they want it. And that’s what Banned Books Week is all about.

Erica Eisdorfer is manager of the Bull’s Head Bookshop on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. She is author of the novel The Wet Nurse’s Tale and editor of Carolina: Photographs from the First State University.