Shortly after having moved to York and assuming operations of The York Emporium, I was back in DC having lunch with an old client. The conversation was taking a variety of paths, as such things do, when we turned to plans for the shop.
He wanted to know if there was a list of some sort that detailed which titles we weren’t allowed to stock.
I was confused by the question. A “list”? “Allowed to stock”?
This gentleman is a very intelligent man. Russian by birth, he had been a member of the Diplomatic Corps of the former Soviet Union. He was now a permanent resident of the United States and was making his way through our society. But he was still looking at books through the prism of a controlled society.
I assured him that there was no such “list”, and that I would stock all manner of titles...pretty much anything I damned well pleased.
He was absolutely incredulous. And I don’t know which of us was more astonished: he, when he learned that, yes, we would stock things like Hitler’s Mein Kampf and The Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, Mao’s little red book; or me, to think that I would not be “allowed” to have such works on my shelves.
“This is America,” I remember telling him. “We don’t tell each other what we’re allowed to read here.” That was an oversimplification of course, but I was attempting to make a point.
He shook his head in wonder.
Two incidents in recent days have brought this conversation back to mind.
The first is the publication of a new edition of Huckleberry Finn. A nice way of characterizing it would be to call it revised. A not-so-nice way would be to call it sanitized.
NewSouth Books, this month, is publishing this modified edition of the Twain classic. Heavily-charged words (“injun”, “nigger” and “half-breed”), have been eliminated and less-offensive-to-our-eyes words (“Indian”, “slave” and “half-blood”), have been substituted in their place.
Predictably, there has been a furor over this, with charges of censorship and political correctness and a defense of the sanctity of the artist’s original work.
Just as predictably, there has been a defense of the publisher’s rationale: Huckleberry Finn is one of the most heavily banned books by school boards and libraries because it includes these words. If the objectionable words are eliminated, it stands to reason that the book will be more widely read. And that, after all, is the goal.
There are valid points on both sides of the question. And I suspect that strong arguments will be put forward to support the relative positions. But what I find most significant is that we are having the debate at all.
There is no government entity that is telling us that we must, or must not, read Huckleberry Finn in either its original or modified editions. Or that the publisher must, or must not, publish the book in its original form. Or that, as a book peddler, I must, or must not, put the book (in any form) on my shelves.
And to my way of thinking, that is the most important bit.
Which brings me to the second incident that reminded me of my luncheon conversation.
Freedom seems to be breaking out in Africa and the Middle East. Political revolutions, violent and non-violent, have been taking place in Tunisia, Bahrain, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. It is a heady and rather frightening time. People are dying. Governments are falling. Societies are in upheaval. Issues are far from decided as this is being written.
But one result of the changes in Egypt, at least, is particularly significant and, I think, under-reported: books that had been banned by the former regime are back in the shops.
Thousands of titles had been banned from distribution by the Egyptian government under President Hosni Mubarak. But now that government is gone and one of the immediate results is that the books are back.
And they are selling! According to Al Arabiya, Egyptians are flocking to the bookstores in search of titles that were not previously available. Frankly, it makes no difference to me whether the books are good or not, or whether there were justifications for their banning or not. What is important is that they are now available.
The genie is out of the bottle and there is no easy way to coax him back in.
When we make our daily trek to the post office to ship books that had been ordered on-line, we are routinely asked if our packages contain anything hazardous. My standard reply is that the packages contain ideas, and those are often very dangerous. This usually elicits a smile from the clerk (who is probably thinking that I’m some sort of wise guy). But I am dead serious with that reply.
And I am proud to report that we sold two copies of Mein Kampf in the shop last week.