Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
A few years ago the bookstore where I worked received a request from a local children’s charity run by a well-known Christian organization for books to donate to its library. This was an entirely common occurrence—so common that I thought nothing of it when I scheduled an appointment for a representative of the organization to come in and pick out some books from our children’s section. The person on the phone asked if I would be on hand to help, since I was sure to know much more about the books available these days than she would.
“Of course,” I replied. “I’d love to help you pick out some good books for kids.”
Someone arrived in due course, and after a brief discussion of the type of books they were looking for and the ages of the children the charity served, I took the woman back to our middle reader section and started pulling out—well, all the staff favorites, actually. They were the books that we all wanted everyone to read, so naturally I was delighted with the idea that they would forever grace the shelves of some tiny library in a center for troubled children. Or at least that they would last a few days before being stolen by some curious child who couldn’t keep her hands off the books—which would be just as good.
We got on well for awhile, until I reached, inevitably, for Harry Potter. “Oh no,” she said, “we can’t accept that.” I paused, ready to tell her that the only bad language in the book consisted of made-up words. She went on “We don’t want the children exposed to anything that promotes witchcraft or Satanism.”
What followed only lasted a moment, but it was one of those eternal moments where everything seems to narrow down to a single breath—a feeling like fury washed through me so fast I almost dropped the book.
After another pause, I turned to set Harry back on the shelf, and without looking at her I asked, “Have you read it?”
“No.” she answered, with all the certainty of someone who felt she already knew everything she needed to know.
I’m not naïve. I live in one of the most conservative counties in one of the country’s most conservative states. My house is a notch away from the buckle on the Bible belt. Books are frequently challenged here—usually by shortsighted parents—on the grounds that they have too much sex or bad language or are somehow anti-Christian. But because I am a bookseller, I’m also pragmatic (people in retail always are). I have spent half my bookselling career talking to and recommending books to people whose philosophies were often diametrically opposed to my own, and almost daily I walk a line between providing my customers with books they wanted to read, as well as the books I wanted them to read.
So I understand that it is as legitimate for a church to pass over a book it considers inappropriate as it was for me to refuse to stock pornography in our store. My excuse, about the porn, is that it was a business decision—the store was designed to attract a certain type of customer and Hustler magazine did not fit into that plan. But it would be disingenuous for me to pretend that business plan wasn’t founded on a personal choice. I don’t like the stuff—the objectification of women offends my feminist sensibilities and the trite, haphazard writing offends my sense of literary style. (And just in case you are tempted to ask me the same question I asked that woman—yes, I have read enough smut to know what I’m talking about.) Still, if all I was really interested in was selling huge numbers of books, I’d stock the porn.
But here is the thing: If someone wanted the entire set of The Red Shoe Diaries, I’d order it and sell it to them. And not because I wanted the sale, but because I believe in the First Amendment the way the woman who rejected Harry Potter believes in the New Testament.
People often think of the First Amendment as the law that allows any of us to say what we want: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” So it does. We live in a country where anyone can step out on their front porch and yell “I hate the government!” without fear of arrest. That is why it is more patriotic to support someone’s right to burn the flag than it is to support any laws to suppress them. But what about the underlying assumption implied by the idea of “freedom of speech?” What is truly amazing about the First Amendment is that it assumes—has faith, really—that we are rational and responsible enough to live in a world where anyone can say what they think. It becomes the responsibility of the individual, not the government, to evaluate, to weigh the evidence, and to come to their own conclusions about what they read and what they hear.
If we live in a country where no book is too unsafe to be published, then it must follow that no book is too unsafe to be read.
So I guess it was my sense of citizenship that was outraged by the woman who refused Harry Potter for her library. Not because she didn’t want the children “exposed” to Harry (ok, maybe a little because of this) but because she had taken the trouble to come to her own decision about its supposed heathen and Satanic elements. The idea that this person—who could not be bothered to read a book and decide its worth for herself—would be actively involved in restricting access of books to others, to children, was so offensive to me that I could barely speak for a moment (how ironic!). Not to mention she was wrong, wrong, wrong about Harry.
When she left, the woman had a stack of books for her library that she considered “safe”—although, they were perhaps not quite as safe as she might have thought. They all tended to feature young boys and girls with irrepressible streaks of curiosity and the unfortunate tendency to think for themselves.
And later that year, when it came time to review the list of charities to which the store contributed, I took this one off the list. “You know,” someone on staff said, “they’ll just get their books somewhere else, it might as well be from us.”
It was a line in the sand I found I could not cross. “They are actively opposed to books that we actively promote,” I answered, “and they don’t even know why.” It was downright anti-American.
Books mentioned in this column:
Nicki Leone showed her proclivities early when as a young child she asked her parents if she could exchange the jewelry a well-meaning relative had given her for Christmas for a dictionary instead. She supported her college career with a part-time job in a bookstore, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that her college career and attending scholarships and financial aid loans supported her predilection for working as a bookseller. She has been in the book business for over twenty years. Currently she works for the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, developing marketing and outreach programs for independent bookstores. Nicki has been a book reviewer for several magazines, her local public radio station and local television stations. She was one of the founders of The Cape Fear Crime Festival, currently serves as President of the Board of Trustees of the North Carolina Writers Network, and as Managing Editor of BiblioBuffet. Plus, she blogs at Will Read for Food. She manages all this by with the loving support of varying numbers of dogs and cats. Contact Nicki.