Banned Books Read-In art by Dr. Agon

I heart the first amendment

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You Too Can Host a
Banned Books Read-In

By Pat Hartman, adapted from
Salon: A Journal of Aesthetics #18

Dale Hartman and I did our first Banned Book Read-Ins in Venice. First, we designed and posted little flyers on bulletin boards and so forth, with a drawing of a book titled How to Corrupt Innocent Young Minds. We would walk down to the beach and station ourselves just off the boardwalk and read aloud, surrounded by cardboard signs crayoned with slogans.
The Book They Ban May Be Your Own
Commit a Subversive Act Today - Read a Book!
Take a Bite of Forbidden Fruit - Read a Book
Better Read than Dead in the Head
Readers of the World Unite - You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Minds
It Is 11:00 - Do You Know Where Your Books Are?

On the day we conducted the first Read-In, the beach weather was cloudy and cold. We spread a blanket on the ground across from the Sidewalk Cafe, as our headquarters. Two cops who were driving along the boardwalk in a van stopped and got out to investigate. We assured them that we weren't selling anything, merely reading. "It's, you know, a happening." One of the cops said he thought that went out with the Sixties. We offered them the opportunity to participate but they declined. We were almost immediately joined by a blond man with a short blond beard who stayed to the end of the event. (He ran a recording studio and had recently shot in the chest with a snubnose .38 by his father.) We got through half of Slaughterhouse-Five and about 40 pages of Working.

On another occasion, one of the people whose attention we attracted was poet Lynne Bronstein. Later another woman who stopped at our encampment told us about a British magazine called Index on Censorship which publishes the work of Iron Curtain dissidents and keeps tabs on banned books throughout the world. A man told us that everything by James Joyce is still banned in Ireland, which was news to me. A friend from work told me her mother used to lecture to groups about the banning of certain textbooks which mentioned the internment camps the Nisei were sent to during WWII.

When we exported the Read-Ins to Fort Collins, they became more elaborate. Four Septembers in a row, a varying crew of libertarians collaborated in staging the events in Old Town, right outside the Stone Lion Bookstore. This is the month in which Americans celebrate the First Amendment and pay attention to censorship, and Jacques Rieux, who owned Stone Lion, always set up a window display reflecting September's freedom of speech theme. We always did it on a Saturday, when the biggest crowds were downtown; started about noon and kept on until 5 or 6.

A certain amount of furniture is needed for a Read-In. We'd borrow a long table and a couple of chairs from a friendly merchant. Freestanding bookcases were loaned by volunteers. I made a large cardboard bulletin board to hang on the bookshop's exterior wall next to the window, and covered it with newspaper headlines and pictures relating to book-banning and censorship.

Best attention-getting prop for a read-in: Take a big piece of thin (bendable) cardboard. Apply to it some nice colorful flames, with oil crayon or paint, and cut around the edges. Get a clean trash can and fill it most of the way with an empty box or crushed newspapers, fill it the rest of the way with books, and stick your flames into the rear edge of the can.

On the practical side, I took along wire, scissors, clear tape, masking tape, a notepad, pens and some change. You never know what will come in handy at a happening like this.

The most important factor, of course, is the books. They can be from your own collection and those of your friends and collaborators, or they can be borrowed from a book shop. A used book store is more likely to loan books for this purpose, since new books are too costly if stolen and would have to be marked down if not returned in pristine condition.

How do you know what to include? An annual guide is published by the American Library Association, listing all the books banned, censored or challenged at various educational institutions or by local governing bodies throughout the nation. It includes the reasons: for instance, The Diary of Anne Frank was removed from a college reading list because it is "depressing." Send for a copy of this guide, or borrow one from a bookstore. The people who stop by to see what you're doing will enjoy looking up the shameful and ridiculous reasons why some of their favorite reading material has been excluded from school curricula and libraries.

Our Fort Collins Read-Ins were supported by Cynthia Manuel of Toad Hall Books and Jane Tester of Old Corner Books. Cynthia went through her stock to pull out books for the Read-In and found the sight of the gaping holes left in her shelves "a real learning experience." She also found someone to mind the store during at least part of each Read-In and came down to participate in person. Jane couldn't leave her business, but allowed a volunteer to pick out boxes of books to bring to the event. Mary of Paperback Heaven also helped out one year.

Publicity is, of course a major aspect. Even if people can't make it to the scene of your Read-In, you want them to know you're doing it. Send out press releases to the local media, including radio and TV stations, well in advance. Put up posters, especially in bookstores, on campus, and in coffeehouses and other hotbeds of alternativity. Posters don't have to be expensive - we got along fine with photocopied 8-1/2 x 11 sheets, announcing BANNED BOOKS READ-IN in great big letters, with the time and place, and the names and logos of the sponsors.

The press was always very receptive to our activities, printing our announcements as sent. The first year, the local daily paper also picked it up for their "Going Out" column of recommended weekend activities. The arts columnist for the local weekly took the Read-In as the subject for her column. After the fact, the university daily published quite a long article, including a photo of the Stone Lion window filled with typical banned books. The organizers of the event and some members of the public saw their comments in print.

The second year, the daily paper did a small article in advance, giving the basic information on the Read-In and including some quotes from Cynthia Manuel. The college paper provided another long article after the fact. The third year, the daily sent a reporter who spend several hours hanging around the scene interviewing participants and passers-by. They printed a long article with a photo of a young man intently reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, trying to figure out shy someone had wanted to censor it. The high school paper also covered the event.

Since Dale Hartman and I originated the Read-Ins, we wore special tee shirts which I'd customized with puffy paint from the art supply store. They said, of course,

I Love the First Amendment

With my bottom-of-the-line button making outfit, I manufactured badges with an (I hope) original logo: a red circle with a slash, and another red circle with a slash superimposed on it, to signify "Ban Banning." The button proclaimed I read banned books. I had put a little money into color photocopying the artwork for the buttons, and sold them at the Read-In for $2 each, which helped to recoup some of the expenses.

Anyone with more ambition and the right equipment could design, make, and sell tee-shirts, a project I never quite got around to. I did, however, sell Salon: A Journal of Aesthetics at the table. During those years the Freedom of Expression theme issue was published in the fall, so the event and the publication complemented each other perfectly.

Another thing we never got around to was borrowing a microphone and amp. It would certainly attract more attention to have one person reading through a sound system. But we were content with unamplified reading - the activity was purely symbolic, after all. If you've seen the movie version of Farenheit 451, you'll remember a scene at the end where many people are wandering around reciting the books they've memorized because all the hard copies have been burned. This was the effect we aimed for - a chorus of voices, all reading from different books, a cacophonous outpouring of words in defiance of the silence of repression.

In between sessions of reading aloud, I would accost members of the public who drifted past on their shopping errands or ice cream cone missions. Would you like to read a banned book? I'd ask. Just read one paragraph out loud - you'll feel better all day. To another person - Exercise your First Amendment right today - come on, just read one little paragraph. It won't hurt a bit. A surprising number of people played along, picking up a book from the table and reading a random passage. Meanwhile I'd be speaking to another John Q. Public: The First Amendment - use it or lose it!

Some people just shook their heads. Most smiled. One man said, No thanks, but I'm glad you're doing it. People would stop and tell us of their experiences with First Amendment violations, or browse through the table and shelves and ask one of the volunteers why this, that, or the other book had been banned. We would help them look it up in the Library Association guide, and share their astonishment at what some folks consider dangerous.

For me, the highlight of all the Banned Book Read-Ins was a personal growth experience that happened the first year. Toward the end of the day, when we were just about to wrap it up, a group of teenage punks happened by. Shaved hairstyles and pierced body parts were rarely seen in Fort Collins at that time; these kids looked pretty frightening and I was a little nervous. They started examining the books on the table and exclaiming I read that book, what's wrong with it? and Hey, that's my favorite book! These half dozen young people seemed to have read everything we had on display. They stayed around for some time, consulting the Library Association guide for information and indignantly condemning the ignorance of book-banners everywhere. In fact, they turned out to be the most intelligent and articulate individuals that any of the four Read-Ins attracted. I humbly and gratefully let go of at least one of my unconscious stereotypes that day.


Banned Books Read-In flyer

© 2004 - 2012 Pat Hartman
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