Some won't jump on book-ban wagon

October 02, 1992|By Seattle Times

Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" and John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" always rank near the top of any list of the most important works in American literature.

They also are near the top of another, more troubling list: Twain's masterpiece and Nobel laureate Steinbeck's popular classic are among the most censored works in American literature.

" 'Of Mice and Men' was the most censored book this past year," says Judith F. Krug, longtime director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom. The novel was challenged for reasons ranging from its allegedly blasphemous language to "sexual overtones."

Last year, Ms. Krug said, her office received more than 500 reports of attempted censorship in public schools and libraries -- believed to be only 15 to 20 percent of all cases.

To focus attention on censorship, the library association and a number of publishing and bookselling organizations are this week observing the 11th annual Banned Books Week. Bookstores and libraries across the nation have displays celebrating First Amendment rights.

According to Chuck Robinson, president of the American Booksellers Association, those who would ban or censor books are adopting new tactics. Two issues have surfaced in recent years, he said.

"One is the notion of third-party liability for victims' compensation -- that books can cause things to happen to people, and that sellers or distributors of those books can be held responsible," said Mr. Robinson.

The other, is the promotion of so-called child-protection ordinances that attempt to define things not appropriate for children.

"The problem forever with censorship is that some people don't like certain ideas, and then they want to suppress books about them," said Mr. Robinson. "The notion that one can solve social problems by suppressing ideas about those problems is a scary thing. And it comes from all sides."

Amen, says Nat Hentoff, the writer, biographer and jazz critic who for years has championed an unfettered approach to the First Amendment.

"Back in the '60s or before, when I first became interested in censorship, I had the traditional view from the left that all censors were right-wingers or fundamentalists," Mr. Hentoff said by phone from his office at the Village Voice, where he is a columnist. "But the older I got, I found that this attitude crossed all those lines."

Mr. Hentoff is author of a new book, "Free Speech for Me -- But Not for Thee" (HarperCollins, $25), which examines both historical and ongoing attempts to suppress free speech and controversial books -- including "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

"It greatly troubles me that 'Huck Finn' keeps being on top or near the top of the list of books to be thrown off the shelves," said Mr. Hentoff, noting that in the 19th century it was often targeted because of Twain's use of vernacular speech; today it draws complaints from African Americans for its liberal use of the word "nigger."

"This is where teachers are falling down on the job," said Mr. Hentoff. "Nobody bothers to explain to parents or to students just who Mark Twain was, or that 'Huck Finn' is one of the most powerful statements against bigotry that there is."

During this Banned Books Week, the greatest fear among writers, librarians, booksellers, publishers and book distributors is a piece of legislation narrowly voted out of Senate Judiciary Committee: the Pornography Victims' Compensation Act. It would authorize civil suits against producers or distributors of material -- books, films, videos -- that allegedly inspired sexual assaults.

It reached the Senate floor in June but hasn't been voted on yet and could die with the end of the congressional session.

"But it'll be back. It actually was four or five years in the making, and its supporters aren't going to let it go away," predicts Kristine Kaufman, president of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association.

"The idea that a third party could foresee how a work is going to influence anyone is truly troubling," she said.

"Many of us wind up defending things that are deeply offensive to us personally," said Mr. Robinson, "but if the idea [of free expression] is to have any meaning, that's the way it has to be.

"The minute you start talking about compromises on free speech, then it very quickly becomes a matter of where you draw the line and who draws it. That is very frightening concept."

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