Wednesday, August 11, 2004

The Most Dangerous Thing in the World

A man in New York tells us,

This morning, they're doing bag searches again to get on the ferry. And the guy doing the searches pulls me aside and says, "Sir, I feel that I need to confiscate this book."

I pause and say, in that tone of voice that most people would recognize as meaning, "have you lost your grip completely, chuckles?": "You need to confiscate... a book."

"Yes. I feel it's inappropriate for the other people on the ferry to be exposed to it."

Now, I had the book IN MY BAG. It was not open. And while the Maiden of the Mirthless Smile is displayed as improbably proportioned, well, this is not, as far as I know, illegal to have. I mean, there was a guy carrying a copy of Maxim, and some of the women in THAT are improbably proportion. (All right, I admit: they're not wielding a huge sword and dressed in a bustier studded with human finger bones. But really.)

My response: "Well, let me call the ACLU and have them come down here, and see what they think about your attempt to confiscate a book that was not in the plain sight of others due to your feeling it's not appropriate." And I pull out my cell and start scrolling down the list - ACLU-NJ is at the top, actually, before 'Amanda' and 'ardaniel' since it sorts alphabetically.

He gets all pissy at me and says, "Don't you understand this is for your safety?"

"Confiscating someone's gun or bomb is for my safety. PErhaps confiscating someone's pocketknife or nailfile may be for my safety. What's so damn dangerous about my book?"


"That's NOT YOUR DECISION! I could be carrying a copy of Hustler in here, and it's STILL not your decision! You're looking for bombs and knifes and guns and things that hurt people, and a book that is IN MY BAG is not going to leap out of its own damn accord and HIT SOMEONE!"

The book in question. Does it look dangerous to you? I am not familiar with the book, but it's clearly some kind of sword and sorcery. Are we going to start confiscating all books that include violence? There goes the Bible, the entire bestseller list, and Dr. Seuss's Hop on Pop. (Which is a bad example to kids -- they are disrespectfully hopping on Pop, and they don't even get sent to Guantanamo Bay.)

Now, I don't care if it's The Anarchist Cookbook. This is the United States of America. Books are legal here. SF/F is even legal here.

Books are sacred. They don't have to be well-written books or books that I agree with. Just -- books. They contain ideas and feelings and stories. They are the only kind of time machine that really works, whereby a woman who has been dead and dust for two hundred years can still tell me snarky little jokes, or a man who lived three thousand years ago can lift his voice in song.

Are all books sacred? Yes. I don't care if it's Mein Kampf, Paul Samuelson's textbook on economics, the complete works of Shakespeare, or the kind of smut that romantically links a buxom milkmaid and a series of farm animals. The content may squick me -- several items on that list are things I find personally revolting. But the banning of books is far more dangerous than even books filled with lies or filth.

If I were in New York, I'd organize a protest. Let a hundred people, or a thousand, get on the ferry with dangerous books. Books that advocate revolution (Tom Paine, Angela Davis, Franz Fanon). Books that talk about the current government in unflattering terms (anybody read House of Bush, House of Saud?) Books that have been banned (Huckleberry Finn, Ulysses, Heather Has Two Mommies). Books that show little girls becoming strong women (Little Women, Jane Eyre). Books that tell scary and heartbreaking truths. Books that have changed people's lives.

I was in New York State for September 11. I wasn't sure when and if I could get home to California. The last thing I did before flying out of Ithaca, three days after the towers fell, was stop at a used book store to buy another copy of The Little Drummer Girl. This John LeCarre novel -- possibly the best book ever written on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict -- is about terrorist bombings, and it presents the terrorist (as well as the terrorized) as a sympathetic human being. I knew I might get stopped. I was willing to take that risk, because LeCarre's long, passionate, complex novel expressed something I needed to re-experience on that frightening day.

Remember our freedom. Even if you're not in New York, or somewhere that you get searched, read a dangerous book. Read something challenging. Something you don't agree with, something that shows you a different side of the world, something that takes risks. In far too many countries, writers are locked up or executed for telling their truths. Don't let the United States become one of those countries.