Censored Books and Pot Luck

My friend, Henry, calls from his car to give me my assignment for this Friday’s movie night pot luck: a vegetarian entree for 10-12. Wow, I haven’t cooked anything on that scale since before the pandemic. In fact, my entertaining skills have become so rusty, I don’t dare wing this without consulting one of my well-thumbed cook books. I’m thinking a big pot of vegetarian chili with all the trimmings — who would vote against that?

We are lucky that, so far, no politician with an eye on higher office has targeted cookbooks, through some collections contain recipes that could, like a bubble bath, qualify as foreplay. Hello chocolate fondue. Crème brûlée. Soul food. Barbecue. But, though censorship is as old as Lady Chatterley’s Lover, who would have thought math books could bring out parents, red-faced, to school board meetings? Of course, where I live the politics have become increasing authoritarian and right-leaning in the last 20 years, so I shouldn’t be surprised.

About a month ago, I began protesting the banning of books in small ways that anyone can easily adopt — some acupuncture to improve the body politic, you might say. I got a list of the top 20 most banned books and put all of them on hold at my library. I’d read some of them: classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and Diary of Anne Frank — yeah, crazy that they are anyone’s idea of dangerous for kids — and the more recent Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson (highly recommended). But it was my first time with Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winner, graphic novel, Maus, (obscenity and nudity, mind you, of mice) and some much-beloved children’s books that show a family that isn’t comprised of a traditional Dad, Mom and kids, is still a family. Of course, purchase is also an option, and in some instances have made a newly-censored book a best-seller overnight. Poetic justice.

In a week, I’ll be hosting a Zoom performance in which a group of volunteers read from their choice of a banned book, along with a comment of why they chose it or why it appears to have offended some group. As one of the readers, my friend, Nickie, puts it: “to bring light to the issue and encourage people to buy and read books that government agencies, school boards and libraries have deemed too ‘dangerous’ to keep on their shelves.” The selection of books by these reader/performers covers the spectrum of issues remarkably well, despite my providing no guidance in this. Racism, militarism, religious freedom, revisionist history, LGBTQ rights, as well as so-called obscenity. I cannot wait to hear Allen Ginsberg’s Howl out loud, once again in the presence of Allen Ginsberg, all in white, warming us up with Hindu chants at my alma mater, Montclair State U. If I do my job of moderator right, the Zoom performance will feel more like an old-time neighborly pot luck than a protest (now that marching risks arrest). Possibly it will inspire other performances, another way to take back the commons for the people.