Allegan County News & Union Enterprise Courier-Leader & Paw Paw Flashes Saugatuck/Douglas Commercial Record

Life as Performance Art

There is nothing new about burning books. The ancient Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, probably Sumerians and Hittites did it.
Hitler and his minions tried it in the 1930s as an after-party for the Nuremberg Ral-lies. The Church did a fair number of bonfire nights trying to get rid of the books with which it disagreed.
The problem for burners is these soirees never really succeed. Someone snitches about the planned event and others get busy hiding at least one or more copies. Soon the books will turn up again.
Others try banning books. A century ago, at the time of the Scopes Monkey Trial, the U.S. reverted to the age of Puritans and tried doing so. It was against the law to mail books censors deemed too naughty or ship them by rail.
Inspectors were everywhere, looking for “bad” books. Authors could ensure their works made the bestsellers list by pugging a “Banned in Boston” label on their front covers.
Book banning now is a cot-tage industry. Different states set their own rules on how to do it. In at least one, all it takes is for one adult to complain about a book in a public or school library, and out it goes.
When burning books there’s a finite number available to keep flames going. It might be hard to round them all up, but at least theoretically it is possible. With banning, guess what? They are on the internet.
Before burners and ban-ners waved the white flag, they tried a new tactic: rewriting and editing. “Let’s just clean this up a bit and get rid of “outdated” ideas. Someone may feel insulted by them.
One of their first targets was Ron Dahl, author of books like “Matilda” and and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” They changed his description of the mean teacher in “Matilda” and cleaned up things so the Oompa-Loompas would not feel insulted.
Now they’re making “teen-sy-weensy” changes to P.G. Wodehouse’s 1920s and ‘30s novels about witless Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves.
They did not like him describing Bertie’s aunt as liking to graze long and hard at the table, suggesting she might be heavy. Nor did they like the other aunt, loaded with money and a shrill voice, who tried to manipu-late people.
Given when Wodehouse wrote these, the language of course was dated as were some of his ideas about social status. In fact, they were out of touch with his world in the 1920s. It is all fun and farce, meant to be enjoyed, a diversion from reality.
It was less fun reading Irwin S. Cobb, the self-proclaimed Duke of Paducah. He was a journalist, war correspondent, short story writer, novelist and Hollywood actor.
“Was” is the operative word because Cobb’s stories were nasty, brutal, mocking and racist. His joke books are even worse. If he is forgotten, good riddance. He wasn’t merely cancelled, he disappeared.
Mark Twain – that perennial favorite for burners, banners and “correction writers” – wrote about slavery without denouncing it, bad parents without moralizing and, above all, used the “n” word when describing Jim.
Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were products of the age and location, the mid-1800s along middle and southern parts of the Mississippi River. The stories were fictional but the plight of slaves and poor whites was very real, and he treated his characters with sensitivity. So also was the growing humanity of the two boys.
When some school boards and public libraries want to keep Twain off the shelves close to 70 years ago, President Eisenhower cautioned, “Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you are going to conceal faults by concealing the evidence they existed. Don’t be afraid to go into your library and read every book.”
Every time we were about to read something controversial or challenging, my humanities teacher held out her hand, index finger up, and pulled it toward her eyes, telling us, “I need to see your eyes.” Then she would introduce the book.
With Huck and Tom, she said she came from England and they had had slavery there. We talked about it. As in America, racism has out-lasted it.
We talked about the Civil Rights Movement in our time, why the “n” word is no longer OK to use, yet still here we must confront as it makes a statement about discrimination. We discussed also abusive parents.
Only when we were prepared did we start reading. We read, discussed and learned from it. That’s the point of good literature.
Rudyard Kipling was another great writer of a different era. He was a product of the 1800s British Empire, and when we realize he is artistically reflecting it, there is much to learn.
A year or so after I published my first murder mystery set in 1920s Saugatuck, a fellow offered to make “a few little corrections” because he didn’t think it was historically accurate.
Of course not, it was fiction. It wasn’t meant to be. Just a fun diversion. That, I would like to think, puts me in more or less the Wodehouse mode.

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