If we don't read, the censors win

Sunday , April 16, 2017 - 5:00 AM1 comment

E. KENT WINWARD, special to the Standard-Examiner

Anybody who knows me knows I love books. I have books lining the walls of my home office. Books in boxes in the garage. Books stacked in my office at work. Bookshelves in the bedroom, and books cluttering my nightstand. Books eating massive amounts of storage on all my electronic devices. Books in my car. I’m never more than a few feet away from a book.

I have been like this for as long as I can remember. Some of my strongest early memories are of the drawstring bag my mother sewed for me so I could haul library books home from Burton Elementary. The bus driver would always let me sit on the front seat and place the books on top of the metal bubble covering the engine. To my 6-year-old mind, the bag felt as large as Santa’s sack at Christmas and as filled with wonder.

Over 10 years ago, after writing a review of a book by a local author, I took my love of books to a new level. One thing led to another, and soon, the lovely and talented author became my wife, J.A. Carter-Winward. During down-time at work, my brother David, who manages my office, works on books and writing projects of his own. Our daughter, Megan Olsen, is graduating with honors from Weber State University in English. She’s already a well-known and respected poet with several publications under her belt, and we often get the pleasure of reading her work in progress. I get the first reads on what my whole family writes.

Never in my wildest childhood dreams could I have imagined my future: not only do I get to surround myself with books that have already been penned, I am now part of the creative process for new books as they are imagined and made tangible by the authors themselves.

So why write about books? Because I read the newspaper, too. Newspapers are a little bit like books with Attention Deficit Disorder: the paper scatters words, premises, ideas and information, seemingly without much focus on a single topic.

Thursday, reading the Standard-Examiner’s editorial, I learned last week was National Library Week, and the American Library Association had published a list of the 10 most-challenged library books of 2016. The editorial read, in part: “[T]he First Amendment guarantees Americans the freedom to read whatever they wish, without interference from you, the school board, politicians, churches or any other self-appointed censors.” Noble sentiments, and largely true in America's internet-infused culture. But it wasn’t always so. And comparatively, the change occurred a nano-second ago, within the sloth-like pace of American constitutional law.

The First Amendment wouldn’t have protected very many of the books on the 10 most-challenged list a hundred years ago. A quick look at landmark decisions on the ALA website shows most of the First Amendment decisions occurred in the last 50 years. Our constitutional right to freely read what we want is quite recent.

To my lawyerly eye, recent legal changes feel more fragile and more susceptible to the whims of public sentiment. I wish the Standard’s editorial words were set in stone, but in reality, freedom is gained — and kept — through diligence. You can’t rest on rights you think are sacrosanct merely because they have been given the blessing of a constitutional amendment.

Ironically, the best place to learn about this complacency? In books, of course. For my birthday last month, I got a pair of socks emblazoned “Read,” a tie containing books that have been banned in the past, and, from one of my brothers, an annotated Alabama State Constitution from 1938. Most of the books on my tie have been excluded at some point in Alabama libraries and schools well after 1938, despite Article 1, Section 4 of the Alabama Constitution, which protects free speech. My birthday gift was a reminder of the fragility of constitutional rights.

The power and capriciousness of public sentiment also showed up in last year’s challenged books list. A children's series written by Bill Cosby was challenged — not for its content, but because of who authored it. I read one online article that gleefully gave Amazon links to all of the challenged books, except for Cosby’s.

Historically, beautiful, moving and inspiring books have been written by people who were not saints, but flawed human beings. Challenges based on the author and who they are as a person are as repugnant as challenges based on content. Books should be judged on the ideas and underlying message, not on the author’s personal life.

The entire concept of free speech is to allow ideas to be discussed openly and in the marketplace of ideas. But the marketplace has only recently been expanded. One of my favorite books of all time, “Tropic of Cancer,” by Henry Miller, couldn’t even be published in the United States until after a lengthy court battle that concluded in 1964, the year after I was born. Every time I take the book from my bookcase, I remember just how recent that victory was.

Miller did what great writers do — he captured the ambiguity and struggle of the world we are making when he wrote in 1945, “This world which is in the making fills me with dread. . . . Whatever does not lend itself to being bought and sold, whether in the realm of things, ideas, principles, dreams or hopes is debarred. In this world the poet is anathema, the thinker a fool, the artist an escapist, the man of vision a criminal.”

Miller was right. Books are where we keep our ideas, our principles, our dreams and our hopes. We expand our vision by buying, reading, and sharing those words and ideas. Go to the wonderful and eclectic Booked on 25th in downtown Ogden and buy a book. They not only have wonderful books (including my wife’s), but mugs listing books that have been banned. 

Our First Amendment rights protecting us against censorship mean nothing if we do not read. If books are never opened, the censors win. We do not want our writers of vision obscured by the dark clouds of narrow-mindedness, in whatever form.

The law and constitution only create an environment that allows for the exchange of ideas. The real task is to read — and read works that challenge our complacency and certainty, while magnifying our humanity.

E. Kent Winward is an Ogden attorney. Twitter: @KentWinward

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