Friday, May 09, 2008

Reading as a Political Act

Today in class when groups were giving their book critiques, one of my students commented on Reading Lolita in Tehran that he had never thought of reading as a political act.

May 10, 1933--75 years ago--in what is now known as Bebelplatz in Berlin, German university students gathered and burned 20,000 books they considered "un-german" --against the Nazi ideology or culture--books by Einstein, Freud, Thomas Mann, H.G. Wells, Ernest Hemingway, Bertolt Brecht and others.
Joseph Goebbels urged them patriotic songs and speeches.
"...The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is now at an end. The breakthrough of the German revolution has again cleared the way on the German path...The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character. It is to this end that we want to educate you. As a young person, to already have the courage to face the pitiless glare, to overcome the fear of death, and to regain respect for death - this is the task of this young generation. And thus you do well in this midnight hour to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past. This is a strong, great and symbolic deed - a deed which should document the following for the world to know - Here the intellectual foundation of the November (Democratic) Republic is sinking to the ground, but from this wreckage the phoenix of a new spirit will triumphantly rise...You are doing the right thing at this midnight hour—to consign to the flames the unclean spirit of the past. This is a great, powerful, and symbolic act. . . . Out of these ashes the phoenix of a new age will arise. . . . Oh Century! Oh Science! It is a joy to be alive!” Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and and Propaganda.

Today. the spot is marked with a glass plate set into the ground, showing off a room of empty bookcases. The poet Heinreich Heine's statement is engraved on a placque nearby: "Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen" ("Where they burn books, they will also burn humans in the end" written circa 1820-2).

Students from Humboldt University [which borders the plaza (along with the State Opera and a cathedral)] hold a book sale to mark this anniversary.

Last summer, when we were standing there, a tour guide asked her group, what they saw when they looked down at this marker. One person said, "I see my reflection." The tour guide responded with words to the affect: that is so you will know it is your responsibility that something like this never happens again.

And, Please do not think that books do not get banned here in the US of A...The American Library Association keeps track. The list for 2007 includes:

1. “And Tango Makes Three,” by Justin Richardson/Peter Parnell
Reasons: Anti-Ethnic, Sexism, Homosexuality, Anti-Family, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group

2. “The Chocolate War,” by Robert Cormier
Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Violence

3. “Olive’s Ocean,” by Kevin Henkes
Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language

4. “The Golden Compass,” by Philip Pullman
Reasons: Religious Viewpoint

5. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” by Mark Twain
Reasons: Racism

6. “The Color Purple,” by Alice Walker
Reasons: Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language,

7. “TTYL,” by Lauren Myracle
Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

8. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” by Maya Angelou
Reasons: Sexually Explicit

9. “It’s Perfectly Normal,” by Robie Harris
Reasons: Sex Education, Sexually Explicit

10. “The Perks of Being A Wallflower,” by Stephen Chbosky
Reasons: Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

Off the list this year, are two books by author Toni Morrison. "The Bluest Eye" and "Beloved," both challenged for sexual content and offensive language.

For more information on book challenges and censorship, please visit the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom’s Banned Books Web site at

And, do I have to remind you of the burning of the Dixie Chicks' records????

As Justice Holmes stated in Gitlow v New York: " Every Idea is an incitement."
"Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us."—Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas

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