Don’t look now …

From my Halloween Collection. New Yorker cover image by James Stevenson

… but Witch Week is almost here!

This year’s theme is TREASON AND PLOT (when Chris and I decided on this last year, we certainly didn’t expect it to be so apt), and our read-along is Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with treasonous plots in every act.1

On 30 October, Chris at Calmgrove erects the gallows by introducing this year’s guest bloggers, from as far away as New Zealand, Poland and Switzerland, as well as the UK and the US. Witch Week ends with a bang on 06 November, with our announcement of next year’s theme.

Meanwhile, on my blog, sticking with the Guy Fawkes’ Day theme, I’ll be playing a little game of hangman with my readers, just to put everyone in the mood2. Try to guess the word or phrase before the Guy is hanged and thrown on the bonfire.

I hope you’ll join Chris and me in this annual week-long celebration of fantasy, science fiction, and all things horrible.

Oh, and by the way:



1If you don’t have a copy of The Tempest, you can find the full play at Open Source Shakespeare. The blog post here links to an annotated PDF of The Tempest, created by the blogger, Luke Bartolo of The Amber of the Moment. Thanks, Luke!

2With links each day to Chris’s blog, of course.

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Banned Books Week 2021, 7th day

This is it, the last day of BBW2021. I hope you’ve learned something new here, or at least found a new source of information that deepens your understanding of something familiar.

Today’s link in this week honoring the Right to Read takes you to The Week, a magazine that summarizes political stories from around the world, and from a range of viewpoints. This particular article, “17 of America’s most surprising banned books“, was originally published in 2011, and then updated in 2017.

If you know Americans, you probably won’t be surprised by any book that appears on this list. And if you’ve visited the sites I linked to in my earlier posts this week, you’ve already seen some of the titles. Perhaps you’re surprised by the ruckus caused by that bottle in Little Red Riding Hood’s basket — until you remember Prohibition. And I assume the unhappy witches who wanted to ban “Hansel and Gretel” have been assuaged by Harry Potter’s popularity. The objections to a minuscule drawing of a partially nude sunbather in a Where’s Waldo book make me embarrassed for the states of Michigan and New York.

The oddest publishing commotions have involved dictionaries, which gives me an excuse to feature a dictionary as my banned-book-for-the-day. American Heritage Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, and Dictionary of American Slang were each at some point challenged and/or removed from school libraries (not many), starting in the 1980s. In a 2010 article on their website, OIF/ALA point out that, “If not the most insidious book to censor, [a dictionary] certainly ranks among them.”

In addition to its editorial board, American Heritage Dictionary has a Usage Panel (currently at almost 200 members, from literature, news media, education, politics, and publishing) who are polled for opinions on such issues as further vs farther, noisome vs noisy, etc. The panel provides the linguistic version of two-thumbs-up — or, in the case of the AHD, 200-thumbs-up. For example, my 1976 edition (with a 117-member Usage Panel) comments that “Awhile is not preceded by for, though the noun while can be. Each of the following is possible: stay awhile, stay for a while, stay a while (but not stay for awhile).” The Panel points out that “irregardless, a double negative, is never acceptable except when the intent is clearly humorous.”

But the bannings weren’t about esoteric issues of usage, but instead about inclusion of certain words. Specifically, sexual terms. I imagine that these days, what with cell phones and the internet, parents have bigger things to worry about. I know of no dictionary challenges after 2010, which relieves me. Now I can get back to worrying about which works of fiction are facing the firing squad.

School Library Journal, September 18, 2019. Illustration by Mark Tuchman

This concludes my celebration of Banned Books Week. Thanks for coming along with me. I’ll give you one more link, to a School Library Journal article with advice for teachers and librarians about how to talk about censorship with students. The advice applies to conversations with any group of children, including one’s own.

Good luck out there, and keep reading!

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Banned Books Week 2021, 6th day

Today, a quiz. In 2019, the New York Public Library added a Banned Books Quiz to its website, and it’s still available two years later. Only 7 questions, so any trivia fiend can probably finish it in under a minute. You can access it here.

Speaking of public libraries, I made a quick, very unscientific survey of state public libraries in the US, looking for any content on this year’s Banned Books Week. Of the five states I checked, I found two.

In August, the Oklahoma Library Association (affiliate of ALA) announced a Banned Books Week 2021 photo contest here. The first photo was tweeted (@oklibs) earlier this week. I love those caution tapes around the stacks of books, and I want to thank the librarians of the state I grew up in for doing their part this year.

The Delaware Division of Libraries has a full page of links, images and videos here. Some of what they include you’ve already seen in my earlier posts, but scroll down to find the Library Bill of Rights, originally created in 1939 and then updated regularly since then. Well worth reading, and it won’t take long. And play the Jason Reynold’s video, less than 3 minutes long. One comment: “The things that are actually different about us should be celebrated, because they are what makes this tapestry of life.”

There must be other state library systems or associations that are participating. If yours is, feel free to add a link in the comment section.

Next up, my last ALA infographic, which suggests that book challenges are exactly like any other crime, in that a high number of them are unreported.

Infographic Courtesy ALA

And, as usual, I end by highlighting a banned book. This one appeared the NYPL quiz I mentioned at the beginning, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2000). If you’ve never read this terrific graphic autobiography, find a copy and immerse yourself in a funny, frustrating, frightening story of modern-day religious repression. When you finish, take the next logical step and pick up Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003). If you care about reading (and you must, because you’re still with me), you’ll love this book.

You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them. — Ray Bradbury

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Banned Books Week 2021, 5th day

Today, if you’re an English teacher (or know one), this post is for you. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has an Intellectual Freedom Center. Fighting censorship since the days of McCarthy, NCTE supports teachers at all levels who wish to provide their students with diverse, challenging texts to read, whether for class assignments or for personal pleasure.

In their policy statement, “The Students’ Right to Read” (2018), they explain

The right to read, like all rights guaranteed or implied within our constitutional tradition, can be used wisely or foolishly. In many ways, education is an effort to improve the quality of choices open to all students. But to deny the freedom of choice in fear that it may be unwisely used is to destroy the freedom itself. For this reason, we respect the right of individuals to be selective in their own reading. But for the same reason, we oppose efforts of individuals or groups to limit the freedom of choice of others or to impose their own standards or tastes upon the community at large., accessed 09/25/2021

Because, according to the ALA’s infographic below, 53% of challenges happen in in schools and school libraries, NCTE’s work is critical as censorship efforts continue. The COVID epidemic brought the number of challenges down for 2020 (273, compared to 566 in 2019; ALA OIF), but it’s likely the numbers will rise as schools reopen.

Infographic courtesy ALA

Today’s featured banned book is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s heartbreaking to think that the book is now being challenged in part because Atticus Finch is interpreted as a “white savior of blacks”. Heartbreaking because this complaint is absolutely right about Scout’s father, but ironically so, since in the end Atticus wasn’t able to save Tom Robinson. I can, I hope, imagine how enraging it is for a reader to see people like them continually portrayed as poor, ignorant, and helpless without someone of a different gender, race, class or religion coming to their rescue. But until more authors of diverse backgrounds are published, what’s a reader to do?

And what’s an author to do? Harper Lee writes about the world she grew up in: The poverty and racism in the American south during the early part of the 20th century. Her own father was a lawyer who, in 1919, defended two black men against murder charges; he lost the case and the two men were horribly executed. Hatred and violence were everywhere. Plus, I suspect that Lee was not writing about how Atticus tried to save Tom, but instead about why that effort failed. Still, there’s a reason it appears on so many lists of top 20th century novels.

I’ll try to be more cheerful, and less incendiary, in tomorrow’s post. And remember the theme for this year’s Banned Books Week: Censorship Divides Us, Books Unite Us.

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Banned Books Week 2021, 4th day

A few words today about the Freedom to Read Foundation, an offshoot of the ALA established in 1969. It’s exciting to look at the Foundation’s history, since the list of legal cases they’ve helped fund includes this one:

Source: FTRF/History of FTRF

All the cases have involved publications of some sort — books, magazines, newspapers, comic books, film, and television. One case involved a student suing a school board because it had voted to remove several books from all the secondary school libraries throughout a single district: “Soul on Ice,  A Hero Ain’t Nothing But a SandwichThe FixerGo Ask AliceSlaughterhouse-FiveThe Best Short Stories by Negro WritersBlack BoyLaughing Boy, and The Naked Ape” (Pico v. Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26, 1978). Dismissed librarians, state obscenity laws, school boards’ actions, deportations, bookstores and libraries subpoenaed for patron usage data — if you want to know what the fight for intellectual freedom looks like, read through these cases.

As I promised yesterday, here are just a few of the reasons provided in book challenges/bans. Evidently there’s a lot to fear from books:

Infographic courtesy ALA

And now, a salute to Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974). Upon publication, it was challenged almost immediately (sexual content, religious viewpoint, nudity, violence), and regularly appeared on ALA’s top-ten list until 2009. Cormier has written a dark, unhappy story of Jerry, a teen caught in a political struggle with painfully low stakes. Brother Leon, Acting Head of an all-boys Catholic school, decides he wants to double last year’s candy sales (to prove he deserves the job for real), so he recruits Archie, leader of the school’s secret society, to help him pressure the other students. Jerry decides not to sell any candy at all, and his stubbornness nearly gets him killed in a fist fight. Yet there’s a happy ending for everyone else: Brother Leon becomes official Head of School and Archie isn’t punished for bullying. A grim message about the abuse of power, so well written you want to cry.

A quick shout-out to Little Free Libraries, who are working to improve access to books (and literacy) in underserved neighborhoods.

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Banned Books Week 2021, 3rd day

Keeping it short and sweet today, with a visit to ALA’s Banned Books FAQ page, which you can find here. Who challenges books? Why?

They even have infographics addressing these questions. Here’s one on Who initiates the challenges:

Infographic courtesy American Library Association

Interesting, eh? Parents, attempting to control at least something in their children’s lives. But note the fine print: “Statistics based on 147 responses”. Not challenges or bans, but “responses” (I’m not sure to what). Elsewhere they state that ALA’s data is based on the 156 challenges that were reported in 2020. That’s 3 per state, or 13 per month, or 3 per week, or 1 every 2.34 days. The US population is about 333 million, so I’ll be generous and say that 250 million are readers. That makes 1 reported challenge for every 1.6 million readers. BUT. I must add that the ALA infographics I’m posting throughout the week are based on data reported to the ALA. Not all challenges are reported, nor do all challenges result in out-and-out bans.

Tomorrow, I’ll say more about Why books are challenged. (You saw a bit about that yesterday, in my discussion of Alexie’s book.)

Vintage Press, 1961

Today’s banned book is James Joyce’s Ulysses. Banned by the UK government, but in the US by only the our Customs Service, the book was smuggled in and passed around. According to Politics and Prose Bookstore’s blog, the customs ban was lifted in the US in 1933, when Judge John Woolsey took time to read the book before making a decision. He ‘concluded his opinion by noting, “I am quite aware that owing to some of its scenes ‘Ulysses’ is a rather strong draught to ask some sensitive though normal person to take. But my considered opinion, after long reflection, is that whilst in many places the effect of Ulysses [on] the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.”’

So, even if he didn’t like parts of the book, he saw no reason to keep it out of the hands of other readers. Good for you, Judge Woolsey. (BTW: next year Ulysses turns 100. Anyone want to join me in a year-long reading? Could be fun? Anyone?)

And lastly, if you want to while away a good 30 minutes, take a look at this list of books banned by governments, via Wikipedia. I think Salman Rushdie wins the prize for being banned by the most governments.

Tomorrow, innumerable reasons why. (And don’t forget: Gene Luen Yang tonight — See my post for Day 1 of Banned Books Week.)

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Banned Books Week 2021, 2nd day

I realize yesterday was Sunday, and perhaps your local library wasn’t open, so you couldn’t get your library card. But today’s Monday! You can still get one.

Or perhaps you have one already? Excellent. We can continue.

Today, I take you to the American Library Association’s website, which is loaded with information about Banned Books Week. The ALA, established in 1876, has the stated goal of enabling “librarians to do their present work more easily and at less expense.” Hmmm. I wonder what a 19th century librarian’s expenses were?

Among other things, the ALA funds grants and scholarships, holds conferences, and advocates for local, state-wide, and national support of libraries. Also, it helps promote Banned Books Week through its Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF).

If you’re into lists, click on the website’s link for the “Top 10 Challenged Books”, where you’ll find the list of the top-ten banned books for the last 20 years.

Infographic courtesy ALA

I’ve read five of the books on the 2020 top-ten list, so for today’s post I’ve chosen one of them: #5, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), a funny, sad, truly wonderful book about life for a Native American teenager who decides to attend high school off-reservation. Junior, the protagonist, tells his story as he deals with what every teenager faces: acceptance, self-understanding, sex, family, friendship. If you haven’t read it, you should.

Tracking the evolution of the challenges and bans the novel has faced since its publication is like tracking anger-points in 21st century US history. It first appeared on the ALA top-ten list in 2010, because of “offensive language, racism, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, violence”. In 2011, “religious viewpoint” replaced “sex education”, but then disappeared in the 2012 reasons for the book’s challenges (“offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group”). Most of the same reasons appeared in 2013, but in 2014 the reasons ballooned: “anti-family, cultural insensitivity, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence. Additional reasons: ‘depictions of bullying'”. “Cultural insensitivity”? Whose culture was offended? Alexie, a Native American, based much of the novel on his own experiences growing up in Spokane. Also, why is it bad to depict bullying?

In 2015 and 2016, the book didn’t make the top ten, but in 2017, something interesting happened. Whoever wrote the “reasons” for each book’s appearance on the list that year must have been in a mood. Here’s what they wrote for Alexie’s book: “Consistently challenged since its publication in 2007 for acknowledging issues such as poverty, alcoholism, and sexuality, this National Book Award winner was challenged in school curriculums because of profanity and situations that were deemed sexually explicit.” Read the 2017 list carefully — each banned book had won a prize or been a best-seller or was in some other way note-worthy. It’s as if that year’s list editor had had enough of this stupid idea that readers need to be protected from unpleasant topics.

In 2018, the list goes back to status quo ante, Alexie doesn’t make the list in 2019, and then in 2020: “Banned and challenged for profanity, sexual references, and allegations of sexual misconduct by the author” [my emphasis].

Yep. It’s official. Cancel culture is now a “reason” for book challenges on the ALA list. I have no comment on the allegations against Alexie. I just want to point out that banning a book because of its author’s reprehensible behavior would erase a great number of classics: Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, T S Eliot, Oscar Wilde (I’m trying to think of a woman writer to add to this list, but no luck — wait, Laura Ingalls Wilder).

Here’s an interesting op-ed about this very issue from the Chicago Tribune (Sandra Beasley, 14 May 2018).

Apologies. I went on much longer than I expected. Fortunately, that’s it for today. Join me tomorrow for another website and another banned book. With luck, it will also be a shorter post.


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Banned Books Week 2021, 1st day

Autumn begins, days are shorter, nights are cooler, and Banned Books Week begins.

As promised, this week I’ll provide a daily link to the websites of an organizations involved in bringing attention to censorship.

Image courtesy

Today, let me introduce you to the Banned Books Week Coalition (BBWC), a group dedicated to defending the right to read. If you want to know what Banned Books Week is all about, or why it was started, this website is an excellent place to begin. Videos, event announcements, resources for holding your own event — all these and more can be found at the BBWC website.

So, and this is just for fun, here’s a scavenger hunt for you. 1. Under “About”, find the list of BBW Coalition members.

2. Under “Resources”, find the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund posters and “shelftalkers” (and learn a new term in the process).

3. Under “Latest News”, locate the link to Gene Luen Yang’s upcoming 28 September conversation about comics, and the link to the ALA’s “Dear Banned Author” campaign. Which author would you write to?

The “Dear Banned Author” letter I would want to write goes to Mark Twain, for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. There are plenty of problems with that novel, but it still stands as one of the great works of 19th century literature. Funny story — when Twain learned that his book had been banned, he was pleased, for he knew it meant more people would buy the book, to see what all the fuss was about. A perfect example of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

NYPL reader since 1976!

And a wee reminder: September is Library Card Sign Up Month. It isn’t too late to get yours. I’ve had one for ages, although this latest plastic version is much longer-lasting than the flimsy paper ones of the past.

Support art!

Support your local libraries!

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Autumnal rites

It’s time I rejoined this yearly week of celebrating good books that raise hackles.

I’ll be doing things a bit differently this year, each day featuring a website and then a quick look at a favorite banned book.

I hope I can provide you with useful info and inspire you to READ DANGEROUSLY!

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Philip K. Dick (1968)

Here’s a question:

If I pick up Arthur C Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), will I discover that their impact has diminished because those particular years have come and gone without the suggested future coming to pass?

Yes, yes, I realize: FICTION. But still. The authors gave us handles, something to dread, and it’s difficult to let go.

And of course I realize also METAPHOR. I say: Those years from the 20th and 21st centuries resonate in ways I can’t ignore. Rarely do random numbers hold such meaning.

Cover, first hardback edition

I’ve just finished Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (hereinafter DADES), which specifies a date: Rick Deckard kills 6 android escapees on January 3, 2021. When I saw that, I couldn’t help thinking, Damn! why didn’t I start this book 9 months ago? (Not to mention, what took me so long to read it in the first place?) But also, I’m relieved to find another dystopian vision has failed to come true.

For anyone who has never seen Blade Runner, DADES takes place in a dystopian world ruined by nuclear war and ecological devastation. The manufacture of androids is big-business, especially given how useful the “andys” are for off-earth colonies. Andys are essentially slaves, designed with minimal emotive faculties and short life-spans; they have visible gender but humans referred to them as “it”. They are things, not humans. They feel no loyalty for other andys, no sense of awe for any form of life, yet they fully understand their own situation as the property of humans and thus desire freedom.

Occasionally, andys escape enslavement and when they reach earth, they must be “retired”. Which is to say, a bounty hunter earns $1000 for each android he destroys. Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter. No one in Deckard’s world makes clear why it is necessary to destroy the androids who escape Mars/enslavement. It’s possible to argue that any who have reached earth must have killed humans in order to escape, but once they arrive here, they’re mostly harmless. An accomplished opera singer is one of Deckard’s androids, and he doesn’t understand why she — “it”, he would correct me — had to be killed. “Retired” is the proper term, Deckard would point out. It’s impossible to kill something that isn’t actually living.

Two essential elements of the novel are missing from the movie, and they’re worth discussing here. One is the need humans feel to own and care for animals. The need is so great, there are companies that supply robots, “electric” animals that must be fed, groomed, taken to “vets”, etc. Deckard and his wife have an electric sheep. There are electric ostriches, toads, horses, along with dogs, cats, parakeets and goats. Living animals are so rare, there’s a weekly blue-book publication listing animals by species, latest sale price, and extinction status. At one point, Deckard buys a living goat, paying $3000 down with 36 additional payments of $500 per month, and that’s a bargain. It’s more than he can afford, but his need is too great. His sheep no longer satisfies.

And then there’s Mercerism. The religion of Dick’s dystopia, Mercerism’s inspirational leader (Wilbur Mercer) helps humans share empathic responses and modulate extreme emotions. It’s all very strange, with empathy boxes that take characters into a virtual world, and mood control machines that run from 0 to the high triple digits. It’s no surprise that people inhabiting Dick’s sunless and nearly lifeless Earth are in a perpetual funk and need help cheering themselves up. Electric pets can do only so much for a person. But why would they need a machine to de-escalate elation? I should think a glance out a window, or the daily cleanup of radioactive dust, would dampen any high spirits.

Turns out, though, that those resonant years (1984, 2001, 2021) are red herrings, not count-down clocks. I ought to let them go. What Dick foretold in DADES is this issue of drawing the line between human and android, a theme that the screenplay retains and that we’re still wrestling with all these years later. As we cede more control of our lives to AI, are we constructing individual dystopias where we need help empathizing with other humans? In building androids, are we simply creating a species we can consider non-human and thus suitable for enslavement? Or are we possibly creating a species we’ll eventually merge with?

In a well-known talk given in 1972, Dick wondered why much of his fiction up to then featured

… artificial constructs masquerading as humans. Usually with a sinister purpose in mind. I suppose I took it for granted that if such a construct, a robot for example, had a benign or anyhow decent purpose in mind, it would not need to so disguise itself. Now, to me, that theme seems obsolete. The constructs do not mimic humans; they are, in many deep ways, actually human already. They are not trying to fool us, for a purpose of any sort; they merely follow lines we follow, in order that they, too, may overcome such common problems as the breakdown of vital parts, loss of power source, attack by such foes as storms, short circuits….

P K Dick, “The Android and the Human“, 1972

And later:

… what is it, in our behavior, that we can call specifically human? That is special to us as a living species? And what is it that, at least up to now, we can consign as merely machine behavior, or, by extension, insect behavior, or reflex behavior?

Philip K. Dick isn’t merely asking “what makes androids human?” He also wants to know what might make humans robot-like? Deckard’s job is to destroy androids. When he shoots one, it doesn’t dissolve into a pile of wires and metal. There’s blood and guts. The only way to know the retired being is not human is through bone marrow analysis. When Deckard reminds himself to objectify each andy he kills — to refer to each as “it” — how much of his humanity does he give up? Dick argues that a human becomes an android when she is “pounded down, manipulated, made into a means without [her] knowledge or consent”. Or perhaps with her knowledge and consent? Deckard consented to being a bounty killer.

Ironically, Dick finds hope in reckless youth who can’t be controlled — the kid who “rebels not out of theoretical, ideological considerations, only out of what might be called pure selfishness.”

Mick Stevens, © The New Yorker Magazine, 1983

I have to laugh. Of course! If Dick is right, selfishness, the most human characteristic, is the one that will save us. If we’re lucky, we’ll always have young people flouting rules and laws, acting unpredictably, and teaching AI that it’ll never be the boss. I think I’ll sleep better at night now.

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