Since practically every single calendar day of the year has been appropriated by some cause or another (in this month alone we celebrated Labor Day, Patriot Day, National IPA Day, National Seat Check Day, World Rabies Day, and National Grandparents Day, to say nothing of Suicide Prevention Week, Constitution Week, and National Emergency Preparedness Week), it can be hard to keep them all straight. But one week that stands out, at least for myself is Banned Books Week (Sept 22-28), a 30 year-old tradition spearheaded by the American Library Association.
A celebration of free speech and the free exchange of ideas, especially in regards to minors and schoolchildren, Banned Books Week events range from readings to panel discussions to virtual “hangouts” across the nation. And lest you think that banned books are an anachronism of unenlightened school boards past, consider this list of the most challenged books of 2012, which includes such well-known works of obscenity such as Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and the gleefully irreverent Captain Underpants series. Lists like these are practically an invitation to read, and the persistence of certain books such as Brave New World, The Chocolate War, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings on the list over the past 10 years only speak to their enduring ability to provoke, to embolden, and to inform.
Since the single best way to celebrate Banned Books Week is solitary in nature, I opted for the second-best way, which was to head over to the Emerald Tablet for their flagship reading series: “Under the Influence." Not a celebration of Banned Books per se, what “Under the Influence” offers is a mash-up of influential works alongside works written that were somehow inspired by them. In last Friday’s edition, excerpts of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Paula Vogel, William S. Burroughs, and Maggie Nelson were presented side by side with essays, poems, and plays about deserts, identity, pending apocalypse, and fibromyalgia, speaking less perhaps to the manufactured exile created by banning books, but instead to literature’s overarching resilience and penchant for freedom.
Colleen Hubbard was first, and immediately won me over by reading an excerpt from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Wind, Sand and Stars (Reynal and Hitchcock, 1939), and then an excerpt of her own writing about Denmark’s Råbjerg Mile, the largest Wanderdüne in Northern Europe. The next reader, Abe Becker, read an excerpt from Paula Vogel’s Desdemona (Dramatists Play Service, 1994) with a friend filling in the role of Desdemona while he took on Emilia, her maid. His work that was inspired by Vogel was also a play: a retelling of the play-outside-the-play in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, in which local drunk Christopher Sly is taken in by an aristocrat to be made sport of, performed by a cast of three volunteer readers.
Clint Flippen read excerpts from notable banned book Naked Lunch (Grove Press, 1962), by William S. Burroughs, then proceeded to read poems of his own that flirted with that enduring obsession we have with the apocalypse while likening the destruction of ant farms to that of destroying whole civilizations — certainly an accurate observation from the POV of the ants. Wrapping it up was Amy Berkowitz, who channeled Maggie Nelson, first in a few excerpts from her short prose meditations on a color, “Bluets” (Wave Books, 2009), and then delved into a piece of her own entitled “Tender Points,” about living with fibromyalgia.
Co-created-and-curated by local literary wrangler Evan Karp, the event's comfy living room vibe was that of anything goes, and past readings have included influential works such as films, songs, and Shakespeare (see Becker) along with the usual prose. Last Friday of the month at 7:30, if you’d like to check it out. Snacks are provided, and donations cheerfully accepted.
"Under the Influence"
The Emerald Tablet
80 Fresno St, SF