From Shelf Awareness

By Marilyn Dahl

Last Wednesday night, some 50 publishers, writers, artists and other First Amendment supporters sipped wine and martinis at the home of former HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman. The occasion was the launch of the Free Speech Leadership Council, an advocacy arm of the National Coalition Against Censorship, a nonprofit founded in 1974, of which Friedman is chair. The main event was a conversation about censorship between Toni Morrison and Fran Lebowitz. And what a conversation!

Friedman introduced them with a reminiscence about her time at Random House with Morrison, "when we were girls, single mothers." Lebowitz recalled the last time the three of them were together–Stockholm for Morrison's Nobel Prize. Skip Gates and Cornell West were there, too, and "Stockholm will never be the same!" Lebowitz predictably got off some quips–"Librarians censor books. It's like a bartender being a prohibitionist."–and said that we should copy the organizational abilities of Second Amendment proponents. We should be as passionate about defending free speech as they are about the right to carry a gun. Morrison interjected, "The NCAC should be an extreme organization." Lebowitz opined that it would be O.K. to buy a gun if you were required to buy a book at the same time–the new Wal-mart policy.

Her first experience with censorship was at her local library when she was a child–the first time she heard that there were books she couldn't read, when the librarian told her she couldn't check out adult books, an experience echoed by Judy Blume when she tried to read John O'Hara as a teenager. Lebowitz later said that with the right wing, elitism is bad, being literate is bad. You can be an elite athlete, but not an elite intellectual. 

Toni Morrison began at the original beginning, the Garden of Eden and the "profound sin" of knowledge. "Knowledge is bad, it is sinful, it will corrupt you, and you will die." She said that she's a Catholic, but "we didn't read the Bible, we read the little bits that we were told to read.


This is not peculiar to Western culture, she said. In all cultures, "to know stuff is a bad thing." But she fortunately came from a family where reading was "an amazing, fun thing," where there was an enormous sacredness attached to reading and enormous power–"If you can read, they can't cheat you; if you can't read, they can defeat you."

She went on to talk about censorship of her own books, particularly in prisons. Song of Solomon was banned at one prison because the warden said it might stir the inmates to riot (or perhaps "write"–we had an acoustical lapse. But "riot" or "write"–which would ultimately be the most dangerous?). A book she edited for Random House 35 years ago, The Black Book (due out in an anniversary edition this November), was popular in prisons, when it was allowed. She received a letter from an inmate asking for three copies, one to give to a friend, one to throw against the wall and one to hold against his heart. "We cannot live the human life without art," Morrison said. "Art is a way to mourn, art is a way to know, art is a way to be in the world, art is a way to remain human." 

After that, it seemed almost irreverent to start talking, drinking, gathering coats. But we did and were pleased to be given signed copies of Burn This Book: PEN Writers Speak Out on the Power of the Word, which Toni Morrison edited (HarperStudio, $16.99, 9780061774003/0061774006)–a great way to relive a marvelous evening.