Some people will yawn at hearing that Saturday was the beginning of the 27th Annual Banned Books Week.
The story is the same every year, isn't it? Hundreds of titles are challenged in schools and libraries around the country. In 2007, the number was 420. This is fewer than the year before, but the number has fluctuated widely since the launch of Banned Books Week in 1982. The average is around 500.
Even the book at the top of the hit list is the same as last year–And Tango Makes Three, a childrens book that has been condemned as "pro-homosexual" and "anti-family" because it tells the story of two male penguins caring for an egg.
But this apparent sameness masks what is really going on. Behind the numbers are a lot of angry people–censors demanding the removal of books that offend them; teachers and librarians upset at finding themselves accused of trying to hurt kids, and the kids themselves caught in the crossfire.
Book banning is an old story, but it is new and often intensely painful for the people who experience it for the first time.
Helene Atwan began her career in publishing at Random House in 1976; she worked at A.A.Knopf, Viking Press, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and Simon and Schuster, before being named director of Beacon Press in 1995. She served for eight years on the board of PEN-New England and is the Administrator of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.
I'm proud to note that Beacon Broadside is celebrating its first birthday this week—what a milestone. All our metrics are strong—measures I didn't even know existed a year ago but which I now follow avidly. Thanks to a dedicated and very talented blog editor, Jessie Bennett, and especially to a tremendously creative and generous list of house authors and friends, we have a very deep archive of posts on almost any subject of interest to Americans who are drawing breath in the 21st century. This fall also happens to mark my 32nd year in book publishing, and my 13th as director of Beacon. I think I value the blog so much because it is so radically different from anything I could imagine back when I was banging out letters to authors on a Selectric, with white-out smudges betraying my all-too-frequent typos.
When I first started in publishing, dinosaurs roamed the industry. Actually, they were giants. Among them, in my second job, was Alfred A. Knopf, who greeted one of my banal pleasantries about the weather one fine morning by styling it "a stinker," but who was otherwise quite civil, especially to his heir apparent, Bob Gottlieb, a giant-in-training. Random House already owned Knopf, and was owned itself at the time by RCA, but RH was still very much run by "gentleman publishers" with Bob Bernstein at the helm. I also had the opportunity to work at The Viking Press when Tom Guinzburg was still president. As good as they were, all were warm up acts for the men I was about to encounter when I went to work at Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1983.
Pat Strachan, currently of Little, Brown, and one of Bob Giroux's most illustrious mentees, Bob, and Helene Atwan, 2004
A great deal has been written about Roger Straus by some very fine writers. He was far more outrageous and colorful than they let on. (His wonderful wife, Dorothea Straus, has never received the press she deserves, and her death last month passed without enough comment. No one who knew them will ever forget them.) But of all the giant figures in the industry, the most impressive to me was Bob Giroux, whose death this month leaves a gaping hole in the industry. His obituaries (in the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, and elsewhere) deserve to be studied, but they don't tell the whole story. I don't think I know anyone who worked with Mr. Giroux who didn't love him as much as they admired him. In addition to his considerable achievements as an editor, he was also a great mentor, an avid amateur Shakespeare scholar, and wonderful company. In my first weeks at Farrar, Straus and Giroux (and once I knew him I would never again abbreviate the firm's name by omitting his!), he invited me to lunch at his beloved Player's Club, where he took obvious relish in showing me around. The Booth room—the assassin's brother, of course—preserved lovingly, was a point of particular pride and pleasure. He enjoyed ordering our lunch—invariably awful in those days, watery soups and limp vegetables; pale, beaten down slabs of meat swimming in gray gravy—which he cheerfully consumed. He had a way of laughing—and he laughed a lot in good company—which made his distinguished face suddenly round and positively babyish. He took delight in things, and loved springing a surprise. One afternoon, he came striding down the hall out of his small, darkish office at the extreme end of the back hall to announce that he'd just received a new ms. from Walker Percy so we'd better add it to the next list. The catalogue, if memory serves, had to be called back from the printer. He loved good collections of letters—Flannery O'Connor's were often to him—and biographies. I hope to high heaven that someone will collect his letters and write a very long, detailed and juicy biography of Bob. Until then, we are very lucky to have the books he brought into the world, so many of them classics already, and for those lucky enough to have shared an overcooked meal or two with him, our fond memories.
Kathryn Joyce, on the Canadian show SexTV, talks about Quiverfull, a growing sect in the Christian patriarchy movement that is the subject of her forthcoming book. The excerpt of the show also features a woman who was excommunicated from her church for divorcing her husband.
In the department of jobs you may not have known existed, Kate Braestrup is the chaplain for the Maine Game Warden Service. Lest you think that she spends her time blessing moose and praying for trout, read this excerpt of her book, Here if You Need Me: A True Story (Little, Brown), featured in UUWorldlast November. She describes the complex and emotionally raw situations she encounters in her work in a fascinating interview on Speaking of Faith this weekend.
The Hartford Courant, in a sign of the times for the traditional print daily, will lay off a quarter of its newsroom staff and slash a quarter of its news pages. Jon Fine at Businessweek discusses the "bloodbath," and includes an internal email explaining the "re-invention" of the paper.
Re-inventing a newspaper is a huge undertaking under the best of circumstances. Doing it with significantly reduced resources in a tight timeframe is even more challenging. Now, we must forge ahead with that work while we make the tough decisions about who will go and who will stay.
The Courant is owned by the Tribune Company, which also announced cuts at another of its big papers, the Baltimore Sun. Gloomy days for newspapers, indeed.
As America's demographic face continues to become browner and poorer, who will lead and execute coverage of that evolution? How well will this particular zeitgeist be described and contextualized for consumers who are living it—and who are growing agitated by its gradual, relentless creep? Not to say that only journalists of color can write about people of color, but let's be real: Would the Rev. Jeremiah Wright story have consumed so much ink and airspace if more black journalists controlled the levers of power in big newsrooms?
As my husband and I watched the Earth Day news coverage of schoolchildren packing soil around flowers and seedlings in dirt lots last week, we cringed at the rows of plastic planters left in their wake. So many well-intentioned moves toward sustainability or earth-friendly practices end up like this, it seems.
My first book, an environmental memoir about my blue-collar hometown on the east end of Long Island, was released on April 21, the day before Earth Day, which seemed fitting to me. And since my book, deals with environmental issues—in this case, the physical along with the psychological effects a federal nuclear facility has had on my hometown of Shirley, and the radioactive waste that will be sitting next door to the town for more than 300,000 years (longer than Long Island has even existed)—I realized I had an opportunity to see how I could inject some green into the often wasteful process of publication in an effort to not leave behind my own proverbial plastic planters.
I have the honor to serve as the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award administrator for PEN-NE (please visit the web site if you don’t know this wonderful organization, devoted to the causes of literacy and freedom of expression). Last Sunday was the day that the award was conferred, this year to novelist Joshua Ferris for Then We Came to the End(Little, Brown), a remarkably witty and deeply affecting book about the world of work in an era of downsizing. The Hemingway is for a first work of fiction, and the judges also named two finalists, Rebecca Curtis for Twenty Grand(Harper Perennial) and Ravi Howard for Like Trees, Walking (Amistad). In the same ceremony, at the magisterial John F. Kennedy Library in Dorchester, Mass., PEN-NE handed out the L.L.Winship Award for fiction to Rishi Reddi for Karma and Other Stories (Harper Perennial), in Poetry to Ann Killough for Beloved Idea (Alice James Books), and in nonfiction to Kristin Laine for American Band (Gotham Books).
Could it be as simple as a case of innocent victims--the editor, the
agent, the writing teacher--being duped by one sociopathic young lady?
Maybe. But it also may also be true that when it comes to a hard-luck
gang story, McGrath, Bender and others involved in the publication of
Love and Consequences were more inclined to err on the side of
sensationalism and exploitation over the hard work of grooming an author
who might give readers genuine authenticity. And it is more than a bit
ironic that their apparent quest for vividly told ghetto authenticity
led them to nurture and promote a white woman writer whose story, even
if it were true, represented only a one-dimensional version of the
Authentic Black Experience.
Throughout the book, Bergland examines Mitchell's rise from 1847, when
she witnessed the flash of a comet... to becoming the "computer of Venus"
employed by the Nautical Almanac to calculate by math the orbit of that
planet; to her hiring as the first professor of astronomy at Vassar
College for women; and to the close of the 1800s when women's roles in
the sciences were discouraged and Mitchell lamented that she might be
the last of the nation's female scientists.
notes that while the word "scientist" had no masculine association at
the start of the 19th century, by 1873 a male Harvard Medical School
faculty member posited that women were physiologically unable to study
science and that those who pursued the subject with vigor risked
becoming "thoroughly masculine in nature or hermaphroditic in mind."
As of 1875, 10 years after Mitchell was appointed to her professorship,
the move toward a male scientific role model had gained societal
Many were drawn to the Oliver event by her
approachable verse with its intense focus on the natural world and its quiet
delights, but she soon dispensed with any notion that the evening was destined
to be some sort of ecumenical worship service of nature or the poet herself.
That seemed a possibility when many in the crowd of 2,500 gave Oliver a
standing ovation even before she had uttered a word.
But Oliver's self-effacing sense of humor soon
punctured such awe, delivered with a Seinfeldian sense of timing.
"I have a little dog and I'm working hard to
make him famous," Oliver said.
Knowing murmurs rippled through the crowd.
"And he deserves it," she added, to
That dreaded "R-word" is
indeed dredged up in Banished. When
blacks were driven from Forsyth County in 1912, many left behind land that they
owned. They were never paid for that land. It was simply gobbled up and sold by
whites who saw an opportunity to make a quick - and easy - buck. Neither the
blacks who lost land nor their descendants have been compensated.
Tom Hallock, Beacon's Associate Publisher, spent last weekend in the company of 500 booksellers at the American Booksellers Associations' third Annual Winter Institute in Louisville, Kentucky.
by Tom Hallock
Independent booksellers, like independent retailers in other industries, have long been under siege by big box and online retailers. In searching for ways to survive, they've found solutions that place them in the vanguard of Americans who are reclaiming their downtown areas, restoring the environment and creating community.
Amidst the workshops on inventory management, loss control, hand selling, and a hilarious one on consumer behavior led by Len Vlahos, were others on green retailing and presentations linking buy local campaigns to national movements on sustainability and climate change. Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (Holtzbrinck), spoke about "the special role bookstores and booksellers have to play, as they provide the place "where the community can think about itself". Gary Hirshberg, President and CEO of Stonyfield Farm, author of Stirring It Up: How to Make Money and Save the World (Hyperion), grew his business from a "7 cow start up" to a $300 million dollar a year company by incorporating environmentalism principals and practices. He found it both increased customer loyalty and reduced costs. He encouraged booksellers to think not only about how they lit and heated their stores, but also to examine the supply chain. He mentioned that UPS had saved ten million dollars a year by re-routing their trucks to minimize energy-consuming left turns. He left me thinking about not only our manufacturing practices, but also issues like returns. The ABA has embraced these messages, not only in programming, but by providing conference materials that were so green as to be almost edible. They've also developed a great list of books on community and sustainability [pdf].
Booksellers have taken the lead in developing independent business associations in their communities, educating their customers about the economic and environmental benefits of shopping locally. ABA COO Oren Teicher, a leading advocate of this approach, spoke about a study of 2007 holiday sales which showed that stores in areas that had independent business alliances averaged sales increases of 2.1%, whereas those in areas that lacked them had declines of .3%. In a business famous for its 2% profit margins, the difference is significant. Booksellers such as Steve Bercu, owner of BookPeople in Austin Texas; Betsy Burton, owner of The King's English Bookshop in Salt Lake City (and author of The King's English: Adventures of an Independent Bookseller); Carla Jimenez, co-owner of Inkwood Books in Tampa FL; and Clark Kepler, president of Kepler's Books in Menlo Park, shared their knowledge about creating these alliances. Beacon author Stacy Mitchell (Big Box Swindle) joined McKibben and Michael Shuman (The Small-Mart Revolution, Berrett-Koehler) in a wide ranging conversation about the transformative power of local economies, a talk that brought us all to our feet and which ABA hopes to broadcast on Book TV.
Banned Books Week has us thinking about censorship and free speech, but the recent controversy over book banning in prisons also got us fired up (along with Chris W. over at Philocrites). Fortunately, the public outcry over this egregious violation of the First Amendment made the government back off for now. It just goes to show that in order to protect speech, you've got to speak up! Of course, there's still more to come on this story, so we'll keep an eye on any future developments.
Before Beacon Broadside launches, setting off into new territory for our press, I thought it might be good to think about the ways in which blogging distinguishes itself from print publication.
I Googled the phrase “books not blogs,” and found this, from Dec. 31, 2004, by Bob Baxley of the blog Drowning in the Current. I don’t know Baxley, and he seems to have let this blog go fallow
earlier this year, but I was intrigued by these sentences from his New
Year’s Eve reflection: