Opinion: Reading dangerously

Published: 10/3/2022 6:00:34 AM

Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.

I was watching the Ken Burns documentary about America and the Holocaust and there was a deeply unsettling moment when the filmmakers showed the Nazi book burning in 1933. With Joseph Goebbels presiding, many Nazi students threw thousands of books deemed subversive, decadent or corrupt into a massive burning pyre. This was part of the effort to purify German literature from Jewish influence.

The scene made me think of a favorite quote of mine from the writer Edwidge Danticat, “Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously. This is what I’ve always thought it meant to be a writer.”

Danticat is like the opposite of the Nazi vision. Nazi anti-intellectualism is not compatible with intellectual freedom and any spirit of independent critical thinking and reading. Fascists and authoritarians ban books to erase history and the lived experience of people outside their control.

My love of reading started as a teen. I don’t associate it with any school. My school made us read classics and I remember reading A Tale of Two Cities and Silas Marner and enjoying them but I got turned on to reading outside school. At summer camp, I remember lying in my bunk, being mesmerized by The Caine Mutiny.

This led to my love affair with books and bookstores. It was long before Amazon and the closure of so many independent bookstores. Hanging out at bookstores was a favorite pastime. I was an inveterate bookstore browser. Growing up in a suburb of Philadelphia, Lower Merion, my sister Lisa and I used to take the train, the Paoli Local, into downtown Philadelphia on Saturdays. We lived easy walking distance from the town train stop and it was a quick ride to Suburban Station in the city.

I don’t remember exactly how we found it but one of our regular destinations was Robin’s Bookstore, which was located close to City Hall. The store closed over 10 years ago. The owner, Larry Robin, had eclectic tastes in literature, political books and periodicals you could not find elsewhere. The store was a counterculture institution.

The poetry section had the collected poems of Kenneth Patchen and Kenneth Rexroth, two poets I came to love but whose work has now disappeared. Patchen is truly unique. He did these bizarre, cosmic drawings as part of his work. They were always interesting to contemplate and try to interpret.

Patchen offered sayings like, “No man’s life is beautiful except in hurtless work.”

“Law and order embrace on hate’s border.”

“In the love of a man and a woman is the look of God looking.”

Rexroth was an anarchist and a father of the San Francisco beat movement that included Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder. I would mention Rexroth’s poem “For Eli Jacobson” which gives a good feel for who he was.

Unusual back then, Robin’s had a large African American history section including works by the historians Herbert Aptheker and Philip Foner. I especially remember Aptheker’s book American Negro Slave Revolts. This was history not taught in school.

In my twenties, I moved to the Boston area and discovered the Red Bookstore, which was then located near Central Square in Cambridge. That bookstore also had progressive books that were almost impossible to find in other venues. Two books I found in that store I treasure: a novel, Daughter of Earth, by Agnes Smedley and an autobiography, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, by Victor Serge. Both are beautifully written.

Daughter of Earth is a feminist classic. I recall the words near the start of the book, “What I have written is not a work of beauty created that someone may spend an hour pleasantly; not a symphony to lift up the spirit, to release it from the dreariness of reality. It is the story of a life, written in desperation, in unhappiness.

I write of the earth on which we all, by some strange circumstance, happen to be living. I write of the joys and sorrows of the lowly. Of loneliness. Of pain. And of love.”

Little known in the United States, Victor Serge is a giant among working-class writers in the twentieth century. A libertarian socialist, Serge always remained committed to the values of democracy and free expression. He fought capitalism and Stalinism. If very lucky, you might find some of his books in used bookstores.

Used bookstores have a special place in my heart. One great one is Brattleboro Books in Brattleboro, Vermont. I also would give a shout out to Tidal Wave Books in Anchorage, Alaska. Tidal Wave is a huge store. There I found and bought The Collected Poems of Bertolt Brecht. His poem, To Posterity, is a favorite of mine.

As for other bookstores in my life, I would be remiss if I did not mention our own Gibson’s in Concord, City Lights in San Francisco, and Powell’s in Portland, Oregon. All have been nourishing as far as discovering books I never would have seen or read otherwise.

Larry Robin said this before his bookstore closed —“With the internet, you can find exactly what you’re looking for. But what’s most important is to find what you weren’t looking for.”

Like other tastes in life, my book preferences are personal and idiosyncratic and I think it is the same for all who love books and reading. No syllabus or institution ever directed my reading. Reading is a passion to follow. As I have gotten older, I think I am more impatient about reading only what I find compelling. If I am not grabbed, I’ll put it aside.

What is strange and peculiar about our time is all the censors and busybodies who think they know better and want to direct the reading of others. Hiding behind criticizing wokeness, they want to protect young people from critical race theory or LGBTQ books.

PEN America just released a new report that shows that 1,600 book titles across 32 states were banned from public schools during the 2021-2022 school year. Most ban requests came from right-wing groups with a racist or anti-gay agenda. They may not be Nazis but their role is equivalent to the Nazi book burners. If the opportunity presented itself, they probably would torch books.

Intellectual freedom is about reading books others say you can’t read. Don’t ever let anyone else tell you what you can and can’t read. Find your own way with reading. Read whatever strikes your fancy and tell censors to go to hell.

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