Last night the good people at Housing Works put together a great event on the longstanding tradition of banning “controversial” books. The event was held at their bookstore on Crosby Street, which is an absolute gold mine of awesome used books that cost as little as a dollar, with all proceeds going to charity. The in-store coffee shop has free wi-fi, and was the workspace to me and many others before things got out of hand and they took our outlets away.
The event was mc’d by Mike Edison, a pornographic writer. He’s penned, by his count, 28 porn novels, at one point churning them out once a week. He was a gruff, funny looking dude, and he pranced the stage reading excerpts from his graphic books, accompanied by a little jazz band that included a former member of Sonic Youth. His voice was surprisingly gruff and garbled on the mic for an MC, and there were stretches where I just had to stop listening.
There was a big emphasis on the graphic literary industry throughout the event, as they seem to be one of the few remaining victims of outright government bans. That type of book ban may not instill the same sentimental outrage as say, the banning of Native Son, but it’s still an absurd government policy in any era, especially with the ease in which people can get porn on the internet or in video form today. As he read, the main thing that struck me was how little I am turned on by porn lit. His portly build and frumpy presentation didn’t help, but I actually tried reading a graphic novel once and just didn’t find it very stimulating.
The main star of the evening was Herald Price Fahringer (pictured below), an old lawyer who won great acclaim defending “smut” like Larry Flynt and the Times Square porn stores successfully on First Amendment grounds. He told a great story of the time he defended a movie accused of indecency, I Am Curious (Yellow), a late 60s film playing on Delancey Street.
In pornography cases, the defense is permitted to show the jury an example of a similar work of art that had already been declared legal. Fahringer filed a brief requesting to take the jury to the movie theaters to see a popular explicit movie, follow by I Am Curious (Yellow), back to back. Surprisingly, the judge granted the motion (ah, the 60s), thundering, “We’re going to the movies!” Fahringer had arranged a bus to pick up the jury, the judge, the lawyers and the stenographers at the courthouse. As the judge led the crowd into the theater he barked, “No one is allowed to go to the candy counter- I don’t want anyone getting lost,” which was recorded dutifully by the court stenographers. The bus then had to beat rush hour traffic to make the second movie. The group finally returned to the courthouse, where the jury acquitted I Am Curious (Yellow) of all charges. Fahringer’s proud service in defense of free expression is a reminder that censorship is not something in our ancient history, but something that people can still dedicate their careers to fighting.
The other marquee speaker was Richard Nash, a wonky tech guy, who talked about how censorship has been outsourced by the government. “The First Amendment,” he explained, “is simply too strong.” So the government lets private companies stifle speech on economic grounds, providing the example of Mattel squashing a small publisher that used “Barbie” in its book title, even though Mattel has lost trademark cases over the name Barbie repeatedly against other big corporations with their own hotshot law firms. Nash connected this to net neutrality, which is a very legitimate threat to the democratic way in which the internet is presented to us today. Nash was clearly a smart dude, but we were sitting in front of two feisty women, one of whom may have been his wife, engaged in a highly distracting preacher call and response act throughout. Nash would condemn Apple for blocking risque apps, and the women would chortle, “Amen, brother! That Apple is out of control!” Nash imparted succinctly the general message of the evening, which is that censorship should always be battled vigilantly, because what is “too controversial” for you to read or see today could be important in shaping your future.
When the Name That Banned Book Contest began, I didn’t even bother grabbing a pen, figuring that the crowd for a Banned Book event at a bookstore would probably crush me at such a contest. I stepped out for a phone call, and when I returned for the second half, I overheard something about Hungry Joe. Hungry Joe! That could only mean one book- Catch-22, my favorite of all time, the one book I would take with me if I was stuck on a desert island. From that point on I nailed a couple more (Catcher in the Rye, Huck Finn) and added them to Crispus’s sheet. Together we had 6/10, which, it turns out, tied for the most out of anyone in the crowd- a little surprising.
For the record, some of the other banned books were Candide, Naked Lunch, Harry Potter and Clockwork Orange. If you go look up all the books that have been banned at one point, it makes up an enormous part of the great literary canon. Catch-22 was banned in Ohio from 1961, when it was published, until 1972, when the Supreme Court ruled that the ban violated the First Amendment.
I stepped forward to claim my prize, along with a girl who had been sitting behind us. As I said before, Mike Edison was often tough to understand, so I thought he was offering me a choice between a stack of books, and a book about the Sex Museum. I obviously chose the stack of books, at which point he presented the girl with two tickets to the Sex Museum. That made more sense, and I somewhat regretted my decision, though Crispus pointed out that it would have been weird for the two of us to go on a date to the Sex Museum.
There four books, and I kept two of them. One is the a book about the making of London Calling, the Clash’s most famous record. This was turning out to be quite a night of favorites, as the Clash my favorite band of all-time, though I prefer Sandinista to London Calling, personally. The other book was about the crash of the housing market, named The Crash, so I now had Clash and Crash related books in hand. Not bad for a Wednesday evening.