Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Judging a book by its cover

A Bloomsbury-published book entitled Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor is causing a stir. The cover shows a slice of watermellon, devoured almost to the rind, turned up to reveal (some have said) the image of silly grin. The pic is set against a black background. Charges that the cover is racially insensitive were followed by the author (editor), Paul Beatty, having his appearance on "a prominent national radio show" [PBS?] cancelled.

But here's the interesting part:

"A library in the state of New York also disinvited Beatty to a panel appearance after seeing the cover."


Say it ain't so. Doesn't this violate that ever-cloudy and ambiguous code of no-censorship espoused by all information proletarians slaving away in the paper mines?

No, you say? Disinviting an author based on part of the content of his book is not censorship? Okay. But what if the library not only rescinded the invite, but then declined to catalog the book, reasoning that if they rejected an author's appearance based on the content of his book (and the cover is content), then to carry the book would be the height of hypocrisy.

Remember those hypothetical situations in the library magazines? Your boss constantly insists that you clear decisions with him that are cleary your purview. What do you do? Another one: An angry group of patrons is insisting that dismantle the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender section of the library. Your boss agrees with you but doesn't want to rock the boat. What do you do?

In Grad School we had to work these out in groups. We were also allowed to create our own. A particularly obnoxious young woman in my group was always insisting on two things: 1) libraries should represent the needs and desires of the community. By this she meant that libraries in minority neighborhoods should be staffed exclusively by minorities; and 2) the rejection of any book amounts to censorship.

I came up with one just for her.

You are a librarian in a black neighborhood. A patron walks in and donates a pristine copy of The Bell Curve. You check and discover that your branch does not have copy of the book. You accept the donation.

Distracted by other work, you leave the copy of The Bell Curve on the counter. A patron, who is a pillar of the local civil rights/black activist community, walks in, notices the book and says, "I hope you're not going to put that racist piece of #$%!! in our library!" You mumble something about being against censorship and quitely slip the book under the counter, but Civil Rights Activist will have none of it. He wants your assurance that a book which "is egregiously racist and offensive to this community" will NOT take valuable space in this neighborhood library.

What do you do?

My group buddy declined to say what she would do in such a situation.

I wonder if the unnamed New York Library will face soon face the same question.

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