Friday, October 2, 2009

An Incomplete Map

The dawn of this country spawned many pithy quotes and axioms, sayings that embody the spirit of this country, many of which cannot be reliably attributed to an individual. There were just too many erudite people wandering around at that time to be sure. Regardless, the one I quote most often is has to be "I hate what you say, but I will die for your right to say it."

I came on here last Sunday and gave my defense of challenging literature. (Literature is supposed to be challenging.) It is easy to defend something that exists in the nebulous realm of fiction because it is easy for reasonable people to divorce the actions of Holden Caulfield and Kilgore Trout from reality even as we acknowledge their satire and latent messages about our reality.

Yesterday someone reminded me that some of the most challenging books out there aren't sold in the literature section.

Recent years has underlined how truly divisive political speech can be and how quickly it can change the nature of the debate from issues to namecalling. The partisans stand behind barricades constucted of paper and ink with provocative titles like Stupid White Men and Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and/or Liberal Fascism and Arguing with Idiots.

When the aforementioned Stupid White Men came out, I was manager of a large bookstore in the Seattle exurb of Bellevue, WA. At least three times a week, I was hauled downstairs to answer the complaints of someone complaining about the latest political screed. Because Bellevue tends to trend in the conservative direction, the complaints were generally of Michael Moore or Al Franken (though Anne Coulter racked up quite a few because this is still the west coast, after all).

At the end of the day, it was easy to want to just chuck the entire "Politics" section in the bin. It was even easier to convince yourself that removing the grit from the gears would actually improve things... and that's part of the dangerous slope that becomes slipperier the farther you travel along it. Far funnier to re-label the entire section as 'Fiction' and pretend you didn't know who did it. (Not that I would ever do such a thing... ahem.)

To challenge a book -- to ban it or attempt to ban it -- is to try to craft a culture in which only one viewpoint gets to be aired. A one-sided debate is not a debate, and to silence the extreme elements is to stifle those who would speak more reasonably. To chuck Michael Moore in the bin is every bit as dangerous as pitching Glenn Beck, no matter which one you ultimately agree with. Every book is an historical document. From the thrillers of Tom Clancy to the best of Kurt Vonnegut, each book reflects the world in which it was generated. Political books are documentation of the width and breadth of American political and cultural thought. To remove any of them would be to have an incomplete map of our cultural landscape. To draw a map of the middle and scribble in the left and right margins "Here there be dragons."

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).