Atwood with a Flamethrower!
words :: Feet Banks
Warning: this entire post is an excuse to put up this video but it sent me down a wormhole…
Book burning may not be trending as much lately but, in America at least, there’s still no shortage of people trying to ban books. The (absolutely kickass and brilliant) video above, of Canadian literary icon Margaret Atwood taking a flamethrower to an “unburnable” version of her most contentious book to be auctioned off as part of new campaign by literary freedom watchdog PEN to protect free expression worldwide and the freedom to write, to celebrate creative expression, and to defend the liberties that make it possible.
According to PEN stats, 1,586 book bans that have occurred in 86 school districts in 26 states between July 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022. That’s 2,899 schools (yes, Texas had the most bans) with a combined enrollment of over 2 million students.
Of the banned books on PEN’s index:
- 41% included protagonists or prominent characters of colour (aka: not white)
- 22% dealt directly with themes race or racism
- 33% include LGBTQ+ themes or prominent characters
- 28% were non-fiction, including children’s book biographies of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr, Duke Ellington, and Nelson Madela
- 9% were books with themes related to activism or human rights
Don’t worry, it gets worse: the American Library Association (ALA) also released their data. And while Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale hasn’t made the ALA list of the most challenged, complained about, or “let’s ban this fucker for the kids!” books since 2019, the 2021 list shines further light onto what kind of Americans are into banning books.
- Five of the top ten banned books for 2021 were fictional stories with (usually young) queer/gay/trans/etc characters
- Two are about racial minorities
- And the last three allegedly contain dirty sex and are therefore derogatory to women.
- All are works of fiction.
And while a number of the top ten most hated books are best sellers, it’s worth noting that two of them were also adapted into Hollywood films—Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give about a young black teen trying to put the pieces back together after police murder her also-black friend (in front of her) at a “routine” traffic stop. And Jesse Andrew’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl about a teen who gains a new perspective on life after his mother forces him and his buddy to befriend a classmate dying of leukemia. Apparently, some people found the book obscene and pornographic.
Andrews defended his book in a series of tweets, saying “There are cuss words and jokey descriptions of sex, from characters who have clearly never had sex. That is how a lot of teenagers talk…Anyone calling it pornographic has no idea what that word means. I guarantee you, no one has ever been, or will ever be, sexually aroused by this book. It’s berserk to me that I even have to say that.”
Andrews went on to point out that the idea of “obscene” is highly subjective, Tweeting,“that’s a value judgment. I myself think American gun culture is obscene. But you don’t see me campaigning to have John Wick removed from the internet.”
Which reminded that I do own a book that actually is banned, Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors by Rex Ferrel. This was one of the first books reviewed for Pie Quarterly, back when the reviews were Instagram captions. So, it’s worth taking a deeper look.
Hit Man came out in 1983 and as the story goes, it started as a detailed crime novel written by a bored Florida mom but publishing house Paladin Press changed the format to bring it in line with their more popular non-fiction books on survivalist, weapons, and military topics.
I bought my copy in 1997 or so, at The Spy Store in Vancouver Canada. This was the place to get the kind of high-tech gadgetry that is ultra-common now but was a big deal in the late 90s—tiny hidden spy cams (that were still the size of a glue stick) and trackers you could hide in your spouses car and follow them (within 300 metres) to learn if they were cheating on you. Throw in a bookshelf full of prepper tomes and The Anarchist Cookbook, and It was a pretty awesome store to a smalltown 21-year-old kid with a 15-year-old’s brain.
And to be fair, this book will teach you how to kill a motherfucker any number of ways. And how to get away with it…almost. On March 3, 1993, in Maryland USA, a dickhead named James Perry was hired by and even bigger dickhead Lawrence Horn to murder Horn’s wife and their disabled son (apparently for some insurance money the mother had received after the son had been injured in a hospital.) The boy’s nurse had the poor luck of being there that day and was also killed.
Perry, a repeat violent offender, was caught, convicted and given three death penalties. But not before he admitted to using Hit Man as a helpful guide in enacting these brutal murders. The families of the victims sued Paladin Press for “aiding and abetting” and after a November 1997 ruling in the US court of appeals, Hit Man and Paladin Press became the first publisher in American history held liable for a crime committed by a reader.”
Deeming that a First Amendment appeal would be too risky and costly, Paladin’s insurer settled with the families out of court (it’s never about anything but profit/loss equations to insurance companies), surrendered their last 700 copies of Hit Man and stopped publication. Distributors like The Spy Store, however, were allowed to sell out their remaining stock to any potential killers (or dorky book nerds) who could rustle up the 30 bucks.
But the die had been cast. Paladin was sued again after botched 1998 murder attempt on Bobby Joe Wilson. The hit-man-to-be in the case, Robert Jones had been hired by Bobby Joe’s husband. He outlined numerous parts of the book he had followed in his attempted “hit.”
Various internet sources estimate there are 13-20,000 copies of Hit Man out there in the world. They seem widely available on ebay for anywhere from $60 to $32,999.99 (plus $998.99 for shipping) for copy still in the original shrinkwrap (DON’T buy this. I’ll re-wrap and sell you mine for half that.) Reps from Paladin at the time of the banning claimed most people who bought the book were simply “true crime” fans or struggling authors looking for help writing crime fiction of their own (and it would be very useful for that.)
But what does it all mean? I don’t know…does a book like Hit Man hold any social, historical, or intellectual value enough to offset the (so far) two dumbasses (one a recently released violent criminal) that took it literally and committed heinous crimes. (It’s also worth assuming that if two people got caught, others did the same thing and got away with it—the book is very thorough).
But if Hit Man is ban-worthy, what about similar-but-not-as-bad crime/survival books like 100 Deadly Skills? As always, the question becomes “where do we draw the line?” and “Who get’s to draw it?”
And while I don’t think anyone would argue books like Hit Man (or 100 Deadly Skills) belong in a school library, (although the gun violence in America is so fucking bad anyhow, would it even make a difference?), should a book like The Hate U Give really be banned because white middle class Americans don’t want their kids to know that police brutality is a very real danger for millions of kids their age in their very same country?
And in the Internet era, does any of it really make a difference? Type in the right three words and two of the top three Google searches are offering the full text of Hit Man for free. (It’s also way to easy too online-learn how to make napalm. Like waaaaaaayyy too easy.)
What a shitshow. I’m inclined to pivot and chart a different course, that of a 46-year-old book nerd (with a 15-year old’s brain)— As western civilization continues to circle the toilet drain with the cult of celebrity providing the perfect distraction so the corrupt leaders can continue fucking over everyone but themselves… As human attention span shrivels, and our screen eyes evolve to be so large as those trippy black light poster aliens… As ignorance-fueled division increases in an increasingly headline/clickbait-driven online world where people believe screaming at each other in a comments section will make a difference… Maybe we should be happy that kids are reading books at all. Maybe we should lean into that a bit.
Or as Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’s Jesse Andrews argues in his Tweet-rebuttal to the haters, “librarians tell me the same story over and over: a kid thought he hated books. then they gave him my book. he liked it. now he’s reading more books. that’s why my book is on the shelf. that’s why we need LOTS OF KINDS OF BOOKS on the shelf. to get as many kids reading as we can.”
I think Margaret Atwood would agree. In 2021 she matched PEN Canada’s 25,000 fundraising goal to help support programs like the Writers in Exile Committee, which provides solidarity, support and sometimes sanctuary for at-risk journalists and authors fighting to tell the truth around the globe. Here in Canada we don’t burn or ban near as many books as our neighbours to the south (not anymore—we definitely have a strong history of it though, with Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale and The Diviners), however, our Canadian customs agents do indeed prevent “hateful” or “obscene” books/movies/comics from entering the country. In 2021 it looks like border agents turned away 36 titles. But specifics and details are harder to dig up).
On the one hand, freedom of expression is a battle fought on a number of fronts. On the other, I can personally (easily) list at least a dozen people I think should be muzzled just for the stupid, potentially harmful shit they spout on social media.
Of course, rather than censor them (or have them killed by a dime-store hitman) I choose to just ignore them instead. We all have the right to a voice, and I will fight for yours as much as my own, even when you are wrong. (Okay, probably not quite AS MUCH when I think you are wrong, but I def will still fight for you.) And if something in a book, new or old, is problematic. I think if it was up to me i’d let authors/publishers pull their shit voluntarily after being shown the errors of their ways (and agreeing). This tactic, unrealistically, rests on the idea that everyone is a good person with the best interests of everyone else in their heart. Human civilzation has proven that has never occurred on any kind of widespread scale, but it’s nice to dream.
In any case, Big Brother is watching (and reading your texts), act accordingly. And if you want to help battle literary censorship—or even learn more about it— here are a couple places to start: