Banned Books Covers (from ALA)

Saturday is the last day of “Banned Books Week.” Every year the American Library Association publicizes the fight against book censorship, and releases a list of which books were most frequently challenged during the year. Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series made the top 10, with objections about the book’s view on religion and complaints that it was inappropriate for young readers or too sexually explicit. Other “frequently challenged books” include classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple, and The Catcher in the Rye.

But a funny thing happened when I tried to download these books from the Kindle store. 7 of the 10 most-frequently challenged books simply aren’t available on the Kindle. The three you can download are:

1. My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult
2. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
3. Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight books.

But here’s the seven you can’t download.

ttyl; ttfn; l8r, g8r (series), by Lauren Myracle
And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier
The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things, by Carolyn Mackler

As an avid Kindle reader, it’s left me feeling a little left out. This week the American Library Association is urging a celebration of the freedom to read, suggesting a variety of activities, many designed for schools and public libraries. (For example, “Draw a picture of the one book you would save if books were being burned…”) They suggest essay contests and discussions, and even making a poster that celebrates students who dare to read books banned elsewhere in America. But they also urge “Exercise Your First Amendment Rights,” at the bottom of one web page. “Read a Banned Book!”

Fortunately, there’s a lot more banned books to choose from. The American Library Association has cataloged more than 11,000 attempts to ban books over the last 20 years — and over 1,000 different books that have been challenged since 1982. They also believe that there’s many times more, estimating that over 70 to 80 percent of the challenges aren’t even reported. In fact, there have even been attempts to ban 46 of the top 100 Novels of the 20th Century.

But there’s at least one banned book on that list that’s available only in Amazon’s Kindle store: the special 50th Anniversary edition of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. It’s a controversial book about an aging literary scholar who’s sexually obsessed with a 12-year-old girl, though I’m not sure if that’s why it isn’t available elsewhere. When Amazon announced their new $139 Kindles, they touted it as one of “many digital books exclusive to Kindle” (along with UR by Stephen King). And another Kindle store exclusive is Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie — which also appears on Radcliffe Publishing’s list of the top 100 novels of the 20th century.

Apparently right now there’s two reasons why you can’t read a book: because it’s censored – or because it’s not compatible with your chosen brand of e-reader! But digital readers can also help circumvent the censorship. I was excited when a traveler told me how their Kindle let them bypass government censorship of the internet in China! And if a library is pressured into removing a book, it may be available for downloading onto your Kindle.

Now every Kindle is a private, personal library – free from any pressure from your local book-burners…

Maybe this is the right time to think a moment about how we can preserve our “literary heritage”. In 1424, the Cambridge University library only had a total of 122 books in their entire collection, according to one history class I took in college. And in fact, during the first 1,000 years of European history, there were less than 8 million books in existence. At some point in our own lifetime, we may eventually be asked to make a choice about which books we’ll preserve in the new 21st-century formats.

I guess I’m hoping that the answer…is all of them.

Mark Twain writes a play with Bret Harte
Mark Twain once co-authored a play with another forgotten writer named Bret Harte. Their legendary meeting was even depicted in an advertisement for Old Crow whiskey (above). Here’s how Twain himself described it.

“Well, Bret came down to Hartford and we talked it over, and then Bret wrote it while I played billiards, but of course I had to go over it to get the dialect right. Bret never did know anything about dialect…”


In fact, “They both worked on the play, and worked hard,” according to Twain’s literary executor. One night Harte apparently even stayed up until dawn at Twain’s house to write a different short story for another publisher. (“He asked that an open fire might be made in his room and a bottle of whiskey sent up, in case he needed something to keep him awake… At breakfast-time he appeared, fresh, rosy, and elate, with the announcement that his story was complete.”) I was delighted to discover that 134 years later, that story was still available on the Kindle, “a tale which Mark Twain always regarded as one of Harte’s very best.”

Bret Harte’s short story (as a Kindle ebook)
Biography of Mark Twain by his executor (Kindle ebook)

Harte’s career had already touched another famous writer — Charles Dickens. Before his death, 58-year-old Dickens had sent a letter inviting Bret Harte for a visit in England. But ironically, that letter didn’t arrive until after young Harte had already written a eulogy marking Dickens’ death. (It was a poem called “Dickens in Camp,” suggesting that to the English oaks by Dickens’ grave, they should also add a spray of western pine for his fans in the lost frontier mining towns of California.)

But two of Harte’s famous short stories had already captured Dickens’ attention — “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” and “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” John Forster, who was Dickens’ biographer, remembers that “he had found such subtle strokes of character as he had not anywhere else in later years discovered… I have rarely known him more honestly moved.” In fact, Dickens even felt that Harte’s style was similar to his own, “the manner resembling himself but the matter fresh to a degree that had surprised him.”


“Dickens in Camp” as a free Kindle ebook
The Outcasts of Poker Flat as a Kindle ebook
The Luck of Roaring Camp and other stories
Forster’s Life of Charles Dickens (Kindle ebook)


So last year I’d finally pulled down a dusty volume of Bret Harte stories from my local public library. I’d had an emotional reaction to “The Outcasts of Poker Flats” — and an equally intense response to “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” But Harte’s career had peaked early, and it seems like he spent his remaining decades just trying to recapture his early success. (“His last letters are full of his worries over money,” notes The Anthology of American Literature, along with “self-pitying complaints about his health, and a grieving awareness of a wasted talent.”) Even in the 20th century, his earliest stories still remained popular as a source of frontier fiction — several were later adapted into western movies. But Harte never really achieved a hallowed place at the top of the literary canon.

Yet “The Luck of Roaring Camp” was the first ebook I’d ordered on my Kindle. I’d checked for print editions but hadn’t found a single one at either Borders, Barnes and Noble, or a local chain called Bookstores, Inc. Days later, I’d decided to try my public library, where I discovered a whole shelf of the overlooked novelist (including an obscure later novel called The Story of a Mine). And that’s when I noticed the date that the library had stamped on its inside cover.

“SEP 21 1905.”

Bret Harte library book - checked out in 1905Close-up of library check-out date for Bret Harte book

I felt like I was holding history in my hand. The book was published just three years after Harte’s death in 1902, and there was an old-fashioned card, in a plastic pocket glued to the inside cover, which showed some of the past check-out dates, including FEB 12 1923 and APR 8 1923.

Bret Harte library book - old check-out datesCheck-out dates for old library book

More than a century later, my local librarians had tagged this ancient book with an RFID chip so you could check it out automatically just by running it across a scanner. A computerized printer spit out a receipt, making sure that the book wouldn’t remotely trigger their electronic security alarm when it was carried past the library’s anti-theft security gates.

I hope that somewhere, that makes Bret Harte happy.

An author you won't see on your Kindle screensaver
Ever read an old novel, and realize how different its style is?

Maybe it’s a romantic novel from the 1800s, or a rambling post-modern narrative from Ernest Hemingway. But around the 1940s, you get what I think of as “The Great American Novelists”. That is, people who were consciously setting out to write glorious, high-stakes pageants about life itself.

I was a big fan of Thomas Wolfe, and finally got around to the watching a breathtaking production of a Thornton Wilder play. But this all brings me back to the man I now think of as “the lost novelist”.

Because you can’t buy his books for the Kindle.

William Saroyan grew up in Central California, and later depicted all the joys and dramas of small-town life in “The Human Comedy,” a devastating, bittersweet look at one family during World War II. He was always creating rich settings for touching stories about simple people facing an extraordinary crisis. The jacket of one book calls him “one of the permanently significant names in modern American fiction.”

Today I went to a public library about three hours from where Saroyan grew up, and I pulled one of his books off the shelf. It was published in 1951, and I’d never heard of it. (It’s called Rock Wagram – the story of a Fresno bartender who later in life struggles with the unexpected pitfalls of success.) As I held the book in my hand, I thought: this is something you can’t do on a Kindle.

You can’t read this.

Every man is a good man in a bad world. No man changes the world. Every man himself changes from good to bad or from bad to good, back and forth, all his life, and then dies. But no matter how or why or when a man changes, he remains a good man in a bad world, as he himself knows. All his life a man fights death, and then at last loses the fight, always having known he would. Loneliness is every man’s portion, and failure. The man who seeks to escape from loneliness is a lunatic. The man who does not laugh at these things is a bore. But the lunatic is a good man, and so is the fool, and so is the bore, as each of them knows. Every man is innocent, and in the end a lonely lunatic, a lonely fool, or a lonely bore.

But there is meaning to a man. There is meaning to the life every man lives.

Saroyan goes on to say it’s “a secret meaning.”

And then the novel begins…

William Saroyan won a Pulitzer Prize — which he refused to accept. And the author wrote a wonderful scene about books at a public library in his novel “The Human Comedy.”

But the scene is different if you watch the movie. Saroyan quarrelled bitterly with the film’s producers, and actually wrote a novel-version of the movie, after-the- fact, to try to make the story more hard-hitting. In the movie, the librarian tells two little boys that she’s been reading books for more than 70 years.

“And it still isn’t enough time.”

Tonight I looked up the same scene in Saroyan’s book version. The two boys still visit the librarian, and she gives the same speech. But in the book, she only insists that she’s been in the world reading books for sixty years.

“And it hasn’t made one bit of difference!”

It’s a interesting counterpoint to the life of William Saroyan. His popularity declined, and he eventually funded a foundation to publish his works — possibly just to shore us his legacy. So it’s interesting what happens when you look for Saroyan ebooks for the Kindle.

You don’t find any.

But you do find a biography about his bittersweet life…