You know the way John Wayne was hopelessly typecast, forever the cowboy, never Hamlet – who knows how vast a range he might have had? Well, so it’s beginning to seem to be for me and penguins. One of these days I’m going to branch out and give my attention to spaniels, or water buffalo, but in the meantime, those gay broody penguins I’ve mentioned before, who were given their own egg in a zoo, are the subjects of a children’s book, And Tango Makes Three which has made it to the top of the American Library Association’s list of the ten most frequently challenged books of 2008. Challenged, as in: take that filth of the shelves.
Aside from ‘homosexuality’, among the reasons given for wanting it banned are that it is anti-family and anti-ethnic. Obviously, it’s anti-family; almost everything is in America. Health care is anti-family. Questioning the right to bear arms is anti-family. Accepting Darwinian evolutionary theory is anti-family. Goes without say that gay penguins rearing chicks is anti-family. But anti-ethnic? Because penguins, being black and white, are mixed race? Were they given the wrong colour egg? Was it a Jewish egg, foisted on born-again penguins? Was a King penguin egg snuck into the Humboldt penguins’ nest? For god’s sake, was it an ostrich egg?
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is second on the list for being pretty damn wrong in the viewpoint department: reasons for the challenges being ‘political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, and violence’. Number six is a book with a fine title:The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky, who must be very proud to have committed the most offences in a single volume, it having been challenged on the grounds of ‘drugs, homosexuality, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, suicide, and unsuited to age group’.
Is there a committee which reads all the books in the library in search of the dangerous sleepers, or is there an army of single, diligent and damaged souls who haphazardly take out a seemingly innocent book about wallflowers and discover dirty realism on every page? Books aren’t just dangerous, they’re scary. They have words secreted in them, tens of thousands of them, and there are millions of books, filled with words, billions and billions of words climbing the walls, and you really can’t oversee everything. You lie awake fretting with the counting of all those words lurking and working and know that you’ll never catch them all. A library, I now see, must be a terrifying place to some people.
Richard Brautigan wrote a fine, whimsical novel (The Abortion, 1966) whose hero curated a library where anyone who had written an unpublished manuscript could bring it at any time of the day or night, and place it on the shelves (which became a reality, though now, of course, there is the internet). I suspect there’s also a hankering for a library with no books in it at all. A clean and tidy place where nothing is hidden between covers and under apparently innocuous titles. Maybe when they’ve dealt with the gay penguins in Antarctica, there will be a space for a white, ice room, with walls as slippery as a skating rink where no shelves could ever line the walls, a large, freezing room empty of – and as far as it’s possible to be from – books. It can stand as a vacant monument to right thinking and it’ll show those penguins what’s what.