Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Hey kids! Let's put on a book burning!
4/11/07 WEDNESDAY, at approximately 10:45, a college administrator who is responsible for community relations and fundraising approached Rebel Girl in her office. Chunk was there too, ensconced in his new ergonomically correct office chair, swiveling mildly, as if preparing for a stint in the space program. The administrator is a cheerful sort, and bounces with the kind of energy that Rebel Girl envies, but is also frightened by.
The administrator—let's call him Mickey, shall we?—inquired if she had ever heard of book burning.
“Sure,” she replied, wondering where he was going with this opening gambit.
“Have you ever heard of any famous ones?”
“Why sure,” she said, and she proceeded to talk about the reception John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath received in California by Chamber of Commerce types when it was first published, noting that the anniversary was fast approaching and adding that a book on that very subject was due out soon, written by a local acclaimed journalist. Reb really talks like this, Wiki-entry style. Helpful, right?
"Well," Mickey said, "I was thinking that we need to better advertise our library and this college as an important resource for the community."
Reb wasn’t completely following Mickey's train of thought (choo-choo) but she began to hope that what he meant would amount to some kind of scholarly lecture or talk, a series maybe, fully funded with honoraria and a budget and an invitation extended, perhaps, to that local journalist and others. She was, as you can see, already designing the flier and filling the seats. There’d be coffee and cookies, a tower of brownies and bottled water. Rebel Girl would do the introductions.
“Oh yeah,” she said, “what kind of thing are you thinking about?”
“Well,” Mickey went on, “the library, it has a lot of books it has to discard, right? Old books, books that are replaced. Sometimes it’s a problem.”
“What do you mean?” Somehow, she knew at that moment, that her fantasy would remain just that, an unfunded fantasy.
“We could have a book burning,” Mickey said. “It would get a lot of attention and we could use it to publicize the college.” He flashed her that winning smile of his that must have helped him land his position. Before he came to us, Mickey was in service to a series of local elected grinning Republicans.
It’s difficult to faithfully describe this scene without further describing Mickey’s typical demeanor, distinguished by a kind of wide-eyed eagerness often found in movies from the 30s, Depression-era black-and-white films meant to warm our hearts. Think Mickey Rooney and young Judy Garland. Shirley Temple. His, like theirs, are the kind of eyes that literally shine with hope: “Hey kids! Let’s put on a show!”
Or, in this case: “Hey, kids! Let’s put on a book burning!”
“No,” Rebel Girl said, “we can’t do that.” Her fantasy had been trumped. There would be no speaker series, no salon on the politics of censorship. That ship had sailed. It had sunk, crashed on the reefs, been torn down like, say, a clock tower infested with termites or a sign on a greenhouse. She found it hard to look at Mickey, at his eager eyes, and instead she examined her new office chair, blue, ergonomically correct, a twin to Chunk's, delivered last week.
Astronaut Chunk had crash landed. Zero gravity. Think Mercury Seven.
“Why not?” Mickey wanted to know.
“You can’t burn books to advertise the college. You can’t. It’s not what we do." (Yes, I really said this.)
“I think it would be great,” he continued. “We could get lots of publicity, use up the old books."
Earlier, Chunk had re-entered orbit, and had asked, “And what would be the point of that?” (Chunk has a bit of the Oscar Wilde about him.) He was asking about why we, the college, would burn books. He kept waiting for, as he told me later, Mickey to explain the point of doing that. He hoped that Mickey would pull a rabbit out of a hat, but no. Not a rabbit. Not a duck. Not anything. Actually, there was no hat either.
Mickey looked at Reb with that smile of his that suggested that he still believed he could sell this modest proposal to her, “And you could be the one who lights the fire!”
“No,” she said. “Not me.” She eyed the clock and began gathering her materials for class.
“But you’re such a rebel,” Mickey said, still smiling. He grinned like we were sharing a private joke.
“Not that kind of rebel,” she replied. “You’ve got me wrong.”
She began to wonder if the college president had put Mickey up to this, had paid him to come over here and make this proposal, push her into a big practical joke, like the kind where your best pal kneels down behind the dope and then somebody pushes him over. Maybe it went like this: Mickey, Mickey, the president said, I've got an idea! Go over to Rebel Girl's office and tell her we're going to put on a book burning! Maybe she'll fall for it and write about it in the blog! Har, har, har!
Perhaps there were secret cameras and microphones in the offices as some have suggested. Have you seen the Sharper Image catalog? Maybe even now, at this moment, the college president and his buddies were having a good old laugh at Reb's expense ("Oh, that Rebel Girl, she's such a sap!") in the presidential suite, watching the image of me and Mickey on a screen transmitted by a pen in Mickey's breast pocket that was really, yes, a tiny camera.
“Look, the Nazis burned books,” Reb told him, “I don’t think we should do that.”
“We could spin it,” he suggested. “Show that while people used to burn books, now they don’t anymore. It could be a statement about the First Amendment.”
“While we’re burning books? It doesn’t work. You can’t spin book burning.”
This went on. And on. Really.
Chunk tried to clarify a point for Mickey: “A radical might participate in this sort of thing, not because we used to burn books but now we don’t, but because we still burn books.” Chunk teaches logic and you've got to hand it to him, that seemed pretty darn logical.
Then Reb launched into some examples, including the recent case of the banning of Newbery-award winning children's book, The Higher Power of Lucky, by L.A. librarian and writer Susan Patron. "People banned it," she informed Mickey, "because it had the word "scrotum" in it. On the first page."
How much longer could this go on?
Rebel Girl realized later that part of her distress, other than uttering the word "scrotum" aloud to Mickey in her office, had to do with the fact that she was just not prepared to participate in a discussion about organizing a book burning on a Wednesday morning. She had awoken this morning pretty confident that she would not be having this conversation, uttering "scrotum" or staring at Mickey's ballpoint pen.
Desperation set in. She looked instead at the clock.
"I have an 11:00 o'clock," she announced and practically pulled Chunk out of his new chair to accompany her. Safety was a modest concern. Sanity was a close second.
They bade farewell to Mickey who looked as cheerful as always. The show would go on!
The day was brilliant, that cloudless blue sky that seems to suggest everything is just fine on the little campus in the orange groves, but without the actual orange groves any more, or the fig tree either. The line at the coffee cart was long. The rose bushes were in full bloom if a little sticky with whitefly. Rebel Girl and Chunk marched across the green grass.
Rebel Girl turned to Chunk. “Did Mickey really just suggest a book burning?”
Chunk replied, “Indeed he did.” —RG
(written mostly by Rebel Girl, with a big assist from Red and the usual support from Chunk.)