Last week, Studs Terkel went down to Girard, Pa., to defend his book against the banners. His peformance in the school and at the open meeting was, I am told, vintage Terkel: intimate, winning, honest.
Those who know this man from Chicago could imagine the itch he felt to turn on his own tape recorder and capture the voices and the feelings of the people who had accused him of writing a dirty book.
Terkel is, after all, a professional listener. He has listened to Americans who survived the Depression and listened to Americans who make it through life one working day at a time in a factory or a restaurant. He has a passion for words as they are really spoken -- expletives not deleted. The folk of Girard, even those who challenged the school's right to assign "Working" to the students, are much like the people between the pages of his book. As Terkel put it, "The exquisite irony is that they are the heroes and heroines of this book."
What was unusual about this scene was that Terkel came and maybe even conquered. Although the final decision on "Working" won't come down from the school board until Monday, he ended the day with a standing ovation.
But without Terkel's star performance, it would have been another version of a stock play that has run in hundreds of other places with names as unfamiliar as Girard. Warsaw, Ind., St. Anthony, Idaho, Gardner, Kan., and Drake, N.D., are only a few entries on the huge roll call of towns that have staged a censorship show.
The list of books that have been challenged or banned from school curricula and libraries in the last few years read like a Who's Who of American authors. The words of challengers read sometimes like a parody. It is tempting to repeat the lines of the parent from Richfort, Vt., who criticized the school use of "Grapes of Wrath," saying, "You would never find a book like that in The Reader's Digest."
But the censorship incidents are real and growing. The American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, which keeps track of these things, tells us that, in the last year, reported challenges have tripled nationally from 300 to 900. These come sometimes from the left and mostly from the right. But they almost always come from people who want limits: limits on what the libraries can hold, limits on what the schools can assign, limits on what the students can read.
If Robert Doyle, the ALA's assistant to the president, had to pick the hottest issues for censoring they would be "language," sexual references, agnostic and atheistic viewpoints and secular humanism. Not far behind would be protests against books without a strong moral viewpoint, in which good is not always rewarded and evil not always punished.
When you listen, censorship controversy is not really between liberal and conservative, left and right. It's between those who think that the business of books is to expand our vision and those who only want to read what they believe. It's between those who think the business of schools is to describe the world as it is, warts and all, and those who worry that the warts will spread unless they are removed from the pages, the shelves, the schools.
Maybe the library, even the school library, seems like an odd place for such a noisy conflict. Doyle says that, in fact, libraries try to maintain some political neutrality by "promoting the widest viewpoint." But in an era when the major intellectual struggle is against those who want to ensure a narrow viewpoint, this belief isn't neutral anymore.
The schools in particular are increasingly a focus for conflicting ideas, our investment in the future. All the regular procedures to approve textbooks, to define appropriate reading, have become more complex and more controversial. But there is a difference between an orderly review process and the lynch-mob censorship by which books are hung one by one.
Most of the time, as Doyle says, a book doesn't even get a day in court. Only 15 percent of the censorship challenges even make news. Most of the rest are handled quietly. In about half the cases, the ALA tells us, some form of censorship is imposed almost immediately. Sometimes this censorship is as informal as a magic marker in the hand of a teacher in Idaho who blacks out every "damn" and "hell" in the book.
Terkel did get his "day in court," a public court. He defended his work against people who hunt for words instead of meanings. He defended the real world, the wide lands. He left Girard with a farewell that should, with any luck, stave off the censors of one more book for one more day: "I hope you have a long, decent life, work hard, and READ."