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April 30, 2013

On Censorship and Visiting City Lights Books, San Francisco

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I recently made my first trip to San Francisco. I hit the usual spots: Dolores Park, Lombard Street and The Golden Gate Bridge. With Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo among my favorite films, I had a mission to see Fort Point, where Kim Novak threw herself into the water in one of the film’s most iconic scenes.

As a reader, my true Mecca was City Lights Bookstore, celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. City Lights is, of course, heavily associated the Beat movement and its writers --- Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and store co-founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti, among others. Adding to my desire to visit the store was Ferlinghetti’s appearance in another one of my favorite films --- The Last Waltz.

The real story behind the store is the obscenity trial surrounding Ginsberg’s HOWL AND OTHER POEMS, which City Lights published and sold in 1956.

I’ve never completely identified with the Beat movement. Although I recognize the inherent genius and thought put into HOWL, I’m not much of a poetry fan. However, as someone who has long carried a grudge against any hint of censorship, I’ve always been fascinated by the history of City Lights and HOWL. The work was deemed obscene, and though Ferlinghetti was the official defendant, it was HOWL on trial.

Reading court transcripts and newspaper coverage showed me there is nothing more entertaining than lawyers interrogating academics over the literary merit of a graphic work. It read like the world’s most aggressive creative writing workshop.

It also showed me the gravity of the trial. Had people not been willing to stand up for a shocking, explicit and often offensive work, a landmark bookstore and poem would have most likely been lost. More importantly, it would have been a blow to writers and readers from every genre.

Looking over the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books from 2000 to 2009, one will see such brilliant and disparate titles such as the HARRY POTTER series, OF MICE AND MEN, I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS, THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Seeing FAHRENHEIT 451 on the list is especially alarming, given its frank look at the dangers of censorship. Even now, recent challenges have been made in the US to both PERSEPOLIS and THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK.

The idea of banning HOWL and these other works is a terrifying notion. They, and other banned titles, have impacted and bettered our society by challenging, inspiring or comforting one generation after the next.

To walk into City Lights is to feel that weight. It is to stand where an important moment in literature began. It gives us a physical reminder that ideas and words will always be challenged because they are powerful.

On a smaller scale, it’s simply a great bookstore. Vacations should always involve getting lost among new rows of books, hearing pages turn, smelling the paper, feeling the weight of a good story in your hands. City Lights has all of this, plus a cat.

Walking up to the counter of City Lights Bookstore to purchase HOWL AND OTHER POEMS --- a book I already own --- was a surreal moment. It was also a genuine pleasure, and one I would recommend to any book lover visiting the Bay area.