I am very fond of cursing. It is wonderful stress relief and, if undertaken with appropriate verve, an aerobic activity. I love it so much that certain members of the Admissions Office staff refer to one admirably elastic curse word of Germanic derivation simply as “Sarah’s Word.” (You know you’ve arrived when you own an entire curse word.) And my favorite case of my legal career thus far has been defending a farmer on an obscene phone call charge, after he phoned the Michigan Department of Agriculture complaint hotline and left some choice language on their answering machine. (Right before I went into oral argument on that case—yes, I actually lost at the trial level and had to appeal—I happened to get a call on my cell phone from J.J. White, and he gave me good-natured grief for being a bleeding-heart when I told him I was heading into court on an ACLU case; then, when I told him the nature of the case, he was all aboard. Freedom to curse is the cause that can truly bring us all together, people. Someone should really look into that.) My best friend from law school also undertook a cursing case for the ACLU once—the cussing-canoeist case, as opposed to my frustrated-farmer case (the ACLU apparently loves alliteration)—and I used to daydream about starting a two-person boutique with her. The business cards would be AWESOME!
Anyway, knowing this about me, you can perhaps imagine why I enjoy Banned Books Week so very much, thanks to the Law School’s ACLU chapter’s organization of a banned-book reading every year. After all, profanity—or, as one site terms it, “poor language,” which makes it sound like the motivation is an objection to grammatical errors—is a common basis for challenging books. For that reason, last year I read two scintillating pages from The Death of Artemio Cruz, which has a lengthy exegesis on Sarah’s Word (without, to be sure, attribution of ownership. Weird.). I’m not entirely confident that anyone has actually ever tried to ban The Death of Artemio Cruz, presumably because that book isn’t getting a lot of play in high schools, but I’m sure that a critical mass of support for banning could be drummed up were some preoccupied English teacher to attempt to assign it.
But lest I not be invited back in the future on the grounds that I am an ACLU scofflaw, I thought that this year I would pick a surefire, definitely-been-banned book: Native Son. Native Son was, according to some, the first book by a black American author to make the best-sellers’ list. It is ranked 27 on the ALA’s list of American classics that have been banned, and it is 71 on the ALA’s list of books most frequently banned, um, in the 90s (don’t ask me why the 21st-century banners are apparently no longer interested), meaning, I suppose, that it is a better book than it is an offensive book. It hits many of the hot buttons on the list of people who want to ban books: it has sex, violence, cursing, the whole nine yards, and also has the distinction of a protagonist who is none-too-admirable and thus offensive to parents who want some better role models for their reading teens. Basically, it offers something to offend everyone. The question was, what part to read? On YouTube, all I could find was people reading the opening passage, which definitely was not responsible for getting it banned. So I decided instead to find some of the naughtier bits—a decision I regretted when I got to the event and found approximately 8 kajillion people who had been lured by what I can only presume was an amazing free lunch. At last year’s event, I swear, there were about 30 people. It is one thing to read aloud about sex and decapitation to a group of 30, and something else entirely to read it to 8 kajillion.
I of course joined other folks in this worthy endeavor of reading embarrassing prose to people eating lunch. Margo Schlanger read The Lorax—and while it doesn’t involve cursing, reading a children’s book to a roomful of grown-ups requires some sangfroid, I think; Julian Mortenson, one of the more gentle-seeming souls on the faculty, played against type to read A Clockwork Orange; Nick Bagley read The Satanic Verses, which possibly was a little cheaty because it’s not clear that was ever banned in the United States; and John Pottow managed to combine the most obscure choice with the one most likely to challenge his audience’s commitment to not banning books by reading Did Six Million Really Die?
Wait, I’m missing someone. Who could it be, who could it be? Oh, that’s right: J.J. White. Take a minute, those of you who know him, to let that sink in. As averred to at the beginning of this post, the ACLU event most likely to appeal to Professor White would be a banned-book reading. And I’m also quite sure that the unreasonably large audience posed for Professor White, unlike me, no challenges to his aplomb. (I am reasonably sure that nothing has ever challenged his aplomb.) That’s why he was able to read for about 15 minutes from the section of Lolita in which Humbert Humbert differentiates a nymphette from a standard-issue girl. Next year, I’m counting on J.J. to read from Fifty Shades of Grey.