Columns » Penny Post by Andrei Codrescu

The Flavor of Banned Books


The year 2003 will be remembered for many things in New Orleans, but the most interesting so far is the city ban on selling books on the street. You can legally buy razor blades, beads, temporary tattoos and Lucky Dogs. Illegally, you can buy anything, including drugs, bodies and guns -- and, I suppose, books.

Josh Wexler and Anne Jordan Blanton have chosen to work with the law and have consequently sued the city in Federal Court for the right to peddle tomes and tomettes. They are aided in their cause by heavies like the Institute for Justice in Washington, D.C., the people who defeated California's cosmetology rules on behalf of African hairbraiders and got wine to flow to New York in interstate shipments. You don't mess with these people. Before you know it, you'll be able to buy your Faulkner off the Lucky Dog cart. That is my hope anyway, but the ban is quite interesting for other reasons.

What, for instance, is the exact historical fear that led to the ban in the first place? Was it literature that satirized our eminently satirical city? Has a city official on his way to the sauna room at the New Orleans Athletic Club run into a peddler hawking The Confederacy of Dunces? Has the Health Department found books to be unsanitary? Has the Vieux Carre Commission decided that it's historically inauthentic to provide reading material to the natives? Who, what, when, please. My own opinion on the matter, and I'll go in and testify to this, is that books should only be sold on the street. Going into Barnes & Noble is like going to the FBI with your reading list. I'll only make an exception to this rule for several small bookstores I frequent, bookstores that I might add, are always just one step away from being put out on the street by their less than stellar profits.

My other opinion is that books sold illegally are infinitely more desirable, but that's from a guy who thinks that James Joyce's Ulysses, for example, was far more widely read when it was banned. Today, when many once-banned books can be found on the required reading lists of every college, far fewer people read them. It's human nature to want the forbidden, and it's writerly nature to want to be banned in Boston. Most writers are deeply pained by the indifference of the authorities. In that sense, New Orleans is still a writers' city. Not a readers' one, alas. Good luck, Wexler and Blanton.

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