The American Dissident: Literature, Democracy & Dissidence

One City, One Book, One Mind Make Jack a Dull, Conformist Chap

The same goes for your ideas. You moved into them ready-made. Someone else thought them up for you. As for yourself, you haven’t the time to think, or the energy, or even the desire.
            —Henry Miller, “Lime Twigs and Treachery”


In her January/ February Guest Editorial, Lucy Fuchs stated: “It is the reader who chooses the books to be read—except for the picture book crowd.” Clearly, this statement is naïve and provides impulsion for me to opine. Few choose today, children or adults.

An implacable Orwellian barrage of high-tech marketing indoctrinates most people who buy books. Poor parenting and poor education, both higher and lower, serve to facilitate the process. Most adults experience great difficulty thinking and deciding for themselves. Henry Miller was certainly right about that. Most are under intense pressure to conform, fit in, and be like everyone else... and that includes reading what everyone else is reading. The Harry Potter phenomenon serves as a potent illustration. In the orchestrated hysteria, the conductor, of course, is the corporate publisher, while the player-pushers in the band, schoolteachers, college professors, bookstore CEOs, newspaper and magazine editors, and even librarians.

In Greensboro, NC where I dwell for the moment, the public library just finished its orchestrated, interminable three-month one-city, one-book blitz of A Lesson Before Dying. Other city libraries around the nation orchestrate similar events, though with different books. The library stocked at least 50 copies of the politically-correct novel, hung poster-sized advertisements, printed up and distributed flyers and bookmarkers, and staged periodic readings and discussions on it. The local newspaper printed articles and comments almost on a daily basis regarding the book… and how perturbing that not one critical, non-laudatory account appeared. Local high school students were made to read the book, while local college students had t purchase it. Pitifully, the only thing college English instructors seem capable of doing is jumping on bandwagons whenever they come along. Yes, when it was discovered that UNCG freshmen had to read the book, professors at Bennett College, where I currently teach, decided to have their freshman read it too. Uniformity or sameness—and its corollary don’t question and challenge—have become a disturbing and overwhelming trend in academe.

How sad that students are simply being dictated to read the book and not made aware of nor encouraged to be curious about what constituted the selection process for it. Indeed, who precisely were the judges or the judge who passed judgment that this book should be the book out of all other possible books to be read? Why was it selected? Were the blind forces of political rectitude at play here? How can we expect our students to look at the world with a critical eye—and democracy depends on that ability—when their professors seem incapable of doing so? Were students given the option of not reading the book? Were they encouraged to think that maybe they ought read another book in its place? Why do our professors and teachers generally not pose these questions? Why was the book adjudged “safe”? If a public library chose it, it must be “safe,” n’est-ce pas? What is a “safe” book? Well, it tends to be a book that does not irritate or offend anyone, except perhaps the rare thinkers amongst us.

Would it not have been more fruitful to have chosen a great controversial work, a classic such as 1984, An Enemy of the People, or Voyage into the Night? Perhaps in reality it is not, contrary to one reader’s opinion, “the power of literature to create and deepen community,” but rather the power of orchestrated hysteria to have everyone talk and think about the same thing. The choosing of one work rings of fascism. What happens when a singular student declares the work not to be of interest? What might group pressure exert? How disturbing to see the book in great piles in the public library, and receiving free advertisements, right and left, in the local newspaper! For me, the “the one book, one library” campaign, echoed Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Mao’s little red book of quotes, the Bible, or what ever other “forced” reading. Henry Miller was again on target when he wrote: “By making people more literate, more book conscious, we can hardly say that we are thereby making better citizens of them.” How many professors are good citizens? How many would have the courage to stand alone for their convictions? How many have convictions?

The local theater performed a play created from the book and of course the author gave readings all over the place and reaped (along with his publisher) who knows how many thousands of dollars from sales thanks to the well-orchestrated hysteria. Statements of hysteria were, of course, made by readers. For example, Mr. Willie Taylor, president of the Friends of Greensboro Public Library, asserted that the book had changed him to the extent that he “will never again be silent when and where there is obvious injustice”? But can we believe him? Would he really “go upright and speak the rude truth” alone and without herd approval? Does anyone know a librarian (or professor) who would do such a thing?