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This week, curl up with books that are banned

Published Aug. 28, 2005

Many years ago, when I was a reporter in a small East Texas town, I got a call from a dismayed high school student. It seems the school librarian had gone through all the magazines and newspapers in the school library and meticulously cut out all the underwear advertisements _ bras, panties, slips, boxer shorts _ even those that were not on a human body.

And this was before Calvin Klein.

I always think of this incident during Banned Books Week, which starts today and runs through Oct. 2.

I looked up this year's list of "most challenged" and outright banned books, and, sure enough, my old favorite, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is still in the top 20. Apparently, the doofus population still doesn't get irony.

The rest of the list includes the usual suspects: Judy Blume, William Golding, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Stephen King. Of course, anything J.K. Rowling is on there _ you know, that dangerous Harry Potter magic stuff. And sex. Can't have anybody reading about sex, else they go out and do something reproductive.

Interestingly, John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men came in at No. 6 this year. That's the book the community reading project One Book, One Pasco chose a couple of years back. Wow. Here we all were sitting around reading and talking about a "bad" book and feeling good about it.

The American Library Association is celebrating Banned Books Week by encouraging everybody to read a banned book. (You can find the list at bannedbooksweek)

New Port Richey Library's observance includes a showing at 3 p.m. on Thursday of the only American film ever blacklisted and denounced on the floor of the U.S. Congress.

Interestingly, the library can't publicize the name of the film, not because of censorship, but because of copyright laws.

Since it's the only one banned during the 1940s-50s "red scare," it's obviously the 1954 film Salt of the Earth, a drama based on an actual strike in 1950 against the Empire Zinc Mine in New Mexico. It was produced by a McCarthy-era blacklisted crew; its director, Herbert J. Bieberman, was jailed during filming for not cooperating with the House Un-American Activities' Committee and had to direct the movie by letter and telephone from prison.

The leading lady, Rosaura Revueltas, was deported, never to act in the United States again. The leading man was blacklisted, actor Will Geer, who, after the hysteria subsided, played Grandpa on The Waltons.

Ironically, Salt of the Earth is now on the prestigious National Film Registry and was named by the U.S. Library of Congress as one of the 100 films to be preserved for posterity.

Even after 50 years, Salt of the Earth still is controversial. Its detractors call it "Communist-feminist agitprop." Indeed, it does show strong peasant women taking charge when their husbands are forbidden by law to picket. More alarming to some, it shows a woman demanding that her husband help with the housework and child care, which was indeed amazing in 1954 _ and is still suspect in certain circles today.

"This pathetic piece of Communist crap was made by Communists who had been blacklisted and were ILLEGALY (sic) making this film!" wrote one commentator on the Internet Movie Database, whose further comments indicate he believes in McCarthy-like censorship and women's subservience.

Supporters call it "wildly inspirational," "way ahead of its time," and "a light of liberty in a very un-American darkness."

One commentator from England noted that era was "the closest the country has ever come to fascism. In the name of "America,' panic was spread throughout the country not unlike the early years of Nazi Germany, where communists, liberals and general non-cowards were smeared and demonised."

I'm surprised and impressed that the New Port Richey library has the courage to show this film in the current political atmosphere, when, once again, many people consider anyone who disagrees with the government un-American.

Later, the library plans to show Michael Moore's Farenheit 9/11 in one room while showing the opposite view, FarenHYPE 9/11 (coming out Oct. 5), which features McCarthy apologist Ann Coulter, next door.

"We're hoping people will see both and perhaps get some dialogue going," said librarian Ann Scott.

Now, this is what libraries are all about.