Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Endorse Your Freedom to Read

Banned Books Week is being observed Sept. 26-Oct. 3.

This celebration should have the support of every writer and reader. Particularly in a time when libraries across the nation are closing because of lack of funding and schools, libraries, bookstores and, yes, publishers are being assailed with bans and challenges to our freedom to read.

The community where I grew up didn’t even have a library until I was in high school. Fortunately my father had a good selection of books and I was free from an early age to read whatever I wanted. I absorbed everything from Edgar Rice Burroughs and Zane Grey to Herman Melville and Miguel de Cervantes.

People and groups challenge books for a variety of reasons. Often those challenges are based on the slimmest foundations, on prejudice, on hearsay and other false premises. I remember when the film based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation of Christ there was an outcry to have both the book and the film banned. It wasn’t the first time the book had been challenged. As a reporter, I did a story on the issue. I didn’t find a single person who endorsed the ban who had actually read the book.

How can you judge a book you haven’t read? If you want, any book may be deemed offensive to someone. Does that mean it should be taken off the shelves and burned? I hope not. I just looked at this week’s New York Times list of top 10 bestsellers. There are only one of two on that list I’d care to read. Would I want the others banned? Absolutely not. Tastes and choice vary.

A long time ago Sir Thomas Overbury wrote “Books are a part of man’s prerogative.” I agree and I don’t believe any man, woman or group has the right to dictate what another can or can’t read.

The national celebration was launched in 1982 and is sponsored by the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the Association of American Publishers, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and the National Association of College Stores. Banned Books Week is also endorsed by the Center for the Book of the Library of Congress.

More information is available here

Friday, September 11, 2009

How to Grab a Reader

A recent discussion by a writer group focused on how readers choose and read a book.

Several participants who have worked in bookstores commented on their observance of readers and noted they seldom made a judgment based on the first few pages of a book. Instead they seemed to observe the cover, read the back cover blurb and then examine pages “within” the book. Most of us were surprised to learn judgment was not based on the first few pages of a book.

There seems to be a lesson here for us writers on how to grab a reader. Presentation is important. And writing should be consistently good throughout a book.

A more important issue to me in the discussion was how readers read. Many contend they skim books, ignore the boring parts and don’t like books that are lengthy. The comments didn’t surprise me, many of the participants being from the speed-reading and television generation.

As a writer and reader, I abhor the idea of skimming. Speed-reading may allow one to get through more books in less time. But are they being enjoyed and digested? Aside from the fact the author’s hard work is being minimized, the reader doesn’t have/take the time to savor all the work has to offer.

As to the boring parts—what might they be? Elmore Leonard’s classic advice to writers is to “leave out the boring parts.” But he never defines what those might be. There is a difference between writing good narrative and padding. There are readers who don’t like lengthy description. Others do. That’s a personal choice. This does not necessarily mean one writer who uses description is less than another. I like and read both Dickens and Hemingway. I know of several popular writers who pen beautiful prose but their characters and plot leave me cold. I don’t read them. Again, that’s a personal choice.

The same applies to the length of a book. I’ve enjoyed novels that barely topped a hundred pages and others approaching a thousand pages. What they had in common was a good story.

What it all boils down to is readers (like writers) are different. You can’t please everyone. You’ve just got to do the best you can.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Grim History of a Struggle

Labor Day, which was instituted in 1882 in honor of the working man and labor movement, got me thinking about the labor movement and how much of its history connects to my home state of Pennsylvania.

One of the first unions in the U.S. was formed by shoemakers in Philadelphia in 1794. The Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers succeeded in securing moderate wage increases for its members for a number of years. But when they initiated a strike for higher wages in 1805 organizers were indicted on charges of conspiracy.

Eight union leaders were brought to trial. After three days of testimony, the jury found them guilty and they were fined $8 each (the equivalent of a week’s wages) plus the costs of the suit.

The law established by this trial, that unions were illegal conspiracies, remained in effect until 1842 when Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw ruled in a Massachusetts case they were legal entities with the right to organize strikes.

Much of the action in the so-called Great Railroad Strike of 1877 took place here in Pennsylvania. The worse violence in that strike occurred in Pittsburgh where more than 40 people were killed. Another 16 civilians were shot down by militia in Reading. On July 25, 1877, here in my hometown of Shamokin, 1,000 men and boys, predominately coal miners, marched on the Reading Railroad Depot when it was announced they would be paid only a dollar a day for emergency public employment. A vigilante group organized by the mayor, a mine owner, killed two and injured 14 of the protesters.

Speaking of miners, Irish laborers were the core of militant union activism in response to drastic wage cuts in the 1860s and 1870s. Franklin Gowen, president of the Reading Railroad, which owned many of the biggest mines, focused blame primarily on the Molly Maguires, a secret Irish organization. Historians today disagree on the legitimacy of those charges which led to the hanging of 20 men. My novel, Watch The Hour, was partially inspired by tales of the Mollies I heard growing up in the coal region.

In 1892, a strike by Carnegie steelworkers resulted in more violence and deaths in Homestead, Pa. And on Sept. 10, 1897 a sheriff’s posse killed 19 unarmed miners and wounded 30 more in what is now known as the Lattimer Massacre near Hazleton.

As recently as the 1970s I interviewed a principal investigator of the murder of Joseph Yablonski and his family by assassins in retaliation for Yablonski’s unsuccessful attempt to unseat W. A. Boyle, president of the United Mine Workers. In the 1980s, I met and interviewed a son of Lech Walesa, who led the organization of Solidarity in Poland, one of the principal figures of unionism in the 20th century.

I’ve never belonged to a union. Both my parents did. My father worked on the railroad and my mother in the textile industry. Though I’ve witnessed many labor organizations becoming as greedy as the industrialists who fomented their necessity, I think it’s important we recognize Labor Day as more than just an excuse for the last picnic of the summer.