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EVEN TODAY, THE CENSORS ARE AT WORK

One of the most pleasurable of childhood memories is the time or two that my aunt, a librarian, brought me a stack of new books -- books that had a fresh smell and pages that had never been opened.

To this day, it remains a great pleasure to crack open a book. Now, newness doesn't matter. In fact, what I like best is when a friend hands me a book so that I can hold the same cover, read from the same pages.

So the idea of banning a book is quite beyond me. But it's still being attempted, in towns and villages and cities all across the country.

And this week -- dubbed Banned Books Week -- booksellers, librarians, journalists and others call attention to the fact that as a free people, reading is one of our revered freedoms. And that what we, as adults, read should always be an individual choice.

I, of course, have my favorites, as everyone does. Though why someone would choose Danielle Steel over Wallace Stegner stymies me.

Consider two classics we might have missed if censors had their way, as pointed out by RobertBertholf, curator of the University at Buffalo's rare books/poetry collection.

James Joyce's "Ulysses" (widely regarded as the most influential novel of this century) was denied entry into this country before a judge ruled that it could be published here, as Random House did in the 1930s.

Even now, as recently as last year, there were calls to remove Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" from required reading lists in Pennsylvania schools.

Among books challenged or banned recently in individual libraries or schools are: "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," "The Handmaid's Tale," "Of Mice and Men" and "Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl." Books I'd count among our treasured literature.

Also on the list are "Cujo" by Stephen King and David Hamilton's "Age of Innocence," two books I'd never choose to read.

But whether I like them or not isn't the point. What I don't want is to arrive one day at a library shelf or a bookstore to see a gaping hole because someone objected to something in a book and it disappeared.

"Censorship usually comes from a rigidly held idea of what is proper by one person and an attempt to impose that on the public at large," said Bertholf. "We're talking about literature and information here, not outright pornography."

This concern over censorship never eases, said Judith Krug, longtime director of the Chicago-based Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association.

"It's just that all the easy issues were resolved 20 or 25 years ago," she said.

Today, she said, with the unstoppable, fast-flowing information of the Internet, parents particularly need to arm their youngsters with the capacity to make judgments about what they see and what they read.

Most complaints come not from those using the Internet, she said, but from people standing outside the library saying, "We have to protect the children."

"One of the problems is, do they mean the 4-, 5- or 6-year-olds or do they mean teen-agers? The teen-ager is a different person than a child. And I don't think they can be treated alike. We do so at our own risk."

Compared to the rest of the country, residents here raise relatively few objections to library material, said Michael C. Mahaney, assistant deputy director of community relations for the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library.

"Western New Yorkers are different in this regard, and they should be proud of it," said Mahaney. "They seem to be more broad-minded. I give them credit. I think we have a very enlightened community. We don't seem to have the same challenges that many other libraries have."

When there are complaints, Mahaney thinks it serves everyone well to take a deep breath and make some observations before making decisions.

"The danger of pulling something is that censorship can multiply exponentially," he said.

"The minute you make a decision on one title, it's just as likely another person will have a differing opinion on the next title," he said. "When you start to react without being thoughtful, you take away anything that would be controversial to anyone."

And then the danger is that "banned" turns us into bland, and worse.

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