Banning books is a terrible idea, but it’s mostly terrible for the banner, not the author. As a way of illustrating that principle, what follows are some banning stories from my past.
The Fire of Life
In 1961, I worked in New York, teaching at the IBM Systems Research Institute. For my course in Systems Thinking, I ordered this book:
Kleiber, Max. The Fire of Life : An Introduction to Animal Energetics. New York: Wiley, 1961.
When it came time to assign the book, the students told me it wasn’t in our library. I checked with Bob, our office manager, to find out what happened to my order. He told me he had deleted the order, saying, “We don’t put pornographic books in our library.”
“Pornographic? What’s pornographic about Kleiber’s book? And how do you know.”
“You think I’m stupid?” Bob said. “Did you think you could slip it past me?”
“But how do you know it’s pornographic?” I repeated.
“Anyone could see that, from the title.”
From this episode, I confirmed that most censors have dirty minds. I walked the order through our buying department. The book arrived with a week left in the class. During that week, the students fought over who got to read largely boring The Fire of Life first.
The Graduation Poem: SUNY Springhampton
As far as I know, none of my fifty-plus books have ever been banned, but I don’t suppose banners tell the banned authors. I did have one reader say he would burn one of my books, but his company bought it, so he couldn’t. Too bad. I could have used the publicity.
But, believe it or not, one of my poems was banned at the State University of New York at Binghamton (SUNY Binghamton). It was spring, 1973, and the students asked me if I would write something for their commencement souvenir program: Advice to Off Campus College Graduates. It must have been the delicious spring, but I decided to write them a poem. Binghamton is said to have three seasons: Snow, Mud, and Dust. Any day of warm, dry sunshine brings out the poet in just about everyone.
But not quite everyone. Somebody in Administration took exception to my poem. They told the editors it was banned from their souvenir program. (You can see the poem on my website: <http://www.geraldmweinberg.com/Site/Poetry.html>)
Well, it’s not such a great poem, but because it was banned, the student editors then took special pains to put it in the commencement souvenir program, bypassing the administrative censors. And other students heard about it and wanted copies so they could see for themselves what was so interesting. I could have sold it for ten cents a copy and retired a rich man.
Banned at Microsoft
For more than ten years, I consulted at Microsoft. A significant component of that consulting was teaching leadership in my Problem Solving Leadership workshop (PSL). Because we did not allow more than four students from one company in each class, and because Microsoft has so many technical leaders, places in the workshop were in great demand.
At one point, Steve Balmer (now President, then Vice-President) heard about the workshop and asked me to come in and explain why he should keep sending his people. Our meeting was rather confrontational (that seemed to be Balmer’s style), ending when he declared that he was now forbidding people from his division (half the company) to attend PSL.
When the word spread around Microsoft that Balmer had banned PSL, the demand for places in the workshop soared. There were fights between the two divisions over the four seats in each offering, until we eventually compromised on two per division in each offering.
So, the net result of being banned by Balmer was a great increase in interest in PSL–an interest that continues to this day.
I must be a rather wimpy writer, not to have more books banned. But quite a few college professors have banned my books. Almost as many as have adopted them, which I never intended, either.
Many years ago, I visited MIT to decide if I wanted to earn a PhD there on a generous fellowship from IBM. When I spoke to Professor Corbato, I saw my programming book (Computer Programming Fundamentals) on his shelf and asked him if he liked it. He said it was outstanding, so I asked if he was using it as a text in his beginning class.
“No,” he said. “I don’t use it because it answers all the students questions. Then they don’t need to attend my lectures. In other words, my book was banned because it was too good.
Because IBM was providing my Resident Study Fellowship, I later made a courtesy call on the IBM office on the MIT campus, down in the basement from Corbato’s office. The first thing I noticed was a shelf holding more than a hundred copies of Computer Programming Fundamentals. “Why do you have so many?” I asked.
“Oh,” said the IBM Field Engineer. “They have only one copy in the library. All the students in the beginning course desperately need it to study for Professor Corbato’s exams. So, we decided to earn their good will for IBM by lending them out. We’re going to hire some of those students one of these days. But for now, exams are over, so we have most of them back.”
“Most of them?”
“Well, every semester, about forty or fifty never come back. I guess the student like them.”
So, by banning Computer Programming Fundamentals, Professor Corbato was selling about a hundred copies a year for me. (BTW, I chose to go to Michigan instead of MIT–largely on the basis of this visit.)
What I’ve Learned about Censorship
Whatever it was intended to do, banning things increases interest. When one of the Pope’s Cardinals banned The DaVinci Code, lagging sales picked up and made a few more millions for Mr. Brown. Banning Harry Potter had a similar effect for Ms. J. K. Rowling, now richer than the Queen.
Indeed, in all instances I know of, banning a book, or a class, or a product, always provides a super marketing boost. So, I’m looking for ways to have some of my novels banned. It’s hard to do that after the fact, so I suppose I should have written them with banning in mind from the first. What would it take to offend the self-appointed censors? (Dani says I have to put “sex” in the title, but “murder” won’t do it.)
[So, here’s a challenge to my readers: What banned books do you know? What has been the result of the banning?]
Gerald M. Weinberg is a member of Book View Café and hopes to blog here regularly on Thursdays. His science fiction, “First Stringers: Eyes That Do Not See,” is serialized on the front page rotation. For more about him and his fiction please visit his bookshelf here on BVC: http://www.bookviewcafe.com/index.php/Gerald-M.-Weinberg/