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Banned in Bemidji

March 28, 2005

If I talk about Internet filtering again, you might turn the page. Or you might wonder — is this worth it? Look at the hassles of this new technology: costs, technical challenges, raging conflicts over content.

Our society has already made the judgment about costs and technical challenges; the Internet seems here to stay. The conflicts over content are nothing new; they are the same old conflicts shifted to our latest innovation.

The good, old book remains a solid source of conflict. The novel “Plainsong” by local author Kent Haruf was the cause of recent furor in Bemidji, Minnesota, when a school board member sought to ban the book from the school.

A local uprising ensued-providing some passionate debate and largely defeating the proposal. In the end, the book was kept in school but removed from the ninth grade curriculum, where it had been.

Closer to home, a similar community uprising in Norwood, Colorado, over the removal of the novel “Bless me, Ultima” from the high school reversed that decision. This kind of conflict never stops.

Although I’m surprised sometimes at what I believe to be gross misreading of literary texts, such that the proponents of a ban are just plain wrong, the questioning of content, especially in schools, is not inherently wrong. It is essentially right. It is a chance to practice the skill of discernment that we hope to pass on to the next generation.

I do object when someone believes that his inarticulate anger or self- righteous indignation alone is sufficient to garner a hearing-as if we should all have to engage in conversation with someone who needs first to converse with himself. But otherwise, the discourse should be open.

So, “Banned in Bemidji” won’t become a catch-phrase. Neither will any of the daily challenges to content made across America. It’s all part of the conversation. You just have to be willing to converse.

But as for filtering content: There is filtering to prevent access, such as blocking websites or preventing services such as Internet chat, and there is filtering to provide access, such as using a directory (for example, Librarians Index to the Internet) to find good websites or using a well-read friend for book suggestions.

Most of the books I’ve read have come to me through the filter of book reviews and literate friends. It’s not that serendipity doesn’t come into play. My wife discovered Colorado author Stephen White by accident, picking up a friend’s paperback, and proceeded to devour all the titles in the library.

Nine years ago, I picked up a novel because of its title: “The frequency of souls.” I enjoyed it so much, I’ve been looking every year for more from the author. Nothing ever came. Last fall, in exasperation, I emailed the book’s publisher and asked what happened: Is she alive, under a pen name, what?

The reply: “We are publishing her new novel in April.” I was so tickled I almost cheered. Despite this success, though, I usually don’t find books this way. I rely on the kindness of readers.

Soon, we will begin offering a new kind of filter, called “Judy’s Shelf.” Reviews of interesting books will be posted on our website and collected on a shelf near the New Book Shelf. They will be selected by Judy Scheig, who was a buyer for Tattered Cover Bookstore and still subsists on a rich and fascinating diet of good books.

You may never had to read a book blurb again.

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