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Beware What Americans Are Not Reading

Erik Wennermark

When it comes time to 'burn books' in countries such as the US, the rule of law serves as the flaming match; in this case, Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

The other day I was watching The News Hour with Jim Lehrer. I watch The News Hour with Jim Lehrer everyday in fact; it is part of my ritual, an element of being; so much so I become angry if I am disturbed during its prescribed viewing hour: "Do not call me during The News Hour!" I scream, if it is the telephone that has disturbed me from my viewing. Though on this particular News Hour with Jim Lehrer, the spirited roundtable discussion moderated by Gwen Ifill held me even more rapt than other fine public interest discussions she has deftly moderated in the past. The topic affected me directly, you see; it was about the upcoming expiration, a "sunset clause" effective 31 December, of certain elements of the Patriot Act; specifically Section 215.

Section 215 of the Patriot Act, or the "U.S.A. Patriot Act", as News Hour Panelist and Former Assistant Attorney General Viet Dinh pointed out, lest we be confused of its country-of-origin, AKA The Access to Records and Other Items Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, breaks down along the following lines (in dramatic form):

Mr. Fed: Gimmee that.
Librarian 1: Sir, this is private information! You've no warrant!
Mr. Fed: I said gimmee.
Librarian 1: Okay, here.
Librarian 1 hands over the records and sits down to weep fitfully. Librarian 2 walks over to chat.]
Librarian 2: What was that all about?
Librarian 1 (sniffs): What?
Librarian 2: The guy with the Oakleys.
Librarian 1 (wipes nose): I really can't say.

Section 215 states that I, as a (fake) librarian am obligated to provide, "any tangible item regardless of the business or individual holding the item and upon the simple assertion that the records are sought," and I am immediately gagged after doing so. Without any judicial oversight whatsoever, Mr. Fed can request any record he wants, and we (as librarians, or nurses, or whomever is in possession of said "tangible item") are legally culpable if knowledge of this search becomes known after the fact.

The reasoning behind this repugnant abuse of the Inalienable Rights Bestowed by the Founding Fathers of these United States of America (subtle aren't I) is of course to deter "terrorism". Though how exactly an individual's reading list or medical records help in this pursuit remains a little hazy. On the News Hour Democratic Senator Dick Durbin explained it (echoing the American Library Association concerns) as, "if an FBI field office believed an unidentified terrorist had checked out a book entitled How to Build a Dirty Bomb from the Chicago Public Library, that Section 215 gives the government the authority to search the library records of hundreds of ordinary citizens in an attempt to identify the terrorist, catching in this net and sweeping in innocent people who have checked out books from the library never knowing that they would be swept up in the potential of finding a terrorist." What Dick means is that while Big Brother is not watching you exactly, he's watching the guy next to you, and well, if he sees what you're doing too, hey, deal with it.

Now, for a little librarian fun, and to raise the collective blood pressure in the Senatorial Chamber, let's take a little ride into that magical mystery scenario keeping the Attorney General up at night, clutching and grabbing our eminent demise. Please, feel free to tag along:

I'll just be searching my state's intra-library system for that How-To heart-thumper, that pulse-pounding ride down WMD lane, How to Build a Dirty Bomb, the most lauded piece of Washington nonfiction since the Swift Boat Boys salacious tell-all. Just gotta close down my solitaire game, okay, I'm ready, ahem. Pecking away (my touch-typing is abysmal), "how, build, dirty bomb." Excuse me, these computers aren't exactly brilliant speedy, budget you know. Perhaps a song to pass the time. La, la, la. Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques. Okay, got the results, I'm looking. Lots of "How to Build" books; coin collections, colonial tavern bar cabinets . . . I'll just skip ahead to the letter "D", scrolling, scrolling, aha, How to Build a Dinosaur, How to Build a Dulcimer. Nope, looks like we don't have that one. Damn, I'm really going to be out of luck if Al Queda comes a borrowing.

The more astute of my right-wing readership (I'm praying Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report picks this up), having noticed the parenthetical aside a few paragraphs back, might now be enraged by my gentle mockery: "A fake librarian!" these readers may huff. "Are we being hoodwinked? Is this that left-wing-liberal-media bias we've heard so much about on Fox News? Do you not love freedom? Are the dark forces of tyranny so strong in your bleeding heart that you would thwart the spread of democracy with your liberal Hollywood values and gross librarian ideals? Is this in fact the propagandistic tract of a bad guy, an apologist evil-doer as it were?"

Rest easy Señors Hatch, et al. I am no evildoer. I am in fact a pseudo-librarian. I say pseudo for I am without the appropriate degree. I have no MLS (Master of Library Science) beside my name, so technically, no, I am not an actual librarian. Rather, I'm more of a Professional Library Assistant (I prefer the term Bibliotechnician), a para-something-something; thereby without benefits or any hope of a pay raise. But my duties are the same, as is my federal culpability, hence my interest in Section 215. These same readers, having been assuaged by my complete lack of meaningful authority, may now take a more congenial tact. "Well," they'll say, "it's not as if we're asking the books to be removed from circulation. We just want to keep an eye on certain 'undesirables,' that's all. Is that really so bad? A little surveillance never hurt anyone. And for God's sake Mr. Librarian, how could you, a wimpy bleeding-heart liberal, possibly defend a book like . . .hmm, basically anything Paladin Press puts out, for example?" (How to be a Hitman comes to mind.)

You are so right Right-Wing Reader, thank you for bringing me to my senses. You are the clanging bell of freedom in the murky hall of injustice. I was momentarily lost in that illicit haze we librarians call discretion. I promise I'll assiduously spy on patrons forevermore. Like that guy earlier today looking for the DVD of Rashoman. He looked pretty shady. Who knows what kind of morally relativist views he may hold!

But alas, Right-Wing Reader is correct. To be fair, Section 215 doesn't have anything to do with "content" so to speak, at least not yet, and the censorship of information, any information, in our Information Age is a nigh-impossible feat (broaching a number of issues we'll get to in future columns regarding the Internet: a helter-skelter swarm of data overwhelming even the most seasoned librarian among us). The concern is, of course, about negating your right to read what you want without the fear of someone peering over your shoulder.

While fully acknowledging that there are reprehensible (and poorly written) books out there, even that the information contained within these books could lead to the loss of life and/or an act of terrorism; I, as a librarian whose job is the unrestricted dissemination of information, am fundamentally opposed to questioning these books right to exist or the motives of anyone who wants to read them. This issue though, can obviously make for strange bedfellows, and if I wind up defending Timmy McVeigh's right to check out gardening manuals unmolested, there is that risk living, as we do, in a free society. Then again, there are some days I just think the whole argument is stupid and a waste of resources better used in another fight; as in, excuse me, I'll just go whine to the poor bastards locked in Guantanamo about my right to privacy. (While again noting that being forced to make comparative judgments on the respective level of evil being visited with my tax-paying sanction is a real bummer. Existentialist Albert Camus would be pissed.)

Let's face it, the library records are just not that interesting. I spend half my days finding audio books of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and digging through 50 copies of Michael Crichton's new "environmental thriller" for one decent book. The only reason to look at what the average American is reading (if they are reading at all) is to make fun of them. At the time of this writing, there is one "literary" title in the top 10 of the New York Times Fiction List, and two of the top five books have two authors credited. I'm sorry, but transcendent prose is not made by two guys rapping about "zinger" plotlines over Fabulous Fruit-Filled Pancakes (only $5.99!) at Denny's in Sarasota. In light of the country's reading habits, I'm not overly concerned about White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales peeking in.

Imagine if you will then, the scene at Homeland Security HQ: "Oh, look Bill, he's reading The Rising, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. It's a hot one Bill, a thrill-a-minute! You'll never believe it, but the Prince of Darkness chooses a Romanian woman to be the mother of the Antichrist! Wild stuff! A real whang-doodler and with a moral to boot! And don't forget Honeymoon, by James Patterson AND Howard Roughan. Oh, it's cray-zy! An F.B.I. agent � one of our peeps! � is investigating this beautiful and mysterious woman and you know, like all of a sudden, he's obsessed with her. Wow. It's steamy Bill, lemmee tell ya. Wear baggy shorts if you get my drift... What was that Bill? Did you say boy magician? Now that's another story, there's some real trouble. That J.K. Rowling's dangerous, her and Cat Stevens... C'mon Bill, you know, like "Peace Train", or that anthem of social discord, "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out". He's a terrorista to be sure, best put that fella on the watch list!" (But wait, he already is.)

I can hear the helicopters flying overhead.

It is of course improper bibliotechnician behavior to rag on any book � even if it sucks � and I'm not denigrating anyone's reading habits � yes I am � by implying that there is some innate pecking order � there is an innate pecking order � and those people who select books for purely entertainment purposes � drivel � are somehow lesser than those of us with more literary inclinations � way lesser � and I should be glad that they are reading at all � I'm glad you're glad � it is merely to point out that the majority of the material being checked out of my library � half of which is audio/visual � is so far from being "dangerous" or "subversive" as to be ridiculous. There is no such thing in popular literary culture. Subversion has been compartmentalized and commodified. Mass-culture is a Pop-Tart. The rest is niche markets.

Christian Fundamentalists aren't reading Denis Cooper, they've got their even wackier Left Behind series (one of which is mentioned in Bill's best-seller round-up). Ian McEwan's Saturday and Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, two literary titles in the New York Times top 20 � both of which I've read only in excerpt � are encouraging at least, but don't seem to have staying power and I suspect will be used much in the way of David Foster Wallace's bestselling tome Infinite Jest, as a conversational door jamb. For kids, it's the Harry Potter series which, while entertaining and getting better, doesn't have the depth of Catcher in the Rye or the Narnia books (a disturbingly evangelical read as a jaded adult).

Forgive these initially strident ramblings of a bitter bibliotechnician, it's been a rough week. Hopefully I'll have something more chipper to say in my next installment. It's just the thought of some loathsome G-man poking through my files kinda gets me down, regardless of what it is he's poking through. Opponents of Section 215 (back to the U.S.A. Patriot Act) mention the possible "chilling-effect" on intellectual inquiry; I just don't see much to chill. One must first engage one's intellect to have it stifled. Don't misunderstand me, I do hope the provision is line-itemed into oblivion on the basis of its very existence as much as its impact; I just don't have much hope on the score. We'll see in the next few months. Till then, I'll keep at it, helping library patrons in their most noble quest for knowledge, understanding, and an anonymous intake of bad romance novels.

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