Saturday, December 2, 2000

Review: The Day They Came to Arrest the Book

Book cover: "The Day They Came to Arrest the Book" by Nat Hentoff
Oh, how disappointed I am that my search on Hentoff revealed that Free Speech for Me But Not for Thee is out of print! Thank God The Day They Came to Arrest the Book is still readily available.

I purchased the two books together, years ago, at a bookstore in Angwin, Calif., and read them consecutively. Taken together, the books provided my first real understanding of the First Amendment and the way it is presently interpreted -- and challenged -- in our present-day society.

I was not surprised that another reviewer uses The Day They Came to Arrest the Book as an introduction to censorship in an eighth-grade class. Written as a novel for young readers, Hentoff's book presents very adult concepts -- censorship and perceptions of racism and sexism -- in a very easy-to-understand way, but without insulting the intelligence of his young readers.

The story may be fictional -- students and parents upset at what they believe to be racist and sexist content in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn challenge its place in the curriculum at George Mason High School -- but the incidents described within have happened more often than could reasonably be expected in a society that includes the First Amendment within its most sacred governing document.

The book tackles the issue of censorship very well -- this is Hentoff, after all -- and all of the characters are presented sympathetically. The people who want to censor Huckleberry Finn may be wrong to do so, but they are motivated by good intentions, however misdirected.

Who wouldn't want a society that is free of racial or sexual prejudice? But the loss of freedom of speech and thought would be too high of a price to pay. And in this case, the people who challenge Huckleberry Finn have missed the book's point completely. It is entirely fitting that a Black character deliver this message, since exposure to a certain word that is scattered very profusely throughout Mark Twain's masterpiece is what the book's censors want to protect him from.

Read this book, and then look for Free Speech for Me But Not For Thee, also by Nat Hentoff. The real life examples of censorship described therein are a valuable reminder that The Day They Came to Arrest the Book may be fiction, but the events it describes are true-to-life.

Posted Dec. 2, 2000 to

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