Blog Archives

More ABA bookseller collaboration: Lots of participation and a new book banning board

About six weeks ago, I wrote about an idea that I gave to the American Booksellers Association for a collaborative forum where indie bookstores could share ideas for book displays. The ABA bounced it back into my lap (good job on the delegation there, Sydney Jarrard!) and so I went ahead and ran with it. I made a couple of Pinterest boards and wrote a blog post, and then asked Sydney to do a bit of publicizing.

I started with two boards: Effective Bookstore Displays and Creative Bookstore Windows. I seeded each board with a few pictures from my store and went looking for help. After all, it’s not a collaboration unless there’s more than one participant! I ended the article with the line, “There are a few of my pictures to get the ball rolling. Let’s see how many more we can get on here in the next month. Challenge issued. Challenge accepted?” It certainly was.

Sydney included something in the ABA member newsletter, Bookselling This Week, and booksellers started showing up. Then it was picked up by Shelf Awareness, and just a few days ago the Christian Science Monitor ran an article. Now, each of the boards has almost 300 followers, and pictures are being placed by a half-dozen collaborators. I’m absolutely thrilled with the progress! Now, it seems like time for a bit of an expansion.


I’ve now added a third board to the collection: Book Banning & Censorship. Being both an author and a bookseller, I’m not a fan of censorship. I’ve written about it, spoken about it, made infographics about it, and now started a Pinterest board about it. So far, it only has 87 followers and a dozen pins. Here’s your new challenge: let’s see if we can have 500 followers and 200 pins on the censorship board by Banned Books Week (Sept 21-27, 2014). This one transcends the bookselling world, so I’m going to try to get librarians and authors to jump in and participate.

Become a part of the process!

To join in the process, visit the board(s) you are interested in and follow them. Then leave a comment here on this blog post using the same name you used on Pinterest. I’ll authorize you to pin, and you can start adding pictures from your own store.

I’m not a big fan of rules, but I’d like everyone to please do two things:

  1. Focus on ideas that everyone can use, instead of display products that you’d like them to buy.
  2. Try to put each picture on the most appropriate board only — let’s not get the same picture on all three boards, or get window pics on the display board.

Thank you! You do not have to be a member of the ABA to participate, but why on Earth would you have an indie bookstore and not want to join? They provide an awful lot of benefits for a very reasonable level of annual dues.

It’s a two way street! There are a lot of good ideas out there, and we want to get as many people participating as we possibly can.

Banned book pin by Porter Square Books

Here’s a great banned book pin by Porter Square Books on the shared boards.

One for the bucket list: Giving a TED talk

My bucket list is an eclectic — and rather lengthy — collection of things. I’ve crossed some cool stuff off of that list: competing in a rodeo, being profiled in Forbes magazine, playing guitar at a wedding, giving a guest lecture at U.C. Berkeley, getting a U.S. Patent (two, actually), getting a teaching credential. I have a few “almosts” as well. I haven’t given a commencement address at a university, but I gave one at a high school. I haven’t ridden an elephant, but I’ve ridden a camel.

Recently, I got a “close enough.” One of the items on my list is to perform standup comedy in front of a live audience. Last week, I was master of ceremonies for a comedy show raising money for a local veterans’ center. As emcee, I performed a bit between comedians. I’m crossing that one off.

In a few months, I will be achieving one of the most exciting “almosts” of my life. Giving a TED talk is on my bucket list. I will be giving a TEDx talk in March.

TEDxBozeman logo

What the heck is a TED talk?

TED started out almost 30 years ago in 1984 as a conference bringing together people to talk about Technology, Entertainment, and Design. The current format for TED talks coalesced in 2006, when the first six talks were presented. Between their website and other venues like podcasts and YouTube, TED is on the cusp of its one billionth view. TED’s current tagline is “Ideas Worth Spreading,” and it lives up to that promise very well.

TED talks are highly polished and well-produced. Each talk is limited to a maximum of 18 minutes. Some are only a few minutes long. I download TED talks to my iPad and watch them at the gym and on plane rides. I watch them on my computer. Sometimes I run them through the AppleTV so I can watch them on the big living room TV set. I’ve watched a lot of TED talks on an amazing variety of subjects — they’ve moved far beyond the original scope of tech, entertainment, and design. If you’re unfamiliar with TED, here are a few of my favorites you might like watching to get a feel for how it works:

These five videos represent things that appeal to me. They carry themes that represent big parts of my life: books, storytelling, public speaking, science, nature, technology. There are thousands more. Scan through the available TED talks and you’ll find subjects that appeal to you. I can almost guarantee it.

Look through the list of presenters, and you’ll find an impressive roster of recognizable names: Malcolm Gladwell, Arianna Huffington, Bill Gates, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Peter Gabriel, Tim Berners-Lee, Vint Cerf, Temple Grandin, David Pogue, Annie Lennox, Adam Savage, Thomas Dolby, Jeff Bezos, Tony Robbins, Al Gore, Bono. Some of these people have changed the world! Can you see why my bucket list would include walking out on the stage where they’ve spoken?

The dream begins to form

Last month, I went to work and found a message waiting for me from a gentleman named Ken Fichtler. He is a co-founder of TEDxBozeman, and dropped in to ask if I’d submit a proposal for a TEDx talk. Let me back up for a moment and explain TEDx.

TED is all about ideas worth spreading. There are far more of those ideas than can possibly be covered in the main TED events. The TED people decided that they needed to give more people an opportunity to participate, so they created TEDx, where the “x” means “Independently Organized TED Event.” On March 23, 2009, the first TEDx event was held at the University of Southern California. Since then, there have been over than 5,000 TEDx events in 148 countries and 50 languages!

If you visit the TED website, their catalog of 1,500 TED talk videos is augmented by an astonishing 30,000 TEDx videos from conferences around the world.

And Ken Fichtler was inviting me to participate. Well, to apply to participate.

I contacted him and asked if there was something in particular that led him to approach me. Was it my poop books? My work with tea? My recent talks about censorship and book banning? As it turns out, he was familiar with my work in closed captioning for deaf and hard-of-hearing people, and that’s what he had in mind.

Being the cheeky fellow that I am, I went ahead and submitted two applications. One was what I’ve been speaking about lately, and I entitled it “Does Book Banning Work?” The other, more along the lines of what he was looking for, I titled “Does Closed Captioning Still Serve Deaf People?” I sent in the applications, and I waited. For three interminably long weeks, I waited.

The decision

Three days ago, I got word that the committee had met and made a selection. It has been confirmed. They picked the captioning application.

I will be presenting a talk at TEDxBozeman on Friday, March 21, 2014.

I am hyped. I am thrilled. I am humbled. I’ve spoken to some pretty big audiences before — 650 people is my current record — but this will be the highest-profile talk I’ve ever given.

Soon, I’ll post some more about my talk, although I’m not going to give away any details. You’re going to have to either attend TEDxBozeman or catch the video online if you want the whole story.

How to ban a book in your local school

Graphic blogs are all the rage these days, but I’ve never tried doing one. I’m not really much of an artist. I was, however, a computer science major back in the days when we flowcharted our programs before we started coding them. I can do flowcharts. So, in the wake of controversy over an attempt to ban Sherman Alexie’s book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I decided to do my first graphical blog post.

Here you go:

How to Ban a Book

If the subject of book bannings and censorship interests you, then you might want to take a look at another of my posts: A few myths about banned books. I’ve spoken about this subject before to a variety of groups, including the Red Lodge Forum for Provocative Issues.

Censorship Talk at the Forum for Provocative Issues

Nazi book burning

Book burning in Nazi Germany. Click on image for description at “The History Place.”

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution seems very straightforward when it says “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” That means in this country, we won’t be subjected to things like the book burnings of Hitler’s Germany or the death sentence imposed on Salman Rushdie (author of The Satanic Verses) in a fatwa by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Censorship and book banning is not so straightforward, however.

On June 11, I will be talking at the Red Lodge, Montana Forum for Provocative Issues about the ethics, morality, legality, and reality of book banning in the United States. I’ve been compiling real-world examples, and I’d love to get additional examples and feedback from my readers about the subject as I prepare for this talk. The subjects I’ll be covering include:

  • What types of books the Federal Government can actually ban
  • What other government entities can and cannot ban books
  • Book burning in the United States (more recently than you think!)
  • Books that have been banned or challenged in Montana
  • How book banning affects authors and publishers
  • The process of banning a book
  • Banned Book Week and the ALA/ABA fight for the freedom to read

I will bring backup materials for attendees to peruse after the talk, including lists of banned and challenged books.


A few myths about banned books

This image was borrowed from Melville House, where it illustrates an article referenced later in this blog post.

This image was borrowed from Melville House, where it illustrates an article referenced later in this blog post.

I just listened to an episode of the “Stuff You Should Know” podcast from from September 13 of last year entitled, “How Book Banning Works.” The podcast was inspired by Banned Books Week, and it talks quite a bit about court cases and censorship in the United States.

Unfortunately, they didn’t do their research on the fundamentals very well, and the podcast reinforces some misconceptions about what book banning really is. I’m not implying it was a bad podcast — there was a lot of good information — but they really didn’t grasp what a book banning really is and who does them. Definitions, of course, can be troublesome. There is some disagreement on what “censorship” really means, for example — or even what book banning means.

Every time I write a blog post like this one (see, for example, my tiff with Chris Kilham at Fox News over in my Tea With Gary blog), I think of Randall Munroe’s oft-referenced XKCD cartoon, “Duty Calls.” I don’t want to be that guy, but I do speak to schools about the subject of book banning and censorship, and I want to make sure that the information floating around out there is correct.

"Duty Calls" from XKCD. The mouseover text on the original cartoon reads, "What do you want me to do?  LEAVE?  Then they'll keep being wrong!"

“Duty Calls” from XKCD. The mouseover text on the original cartoon reads, “What do you want me to do? LEAVE? Then they’ll keep being wrong!”

Libraries are not the only place books can be banned.

In the podcast, they say that you “challenge” a book by going to a librarian and saying you don’t want the book on the shelves. If the librarian agrees to pull it, the book has been banned. This is technically correct, but it’s a massive oversimplification. The process doesn’t have to involve a librarian at all. As an example, if you went to your child’s English teacher and said, “I don’t want my child to read this book you assigned,” that’s a challenge. For that matter, you could go to your city council and demand that a certain book not be allowed in stores in that town. That’s also a challenge, and neither of those involve a library.

It’s usually not about the First Amendment.

The podcast also talked about libraries refusing to ban a book for First Amendment reasons. In most book ban/challenge situation, the First Amendment doesn’t even apply. Let’s take a look at the full and complete text of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Notice the first five words? “Congress shall make no law.” The word “Congress” refers to the United States Congress. It doesn’t say that your local school board or city council or library board cannot abridge your freedom of speech. It refers only to laws passed by the U.S. Government.

The librarian (or the Supreme Court) makes the decisions.

Most schools and libraries have a policy in place for book challenges. Our local high school is typical. If a parent tells the school librarian that a book should be pulled, the librarian gives the parent a form to fill out. I love this particular form because it has a checkbox above the signature labeled, “I have read this book,” and a disclaimer that if you haven’t read the book, they aren’t interested in your opinions on it. Once the form is filled out, the librarian decides whether to pull the book.

If the librarian chooses to refuse the challenge, the parent can either live with it or appeal to the school principal. If the principal agrees with the librarian, the parent has the option to appeal to the school board. In a public library, the chain of command might go to the library board and then the county commissioners or the city council. Either way, it does not go directly from the librarian to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Removing a book from a library is not censorship.

The podcast used the word “censorship” quite a few times. In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

(Listen on YouTube. It never gets old). Librarians make decisions about books constantly. Tens of thousands of new books are printed every month, and a typical library is lucky to have the budget to buy one or two percent of them. The librarians must decide whether books are appropriate for their particular library. Choosing not to include a book isn’t censorship, it’s their job.

That said, forcing a library to remove a book is a different thing. If a group of citizens descended upon the local library demanding that they pull my children’s books for having the word “poop” in the title, the librarian (or library board, or city council, or whomever) may just decide to go along. That, while it does qualify as a localized book banning, still isn’t censorship. People still have the option to buy those books at a local bookstore, or to read them in some other library, or to borrow them from a friend. There are still hundreds of thousands of copies floating around the country. The government has not prevented my work from being published or disseminated.

I pulled the main illustration for this blog post from an article on the Melville House website. That article decries the “censorship” in the book, The Cartoons That Shook the World, published by Yale University Press. The book talks about the protests spurred by cartoons containing images of the prophet Muhammad, and Yale Press chose not to include the cartoons themselves in the book. They had their reasons for omitting the cartoons, but I don’t see it as censorship. Let me draw a parallel.

Closed Captioning Handbook

No, I wouldn’t call that censorship.

When I wrote The Closed Captioning Handbook for Focal Press, the book went through a fairly comprehensive peer review process. One of those reviewers declared that he didn’t want a copy of the book in his office because it included a chapter with details on U.S. Patents relating to closed captioning. Owning a copy of the book, he felt, could create a situation where he was liable for treble damages if he inadvertently violated one of those patents, as he couldn’t claim lack of knowledge of the patent. My editor told me to remove the chapter. I wasn’t happy, as I had put a lot of work into those patent summaries. The publisher, however, is the one that writes my checks. I capitulated and removed the chapter. Censorship? Certainly not. That was good business, as removing that information increased book sales. The same is true for The Cartoons That Shook the World.

If a teacher chooses to pull a book from his classroom rather than fight with the parents of his students, his students can still pick up a copy of that book somewhere else and read it. The author may not like it (we love having our books in classrooms), but it isn’t censorship.

%d bloggers like this: