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Just in Time for Banned Books Week

When most people think of Banned Books Week (celebrated this year Sept. 25 through Oct. 2), they usually envision puritanical parents trying to keep entire school districts from allowing students to have access to particular books that they don't want their own children to know exist because they find them offensive (usually without having read them). This week usually evokes discussions of titles such as Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Ulysses, or the Harry Potter series, and authors such as Judy Blume, John Steinbeck, or Maya Angelou.

When ever this week rolls around, on the other hand, I am always reminded of a horrifying act of censorship that happened in the United States in the 1950s. No, I'm not talking about the uproar over roll'n'roll music. I'm talking about the literal book-burning of the works of William Reich. William Reich was a renowned, if controversial, psychiatrist and scientist, who developed a theory of "orgone energy". The FDA labeled him a quack, sought an injunction against him for "misbranding" (see Reich v. United States, 239 F.2d 134 (1st Cir. 1956)), and ordered that almost all of his books, papers, and research notes be burned.

In many ways, William Reich was a modern-day Giordano Bruno, the great alchemist and contemporary of Galileo who was burned at the stake for heresy. Bruno was a great thinker, but also a stubborn idealist and anti-authoritarian, and these traits led him to the fire. The authorities gave him several opportunities to recant and save his life, but Bruno defied them to the end. The same can be said of Reich. He did not present a defense to the FDA's injunction request, nor did he defend against charges of violating the injunction, which led to a jail sentence and, ultimately, his death in prison. Also like Bruno, his controversial views and contemptuous attitude made it difficult for the public to be outraged by the government's actions against him.

Why I am writing about this? Not only is it Banned Books Week, but, almost as if on cue, it recently came to light that the US Dept. of Defense recently destroyed almost an entire printing of a new book, the memoirs of an Army Reserve officer. Surprisingly, despite claiming that the destruction was required for national security purposes, the DoD did not go as far as the FDA in the 1950s. There does not appear to be an effort to track down and destroy the few copies that were sold or given out, and they are allowing the book to be reprinted, albeit in a redacted form.

How will the public react? How will librarians react? So far, it's been pretty quiet.

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