Incendiary Words: Banned Books Week

MOST YEARS, I clear out time to purposely buy and read a banned book. This year though, I have to say, it caught me by surprise.

So, I didn’t make a plan. Even still, I want to mark this important week by pointing to a few interesting sites or activities I’ve been watching pop up the last couple of days. Most significantly I’ve noted several campaigns encouraging readers to buy and check out challenged or banned books. You can find a comprehensive list of titles and background and context information here here. A Pinterest board full of images and factoids here and for an interactive historical view click right here .

But my hands-down favorite this week is Powell’s Books’ lively un-scrolling tumblr which is a noisy visual conversation of history, comics, photography, video chats about the life-blood of literature. And of course you’ll find an on-going list enumerating singular titles with links to the books themselves. They are tagged “Read This Banned Book”: so if you need any ideas, Powell’s would be an excellent place to jump-start and find a community as well.

Official Banned Books Week site is here:
Oh, and the On the Road matches? (a contested book, too) They can be found at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena.)


12 thoughts on “Incendiary Words: Banned Books Week

      • Thanks, John. I have a complicated On the Road story. I tried to read it for the first time in high school. Couldn’t get through it. Picked up again after I had read Big Sur and The Subterraneans in college (both of which I fell for — hard) and this time liked it more. It isn’t my favorite Kerouac but it has such wonderful moments and because of them has grown on me. How about you? When did you first read it? What were your impressions?

  1. I graduated high school in ’72 –Northport NY. Coincidentally, it was the same town where Kerouac spent a good part of the 60’s falling apart. He was gone by the time I came along, but his presence lingered at our school and in up in the bars of the working-class village which Northport was in those years.

    I probably read the book in my senior year and sometime over the next few years I read Dharma Bums which I much preferred. Later in my twenties I became good friends with Stanley Twardowicz, a sculptor and photographer in Northport who was one of Kerouac’s closest friends. We used to listen to jazz records that Kerouac himself had listened to a few years earlier (I remember an album with Getz and Dizzy that Stanley told me was one of Jack’s favorites). There were also two of Kerouac’s paintings in Stanley’s loft– I will never forget that….a crucifixion and a cityscape.

    • OK. My head just blew up. Incredible series of anecdotes, John. Have you spent much or any time documenting Northport photographically? I know that Lowell has been done to death as a “spirit of Kerouac” location, but as you mention it was a place — a pin on his map — that held so much significance because of that unravelling (there and St. Petersburg) — I’d love to see that “presence” you write of. I just very recently re-read Ann Charters’ Kerouac bio and every time I get to the mid-to-late 60s, I have to slow down. It’s hard road. How incredible to listen to those records of his as well, the few things still stirred things up. And the paintings! I feel like I’ve seen the crucifixion — somewhere on the cover of something but now I can’t place what it was. And I own that Diz and Getz. Maybe I should give it a spin today.

      Truth be told, I’ve been Kerouac-obsessed for decades — it didn’t go away (as some of my friends predicted). Maybe one day I’ll photograph my “Beat Bookcase” and post it. So that’s why my head blew up. So thanks so much for sharing this.

      • I photographed Northport in back in the 70’s and have yet to archive any of that work. It’s project which I’d hope to eventually put up on my site. The photographer I studied with was Tony Nobile, another Northport artist with an intriguing past who was holed up in this small town much like Kerouac had done eight years earlier. Nobile was a student of Minor White’s who had a bit of a cult following around the Northport area. Despite having work at MOMA and in other collections, he was struggling to stay afloat. My own photographic past is very much linked to Northport because of him.

        Getting back to Kerouac:

        Twardowicz may have been referenced in Charters’ book. And as I recall, Kerouac mentions him in various parts of Satori in Paris. Here’s a good piece on Kerouac during the Northport years:

        Stanley had many stories about Kerouac. Most of them were funny and some were funny and tragic. They certainly shared an interest in music and he told me on more than one occasion that JK had no interest in rock, folk, Dylan or in any of the other musicians from the 60’s who were obviously in his debt. (I’m sure you already knew that). Kerouac was a contrarian who totally dug Sinatra. He was also a huge Coltrane fan. Interestingly, when Coltrane wrote A Love Supreme he was living only a few miles away from Kerouac over in Dix Hills.

        Stanley used to tell me that he and JK did much drinking at a small working class pub called Gunther’s. By the time I got to High School, none of us hung out at Gunther’s anymore because it was a roughneck place popular with guys from my father’s generation. There was sort of an ongoing joke about the fact that Kerouac liked this place, although in retrospect I can see that it must’ve reminded him all all those pubs from his salad years back in Lowell. As far as I know, Gunther’s is still in business. One night Twardowicz and Kerouac stumbled out onto Main Street. Kerouac decided to lie down in the middle of the road. “Hey Stanley, I’m on the road!” he said. Twardowicz loved to tell this story.

        I remember seeing Kerouac’s house in Northport, or having it pointed out to me. From what I’ve heard, Kerouac had some awful times there, not coming out for days, spiraling further into self-destruction. It just looked like a house in the suburbs which always seemed ironic.

        You mentioned St Petersburg – coincidentally I grew up in Largo (about 5 miles from St. Pete). All my childhood years were spent very close to two places Kerouac had lived (and died). When he passed away in October 1969, we had just moved up to Northport about three months earlier.

  2. about those paintings…

    I tried to Google them a couple of years ago and wasn’t able to find either one. Stanley died in 2008 and the last time we spoke might’ve been around 1984.
    They were both quite good, modern…surprisingly large (I’m guessing around 5 or 6′). Stylistically they sort of reminded me of Ben Shahn or someone from that period. The WPA murals. I can still remember being in awe of these paintings. And yes…I do seem to recall his signature.

    • Incredible. Truly. I will look Twardowicz up in the Charters bio. And you’ve just given me reason to re-read Sartori in Paris (another one of my favorite Keroauc’s — beautiful slim and moody book. The pacing of it is what I most remember.)

      I do hope you are able to archive that work I would so love to see it — I know others would as well! I’ve always been interested in transitions, the very moment cultures or traditions are beginning to shift (that description of the bar, for example, changing). I think, as you of course well know, photographs really capture that blink, those tiny moments of irrevocable change we missed because we were living it. We can look at the frame and say: How on earth did I miss that?

      That Coltrane coincidence is quite moving — and is rolling around in my head now. And you truly made me laugh out loud with the “On the road” anecdote.

      Poor, lovely JK.

      The paintings: You must have seen that Beat Generation exhibit at the Whitney in ’95. I saw it in San Francisco at the DeYoung Museum when it made its trek West, the mighty On the Road roll and all. As well, there were many of Kerouac’s notebooks on display — the writing, journals, some sketches. For years I’d read that he was a visual artist as well, but seeing those sketches truly illuminated something. There was something living inside of them a bit different from the writing – I can’t quite say another “voice” but maybe another aspect of it. So I imagine standing in a room with his paintings had to have a deep impact.

      I was drawn to his writing because of he power of description. The imagery. There are segments of “Visions of Cody” or “Desolation Angels” I read just to *see* the diner the characters are sitting in, the short order cook working. Others, I revisit to walk down a littered sidewalk and see a small town “blink on” at twilight.

      Prose photographs of a moment slipping away….

      Have you read the latest Joyce Johnson book about him voice/language: “The Voice is All”?

      And thanks for the Twardowicz link. I will read up for sure.

      Thanks so much for sharing all of this, John. What a gift.

      • my pleasure Lynell — and sorry for the annoying typos. I’ll definitely follow up on your links and have already begun to contemplate what you’ve just written– a response which is both personal and brilliantly stated.

        and yes.. Coltrane’s Long Island connection is only now gaining attention. He died in Huntington Hospital (five miles from Northport). He’s buried in the same cemetery as my parents (about 600 feet away). As I mentioned, his most celebrated work was composed in the upstairs room of his Dix Hills home. It’s intriguing that these two cultural giants were holed up in the sterility of Long Island’s suburbs…only a few miles apart.

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