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Albany defenders of free speech dare to read banned books

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By Patrick Day Tine

About 40 defenders of free speech turned out on Wednesday night at the main branch of the Albany Public Library for the New York Civil Liberties Union’s (NYCLU) annual “Banned Books Read Out.” The event featured 11 volunteers from around the Capital District reading passages from books frequently challenged around the United States.

The volunteers read from a variety of challenged texts. James Yeara, a longtime English and acting teacher at Bethlehem High School, read a scene about sex being a “political act” from George Orwell’s “1984,” a volume that has been a mainstay on banned books lists for decades. Melanie Young, a state employee and new mother, read Shel Silverstein’s poems, “Blame” and “Little Abigail and the Beautiful Pony” from his collection, “A Light in The Attic.”

This might sound like tame fare, but the book has been challenged on the grounds that it encourages childhood disobedience, and one hysterical school district in Wisconsin accused Silverstein of “glorifying Satan, suicide and cannibalism.”

Bob Resnick, an assistant librarian at the APL and a local musician, read from the most challenged book of the year, a young adult title called “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie. Though the passage that Resnick picked was decidedly tender and G-rated, the book has been challenged by conservative school districts for its liberal use of profanity and depictions of drug and alcohol abuse. The novel, which is about a Native American boy in Washington state who leaves his reservation to attend a predominantly white school, was met with wide acclaim by critics and won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2007.

The master of ceremonies for the event was Joanna Palladino, a gregarious and bubbly host, whose charm and good humor were welcome after some of the more dour readings. Palladino has been on the board of the NYCLU for 15 years and currently serves as the AIDS Program Manager at the State Department of Health.

The two highlights of the evening came from readings done by two men. Gary Maggio, a semi-retired Albany man who moonlights as a standardized patient at Albany Medical College where he enacts scenarios to teach communication skills to medical students, read from Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison’s debut novel “The Bluest Eye.” Bringing all his acting talents to bear, Maggio read in a low, malevolent voice, a disturbing scene where the novel’s black protagonist is lured by a white man who promises to show her kittens in his house. It was a tension-packed scene masterfully read.

The second stand-out performance came from David Rook, who describes himself as, “a locally raised, free range human of the Capital District.” Rook read from William S. Burroughs’s junkie masterpiece “Naked Lunch.” His portion was from a chapter in the novel called “A.J.’s Annual Party,” that was supposed to serve as a meditation on the death penalty.

One of the last people to read was Sarah Clark, coordinator of creative services at the Albany Public Library. Before reading her selection from Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” she recalled some of the pitched battles against censorship she fought as an elementary school librarian. She recalled an irate principal who accused her of denigrating the memory of 9/11 because she made a display for the children’s book “The Man Who Walked Between The Towers,” the story of a French acrobat who walked on a tightrope between the Twin Towers in 1974. She shrugged off the administrative oversight and said, with some pride, “It’s pretty cool when librarians get to be warriors.”

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