A Literary Revolution!

root - Posted on 20 November 2003

City Lights Books in San Francisco celebrates 50 years of existence and resistance- a narrative essay

by Tricia Ward/PNN Media Intern (Facilitated by Dee)

I leaned against the wall outside of City Lights Bookstore in North Beach. It was a gray, misty day in San Francisco, but mood of the crowd that surrounded me was one of celebration.
I had come to join a group of several hundred at the 50th anniversary celebration for one of the few remaining independent bookstores in the city, if not the nation, City Lights. As the celebration began with an introduction of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the former Navy Skipper, turned poet, turned literary crusader, I glanced through the window into the bookstore and noticed something that took me back to my own childhood. Inside the store, oblivious to the hubbub outside was young girl probably about age nine or ten who reminded of myself back when I was that age.

She was in a chair with her head bent down over the book in her lap, her long brown hair hiding her face. She was in deep concentration over whatever she reading, and neither the celebration taking place outside nor the customers inside brushing past her took her eyes away from the novel. As Lawrence began telling the tale of the bookstore that has spent 50 years resisting mainstream culture and censorship, I watched the girl inside reading and was reminded of the way books framed, shaped, and developed my world.

Books! I can’t remember a time when I didn’t devour them. I come from long line of great readers. My entire family mom, dad, sister and brother were all certified bookworms. I wasn’t allowed to watch much television growing up, the exception being any show that appeared on Channel 9, the local public television station. “TV makes your brains mushy” my mother always said. So while my friends’ brains were turning into Jell-o Pudding from too much Scooby Doo and The Bionic Man, I was immersed in my own world between the pages of books.

As Lawrence and the other speakers at the celebration talked about the legacy of City Lights as a “Literary landmark, where people from across the country come to browse, read and just soak in the ambience”, I could relate to exactly what they felt. Books were my outlet while growing up. Books took me away from what a considered to be a painfully normal existence and created a whole new world for me. Through books, I could visit a mysterious and wonderful chocolate factory run by impish and seemingly mad man, I could travel to the Emerald City to see the wizard, I could hang out with Raymond as he hung out after bedtime in the land “Where the Wild Things Are”. While turning their pages I could become a princess, a warrior, a sassy little French girl named Madeline cavorting through Paris with her sassy group of friends.

Near my house was an independent bookstore, not unlike City Lights, called Little Professor. It was close enough for me to walk to it on my own, something I did quite frequently growing up. I could spend an entire afternoon tucked away in that musty-smelling nook, in the corner between the massive shelves stacked from floor to ceiling with pages and pages of prose. This was before the days of the mega-bookstores with built-in Starbucks. Hanging out in bookstores was not yet considered mainstream cool, but those who were really in the know, like the so-called beatniks that frequented City Lights in the early days, knew it was cool to hang in the bookstore. I indeed, felt very cool perusing novels amongst the grown-ups.

As I passed through my childhood I left the land of fairy tales and began to read all the teenage staples such as Judy Blume and V.C. Andrews. I also read anything else that looked even remotely interesting regardless of its ‘suitability’ (another mother-ism) for my age. I read “Helter Skelter” about the vicious murders committed by Charles Manson and his followers, and spent an entire month sleeping with my light on. I couldn’t even tell me parents why I suddenly developed a fear of the dark, for my greater fear was them censoring what I read.

Censure was the topic up on the speakers’ platform outside of City Lights, as the infamous court case regarding Allen Ginsberg’s supposedly obscene poem “Howl” was being told. Throughout the trial in 1957, City Lights continued to sell the book that the court wanted banned, and even had it prominently displayed in the front window of the store. Lawrence’s victory at the trial blazed the trail for many great works of literature that might otherwise have been labeled obscene and been censured or banned outright.

“That trial marked a literary revolution” a man standing near me commented. Revolution indeed. My own literary revolution of sorts happened one day in the bookstore sometime in my pre-teens. For some reason, my otherwise strict parents gave me free reign to roam around the bookstore. I would explore, wandering unsupervised through the aisles outside of the Childrens and Young Adults section. On this particular day I got the perfect opportunity to educate myself in a way that I felt my parents or my Catholic-school teachers never would. There it was - the large white book with the bright red title letters that had been making headlines and talk shows throughout the nation. Here it was right in front of me, my opportunity to gain insight to all the mysteries of the world! After making several trips up and down that aisle, pretending to look be interested in any other book but THAT one, and making sure at least ten times that the coast was clear, I quickly snatched it off the shelf and hurried to a corner, held the it flat on my lap, with my legs up hiding the cover of the forbidden volume; “The Joy of Sex”. I took a deep breath, opened the cover and began. …

I numbly left the store two hours later surely with more knowledge than I had when I entered but most certainly more confused than ever. Perhaps my mother was right that certain things were ‘unsuitable’ for me at that age.

In college when the boy, the only boy I was convinced I would ever love broke my heart, books overflowing with poetry and mournful tales of love lost forever became my bible, these authors understood, they knew my pain! I read and re-read these melodramatic tomes until the pages where worn thin or at least until the next only-boy-I-would-ever-love came along.

Bookstores like City Lights allowed me to continue to read into adulthood without censure. Back in 1989 when the ‘Satanic Verses’ was published and promptly earned it’s author Salman Rushdie a death sentence, the chain bookstores rushed to pull the book from their shelves. City Lights, however, like my own local independent bookstore, refused to remove the condemned novel. Thanks to bookstores like City Lights I was able to read it and form my own opinions without corporate America attempting to form them for me.

Books have taught me to think, to analyze, to criticize. Recently a friend of mine raised her eyebrows in surprise when she saw that leftist, liberal me had a copy of “Bias,” a decidedly right-wing criticism of how liberals are ruining the media, on my nightstand. I shrugged. “You have to keep your enemies close” I explained.

In front of City Lights, prizes were being given to children who had read a book and written an essay about the meaning of the book to them. The children walked up one by one to claim their prizes. Many of the books they had read were the same ones I devoured page by page over 20 years ago. Probably the same books that the little girl, with the long dark hair inside the store poured over now.

The Narrative Essays are created by Interns in The Poverty Studies/Media Activism Institute at POOR. The class is co-facilitated by Dee and strives to attain journalistic excellence on issues of poverty and racism by combining literary art with journalism.


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