In Banned Books Scavenger Hunt, The Prize Is Literary 'Smut' | KUOW News and Information

In Banned Books Scavenger Hunt, The Prize Is Literary 'Smut'

Sep 15, 2016
Originally published on September 16, 2016 12:52 am

Every year, libraries around the country observe Banned Books Week, to remind the public that even well known and much loved books can be the targets of censorship. This year, Washington, D.C.'s public library came up with a clever idea to focus attention on the issue: a banned books scavenger hunt.

Now, readers are stalking local shops, cafes and bookstores looking for copies of books that are hidden behind distinctive black and white covers. There is no title on the cover, just a phrase — such as FILTHY, TRASHY or PROFANE — which describes the reason why some people wanted the book banned.

Take The Catcher in the Rye, for example — that was banned for being "ANTI-WHITE."

The whole idea for the hunt was motivated by the desire to have more of the public involved in Banned Books Week, which runs this year from Sept. 25 to Oct. 1, says Linnea Hegarty, executive director of the D.C. Public Library Foundation. When books are banned, their supporters disguise them and circulate them surreptitiously, she says, and the idea was to capture that spirit.

The library chose six well known books that have been banned at one time or another — and then began posting clues on social media.

D.C.-based photographer Jose Vazquez saw a post about the scavenger hunt on Facebook and decided to check it out. Previously, he hadn't known books could be banned and it made him want to find one.

"It's kind of the child in me, I guess" he says. "You try and keep something from me and I'll seek it out more."

He went out in search of The Catcher in the Rye and found it at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. After that success, he decided he wanted to find all six.

I joined him on his hunt — but we hit dead ends at Proper Topper, a small shop near Dupont Circle, and again at Kramerbooks nearby. Kramerbooks events manager Sara Baline says the scavenger hunt has been more popular than anyone expected — thanks in part to those attention-grabbing, black-and-white covers.

"You want to pick up a book that has 'SMUT' on the cover," she says. "You open it and you see that it's Catcher in the Rye and it makes you think: Well, l don't consider this smut ... why would someone else consider it smut?"

At Upshur Street Books in the Petworth neighborhood, we finally got lucky. We found a "FILTHY TRASHY SEX NOVEL" (A Separate Peace, by John Knowles) and a "PROFANE AND SEXUALLY EXPLICIT" book (Native Son, by Richard Wright.)

So, three down, three to go for Vazquez. Happy hunting!

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Even well-known books that are considered classics can be the targets of censorship. The Washington D.C. Public Library has come up with a clever way to remind people of that - a scavenger hunt throughout the city. Find one of the books that's been censored at some point, and you can keep it. It's part of the run-up to Banned Books Week later this month. NPR's Lynn Neary went looking herself.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Scavenger hunters in Washington, D.C., are stalking local shops, cafes and bookstores, looking for copies of books that are wrapped in distinctive black and white covers. There's no title on the cover, just a phrase which describes the reason why some people wanted the book banned. Take "The Catcher In The Rye."

LINNEA HEGARTY: That was banned for being anti-white.

NEARY: Linnea Hegarty is executive director of the D.C. Public Library Foundation. She says the library wanted to get the public more involved in Banned Books Week. Someone pointed out that when books are banned, their supporters still circulate them surreptitiously.

HEGARTY: They cover them with a cover that makes them unidentifiable, and then they pass them to people under bars or, you know, on the street or however. And they pass from hand to hand. And we thought oh, that's such a great concept.

NEARY: The library chose six books which have been banned at one time or another, then began posting clues about the scavenger hunt on social media.

JOSE VAZQUEZ: I've been checking Twitter. I haven't seen anything new yet. Let's take a quick look.

NEARY: Jose Vazquez first heard about the scavenger hunt on Facebook. Until then he didn't even know that books could be banned, and it made him want to find one.

VAZQUEZ: That's kind of the child in me I guess. You try to keep something from me, and I'll seek it out more.

NEARY: Vazquez has already found one book - "Catcher In The Rye." Now he wants to find all six. He let me join him on his search. Our first stop - the Proper Topper, a small shop near D.C.'s Dupont Circle.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hi.

NEARY: Hi. How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Good. How are you?

NEARY: Good. We're looking for a banned book.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: We...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Unfortunately...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: They've all been found. We're getting some more.

NEARY: Store manager Tara McCreedy suggested we head over to Kramers, a nearby bookstore and restaurant. We hit a dead end there, too.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I can see if we're supposed to get any more in.

NEARY: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: But I think they've...

NEARY: The scavenger hunt has been more popular than anyone expected, said Kramerbooks events manager, Sara Baline. She thinks it's those attention-grabbing covers.

SARA BALINE: And so you want to pick up a book that says smut on the cover, and you open it, and you see that it's "Catcher In The Rye." And it makes you think, well, I don't, you know, consider this smut. Or why would someone else consider it smut?

NEARY: OK, we decided to cheat a little bit. After all, what are smartphones for? So they were expecting us at the next stop - Upshur Street Books.

So you have some still.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Yes. Would you like me to show you where they are?

NEARY: No, I think we have to find them, right?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: OK. I think so, too.

NEARY: It didn't take long. Vazquez spotted one right away.

So what does it say?

VAZQUEZ: This is filthy, trashy sex novel.

NEARY: What is it?

VAZQUEZ: So this particular one is "A Separate Peace" by John Knowles.

NEARY: Wow.

Moments later Vazquez found another book - "Native Son" by Richard Wright.

VAZQUEZ: This is profane and sexually explicit - sounds interesting.

NEARY: And with that, my scavenger hunt came to an end. But Jose Vazquez still has a ways to go.

VAZQUEZ: Three down, three to go I guess (laughter).

NEARY: And yes, the D.C. Public Library did restock the banned books just a few hours after we left. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.