Toni Morrison speaks up for free speech

NEW YORK — The setting was divine — a duplex on the Upper East Side. The featured speaker, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.

NEW YORK — The setting was divine — a duplex on the Upper East Side. The featured speaker, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. The subjects: sex, violence and profanity. In other words, the stuff that books are banned for. Some 50 publishers, writers and other First Amendment supporters gathered over cocktails Wednesday night to launch the Free Speech Leadership Council, an advocacy arm of the National Coalition Against Censorship, a nonprofit founded in 1974. Former HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman, who hosted the event at her apartment, is the council’s chair. "I don’t see how you can be in publishing for 40 years and not care about this," Friedman said. Morrison, 78, has long experience with censorship. Her novels "Beloved," ”Song of Solomon" and "The Bluest Eye" have frequently been threatened with removal from library shelves — and sometimes pulled — because of sexual, racial or violent content. Seated regally in Friedman’s living room as other guests stood around her, Morrison said the problem was fear — fear of information, dating back to the book of Genesis and the fatal temptation of the Tree of Knowledge. "Knowledge is bad" is the Bible’s message, Morrison said, while being interviewed by author-humorist Fran Lebowitz. "It is sinful. It will corrupt you, and you will die." And that fear still "floats around in the back of the brain," Morrison added, noting how slaves once risked their lives to learn to read. "To know stuff is a bad thing. It has consequences, and the consequences are death." Also attending was Judy Blume, whose books, too, often show up on lists of banned works. The author, whose novels include "Forever" and "Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret," joked about being forbidden as a girl to read John O’Hara’s novel of a woman’s uncontainable sexual desire, "A Rage to Live." Blume, 61, first became aware of the book around age 9, when her mother warned not to look at the book, especially a certain page. The library would not allow Blume to borrow it without written permission. When she finally got her hands on it, Blume found the novel "very satisfying." "My husband may not like this, but I did not become a nymphomaniac," she joked. At the end of event, signed copies were handed out of a new release edited by Morrison, "Burn This Book," which compiles essays by Morrison, John Updike, Salman Rushdie and others about writing and its risks and challenges. On Wednesday night, Morrison recalled a letter being sent to her publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, from a Texas inmate, who informed the author that "Song of Solomon" was not permitted at the prison because it might start a riot. "And I thought, ‘What a powerful book,’" Morrison said. "This book is so powerful." ______ Copyright 2009 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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