Reading as an act of civil disobedience

Jared Gulian reading 'Into the River'This photograph shows me doing something illegal. It seems innocent enough. There I am, a mild-mannered, middle-aged white guy, reading a book on the streets of Wellington, pretending to be shocked. But let there be no mistake. It was an unlawful act.

Specifically, the illegal act reflected in that photograph is that someone shared their copy of a banned book with me. Yes, it’s true. They shared a book with me, and I read it.

This clearly represents a total breakdown in society. Today, people are passing around books. Tomorrow, they’ll be rampaging through the streets in criminal gangs, hurling library books like Molotov cocktails. Hide your children. Lock your doors. Draw the curtains. The dangerous, book-wielding maniacs are on the loose.

The book ban in New Zealand

Right now it is illegal for anyone in New Zealand to lend, distribute or exhibit Ted Dawe’s book ‘Into the River.’ Yes, welcome to this tiny South Pacific paradise. You thought we were a modern, Western nation? Guess again. We’re clearly a bunch of book banning yahoos.

If the ban on ‘Into the River’ is breached, individuals face a fine of NZ$3,000 and companies of NZ$10,000. I have been told that even allowing someone to read the book over your shoulder could lead to a fine of NZ$1,000.

For context, and to show that New Zealand got class, I should point out that before ‘Into the River’ was banned it was awarded the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year prize and also won the top prize in the Young Adult Fiction category at the 2013 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards.

People reading 'Into the River' in a protest against book banning

Silent reading of ‘Into the River’. Photo by Anna Kirtlan

The book is a coming-of-age story set in New Zealand and it’s intended for a young adult audience. It’s got some drugs, sex, and swear words in it. (I haven’t read it myself yet. I can’t get a copy of my own because, well, it’s banned.) The book is noted especially for appealing to young Maori and Pasifika boys.

So what do we do in this island nation when there’s an award-winning, local book that boys like to read? Well, we ban it of course. Boys read enough already.

Besides, we don’t need novels that speak to boys and reflect their lives. There’s plenty of stuff for them to read on the internet. Nothing bad there.

The criminal photo

The photo above – the one of me doing something illegal – was taken at a protest against the banning of ‘Into the River’. It was a silent reading of the book on a Wellington street, in front of the best bookstore in the world, Unity Books. About 20 or so of us stood there and read. That was all. We read.

Those of us who had pre-ban copies of ‘Into the River’ read that. I brought my copy of Grapes of Wrath to read, which was banned in 1939 in some parts of the States. (I tried to get a copy of ‘Into the River’ but I couldn’t because, well, it’s been banned.)

Silent reading of 'Into the River.'

Silent reading of ‘Into the River.’ Photo by Susan Pearce.

It was a silent reading because it would have been illegal to read ‘Into the River’ out loud. Did you get that? It’s unlawful to read the book aloud! This is madness. It’s like being told, “Don’t you dare sing that song. It will turn people into heffalumps.”

So we stood around and read silently and talked, and eventually we started taking pictures. I asked the woman next to me, who was reading a copy of ‘Into the River,’ if I could get a picture of me reading it. She didn’t want any photographs of her, but she let me get a picture.

That was when the corrupt, immoral, and depraved thing happened. That was when she actually handed a copy of a book to me.

I held it just long enough to read a few lines and take the picture. Then I handed it back. I don’t even know the woman who let me borrow it. I talked to her only briefly. I wouldn’t be able to spot her in a lineup, and I hope to God that I’ll never be asked to do so.

Let me pause for a moment here and point out that, at this moment, writing this, I am not certain that I won’t be asked to identify her. That may sound like crazy talk. I mean really, would authorities’ in New Zealand really ask me to identify that woman? Who knows? I’m not certain of anything anymore. A book has been banned. Suddenly it feels like all bets are off.

And here is something else. To be honest, I am more than a little bit uncomfortable with publishing this post and clarifying that it wasn’t my copy. It makes me uneasy. What will happen? Anything? Will I be fined heavily for breaking the law? Will I be asked to identify the dangerous, criminal woman who shared her book with me? I don’t know.

Do I really live in such a mad country that publishing a picture of me reading a borrowed, prize-winning book on the street of the capital makes me nervous?

Yes. I do.

Yes, I live in that place.

And that makes me terribly sad.

35 thoughts on “Reading as an act of civil disobedience

  1. Brian Barnhart

    I’m shocked that New Zealand bans books. I just ordered a copy from Amazon (I’m in he U.S.) and look forward to seeing what all the brouhaha is about. I’d send you a copy, but that would probably get you in trouble. Thank you for standing up to censorship!

    1. Jared Post author

      To be fair, this is the first book banned here in 22 years. So it’s not an everyday occurrence. But I don’t care. Banning books should be banned. Oh, and officially it’s only an ‘interim restriction.’ Again, I don’t care. I can’t buy it. It’s banned.

  2. thecontentedcrafter

    Why has it been banned Jared? [Even as I write that I feel silly – books shouldn’t be banned – period!] What is going on here? I don’t like this regime I find myself living under in so many ways and wonder if this is another of their control tactics. Thanks for bringing this to our attention! I’m off to Google to see what I can discover.

  3. thecontentedcrafter

    So, according to the internet, the book has been banned because one man has the power to do so. . quote: ‘Dr Don Mathieson QC can, with one stroke of his pen, ban any book put in front of him’. ………… I also see it is the work of a right wing christian group who ultimately are really responsible for giving the book lots of free publicity and ensuring a wider reading audience than it might otherwise have received. Let’s hope the outrage focuses where it needs to and the elderly [and obviously under educated] Don Mathieson is relieved of his position and future successors have their job description modified.

      1. thecontentedcrafter

        ☺indeed an excellent response! Thanks for sending that my way, I was stewing a bit on the situation and reflecting that we had our share of bigoted idiots like that Kim Davis travesty of a human being! I intend to get hold of a copy of the book and read it in public places.

  4. First Night Design

    This is obscene. More and more controls are being put in place all over the globe and it’s terrifying. Our parents and grandparents would be appalled beyond belief at what’s happening after all they struggled for in the 20th century.

    1. Jared Post author

      There’s that quote often attributed to Thomas Jefferson, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” The law enacted to ban the book is an old one, apparently. I hope this highlights the fact that the law needs to change.

  5. Susan Pearce

    I love this, Jared, while very sad, like you & many others about the whole business. & angry that Paul Henry, the other night, apparently pretended, dishonestly, that he couldn’t find a single page to read that wasn’t ‘filthy’. It’s vital that as many people as possible hear something closer to the truth, & you’ve just helped with that a whole lot.

  6. jmacg

    I’m with you on this, Jared. Hopefully you’ll only be confined to quarters with an electronic bracelet, so I can come around from time to time with a few safe books – Pilgrim’s Progress and such.

    My expectation is that the ban will be lifted soon, given that it’s an interim restriction that has been greeted with such ridicule. The restriction decision may even be a good thing, because it may lead to the genie being firmly stuffed back in the bottle. These reactionaries need to be exposed from time to time.

    I don’t think the book decision means New Zealand is regressing to Victorian prudery. There’s little evidence of that – if anything I see the opposite. Thankfully we have very little of the religious right intolerance that blights America.

    1. Jared Post author

      Oh, think of the reading list we could put together for my confinement! Yes, it does seem likely that the ban will be lifted soon. While I think it’s right that we don’t have the levels of religious intolerance that US has, I do worry that it’s growing here. I hope NZ remains as level-headed as ever.

  7. Kirsten Bett

    So well said Jared! Banning books should be illegal. I am going to see if I can download this book on my Kindle. Surely the police – even in the Wairarapa will have better things to do than arrest me for wanting to read a book that has won quite significant literary awards!

    1. kirsten

      Of course also unavailable for my kindle… Let’s hope everybody comes to their senses at the 2 October review.

  8. Heather McCallum

    Hi there Jared, Thanks for this, very impressed with you doing this, like a good Kiwi I was just muttering in the dark…I have shared it on Facebook. It is appalling. One positive thing is that it will be a best seller when the ban is lifted as it surely must be! Heaps of warm wishes, Heather.

    1. Jared Post author

      Thanks Heather. Your Facebook share is no small thing. And, yes, I imagine ‘Into the River’ will be a huge bestseller when the ban is lifted!

  9. lalalaraz

    I hate that a book has been banned, it makes me so angry… But at the same time I’m also quite happy about this because all that banning it has achieved is bringing wayyy more publicity and attention to it. Presumably the opposite effect that the banners wished to have.

    It seems ridiculous that we live in a country where you have to be nervous about sharing a book or even taking a photo with a book, but good on you for doing it!!

    Let us hope that the ban is lifted because I know that when it is, the book will be flying off the shelves!

    1. Jared Post author

      Yeah, it makes me so angry too. And I can roll with just about anything. For years I wasn’t allowed to marry the one I love. Whatever. Being told who I can marry is mildly annoying, but being told what I can read? Now that’s getting personal!

  10. sexinthelibrary

    Hi Jared, my local library doesn’t own this title–yet. But I’ll submit my request to purchase (along with a link to your post) to our book buyer as soon as I get to work (I’m a librarian). AND, once I’ve read it, I will post a review on the SITL blog for all to see.

    Please note that most public libraries in the free world accept purchase suggestions from patrons, and I encourage everyone who has a library card to request this book (and I suggest that anyone who doesn’t have a library card should get one and THEN request the book)!

    Remember: if YOU buy the book, you can read it. If there LIBRARY buys the book, anyone can read it.

    1. Jared Gulian Post author

      Excellent. Is this the blog you’re talking about? http://sexinthelibrary.blogspot.co.nz/

      Alas, in NZ the libraries have had to take it off the shelves. And before it was banned it had an R14 restriction which effectively meant nobody read it. If you’re interested, check out the interview (link below) with author Ted Dawe about the roller coaster and how even just an age restriction label unnecessarily limited teenagers’ access to the book.

      Censorship is alive in New Zealand. I should know: my book was banned
      http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/10/censorship-is-alive-in-new-zealand-i-should-know-my-book-was-banned

      1. sexinthelibrary

        Yes, that’s our blog. My colleague and I review books with sexual content written for teen audiences. We also lead programs at regional library conferences, and have two such gigs upcoming…I’m hoping to read Into the River before we get there!

        I work for the largest library system in North America. When we buy a book, people notice. I’m hoping that the “noticing” will spread, and the extra attention we shine on it via Sex in the Library will help too! (hmmm, I notice we haven’t bought YOUR book yet, Jared. Better put in a request to purchase for that, too!)

        –Aarene in Washington State (aka Sex in the Library, also aka Haiku Farm)

  11. Astro

    Caveat: I am not a supporter of Family First, Don Mathieson, or any other nutjob Christian moralist tub-thumpers.
    However if I may respectfully point something out – this book has not been banned. It is subject to an interim restriction order pending a Review Board meeting on October 2 which will (hopefully) ascertain any age restriction or otherwise once and for all. “Banned” is the term proliferated by the media to sensationalise this.
    And by the way, the woman in the queue in your photo is none other than Elizabeth Knox.

    1. Jared Gulian Post author

      It’s important to keep things in perspective. Although this situation is temporary, it is still ban, no matter the bureaucratic name given to it. (‘Interim restriction’ sounds rather Orwellian to me.) I have tried to buy the book through multiple websites, and I am unable to do so. It is illegal for my friends to share their copy of the book with me. Libraries have had to take the book of their shelves. Bookstores cannot sell it. Let there be no doubt about it: this is a ban. Yes, it is a temporary ban. The fact that a flower does not last forever makes it no less of a flower. The same is true with book bans.

    1. Judy Livingston

      Thanks for your on-going interest in this issue Jared. It has attracted some insightful comments and responses. Good to see a common sense dialogue going on. .When anyone can express an opinion or response to an issue and this does not cause an unnecessary restriction to anyone’s freedom of choice. Then we see a maturing society. May this be the case for all of us.

  12. Betty Jeeves

    Well said Jared! I wonder if the publicity monster is out and about because the more you want to ban something the more people want it – great for book sales when the ban comes off! I would love to read it. I have a book on the facts of life which I got for my two daughters many years ago and I would think that is far more explicit with drawings, photos etc than Into the River could be. However, I imagine the ‘swear words’ used in it might have something to do with it – yet if they are, then it is only what is used in everyday common language of kids these days. BUT, as the book is banned I cannot really comment or review it properly. Honestly banning adults from reading a book for published for children, which has won a literary award, is absolutely ludicrous! What has happened to the mind of the censor?

    1. Jared Gulian Post author

      Yes, it has and will continue to bring attention to the book. To be clear, it isn’t the censor who did this. What has happened is that the President of the Film and Literature Review Board, Don Mathieson, (who has strong Christian beliefs) has effectively overruled the Board’s own Chief Censor in order to stop sale of the book temporarily. Mathieson has edited a book called “Faith at Work .” The summary states “Faith goes beyond church on Sunday. It must impact on every area of life.” See the book here: http://www.castlepublishing.co.nz/faith-at-work.html

      From my perspective, it seems Mathieson is using his position to push his personal beliefs. His Christianity means I can’t read a book. And that is patently wrong in a free, secular society.

      1. Betty Jeeves

        I agree. He should disassociate his own beliefs from that of his work. I wonder how he got that job? I am not into the religious thing, but respect anyone else’s beliefs, however I do not want them to be able to dictate to me what I can or cannot do – in one way I feel it is discrimination and verging on a Big Brother mentality.

  13. Lynn Miotto

    Banned books … What???
    Years ago, I read a novel about a ‘strange futuristic world’ full of banned books…where a group of protesters memorized books, so they would not be lost to civilization. Yikes.
    Get reading (carefully, quietly). I’ll check back on your progress📖📕📗📘📙📚‼️‼️

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