The Mesa Library Advisory Board made a popular choice when it voted 6-1 to reject the gifts of three copies of the book Sex, Madonna's fleshy paean to Narcissus.
Jacqueline Kasper lauds the board's November 12 decision, saying, "I think this was a very wise decision, and I think it was handled very well."
What makes that statement troubling is that Kasper chairs the Arizona Library Association's Intellectual Freedom Committee. And she isn't alone. Asked about Sex as a First Amendment issue, Judith Krug, director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, says, "It just isn't that important."
Such utterances erase any notion that Madonna's literary debut has thrown First Amendment cognoscenti into a quandary. The book meets virtually every standard for library inclusion, not the least of which is a spot atop the best-seller list for three of the past four weeks. But Madonna is either too hot, too exposed or too irrelevant.
Whatever the reason, precious few libraries--an estimated 1 percent nationally; none in Arizona--have it on the shelves. In their zeal to shun this cultural phenomenon--however dubious it might be--libraries have ignored their own long-standing procedures and missions within the community.
Asked last week about her Grand Canyon State shutout, Madonna, through her publicist, tells New Times, "I'm proud to be in the same company as Martin Luther King Jr."
Nice sentiment; bad fact-checking. The November 3 election, in which state voters overwhelmingly approved a King holiday, renders her indignation moot. Well, in that case, the publicist says, "Maybe in the next election, they'll vote to let Madonna's book into the libraries."
Faced with a No. 1 best seller deemed unfit for public consumption, Vince Anderson, director of the Mesa Public Library, says, "Nowhere in my experience--and I've got 40 years working in public libraries--have I run into this kind of situation."
Anderson was thrust into the national media spotlight when 14-year-old Amanda Taussig and her adult peers on the library advisory board voted to spurn Sex, which depicts Madonna with men, women and other mammals in various states of undress, and in various positions--and juxtapositions--of lovemaking, bondage, bestiality and hitchhiking.
A decorated veteran of the censorship wars, Anderson has plaques on his office wall attesting to his love of freedom of expression. Shortly after World War II, he smuggled a copy of Henry Miller's then-banned Tropic of Cancer into the Land of the Free. So how could he, in good conscience, recommend that the advisory board reject the gifts of Madonna's book?
He couldn't. But he did anyway.
Anderson, a soft-spoken Tar Heel--William Styron was a university classmate--drawls words that should chill the blood of artists and libertarians everywhere: "Wouldn't you rather fight your war for something more substantial than Madonna's Sex?"
Anderson believes Sex is "trash." He also believes it belongs in the Mesa Public Library (which, incidentally, has 20 titles by Henry Miller, including the oft-censored Tropic of Cancer, plus The Illustrated Joy of Sex). However, like the rest of the library community, Anderson has withered under the pressure of public opinion. The paradox weighs on him.
"This is a First Amendment problem, and I've been on the First Amendment side all my life," he says. "And all of a sudden, I'm recommending otherwise. It is a contradiction."
In the wake of the Mesa imbroglio, Arizona Civil Liberties Union director Louis Rhodes fired off a letter to Mesa Mayor Willie Wong, accusing the city of "censorship."
"I'm surprised there hasn't been more criticism of what went on here in Arizona," says Rhodes, who would consider suing the Mesa Library to put the book on the shelf--if a client surfaced.
Krug, the director of the national Office for Intellectual Freedom, says libraries are supposed to "fulfill the information needs, the research needs, the cultural needs and, yes, the curiosity needs" of the public. "On many scores, this book could fit into libraries," she adds.
Instead of confronting the problem objectively as a First Amendment issue, some purported free-expression purists have donned critic's caps. Kasper, chair of the Arizona Library Association's Intellectual Freedom Committee, alludes to the book's shoddy physical quality (a widely held view; it's spiral bound) and avers: "The photography is of poor quality."
And what does Kasper think of Robert Mapplethorpe? "He's considered to be an artist," she says.
One New York reviewer describes Steven Meisel, the photographer of Sex, as "arguably the most definitive fashion eye since Richard Avedon." Although teenager Amanda Taussig cast her vote without ever perusing the book (her father reviewed it for her), Kasper maintains the process in Mesa "was very democratic and according to First Amendment principles."
The Mesa brouhaha started when Anderson placed an order for Sex. He planned to allow access to adults only.
"Madonna is a role model for one humongous number of teenage girls," Anderson says. "My best argument for having the book is . . . so that parents can see what depravity is in the mind of this role model."
But once word got out that Sex was Mesa-bound, a thicket of telephone trees sprouted. Anderson received 300 complaints in two days. "People would call my direct line and say, 'Is this the number I'm supposed to call to complain about that Madonna book?'" Anderson says.
Mayor Wong was also caught in the maelstrom; he responded by instructing Anderson to cancel the book order. With the order canceled, offers of Sex gifts ensued, setting the stage for the hearing.
Anderson says he tried to explain his position, but "by the time we got down to the board meeting . . . I was so fed up with the whole mess."
About 200 people attended the hearing, and 22 spoke against Sex. Six people voiced support for putting the book in the library. Interestingly, Anderson says, only nine of the 22 Sex foes held library cards, compared with five of the six supporters.
The advisory board's hearing was unprecedented. Usually, complaints about library materials are handled from the bottom up, culminating with advisory board consideration. In this case, with city politicos involved, it flowed from the top down.
In every case preceding Sex, the advisory board has heard a recommendation on objectionable materials after the book was on the shelf and after a patron had read the entire book (a requirement) and filled out a complaint form. Under normal procedures, a subcommittee consisting of Anderson, two library staffers and two lay members from the advisory board will read the material in question and make a recommendation to the entire advisory board. The subcommittee has always presented a thorough, respectful response to the complaint and has always recommended keeping the material in the library. And the advisory board has always followed the recommendation.
"We've never removed a book from this library," Anderson says.
Until Sex, which wrought a unique case of literaris interruptus.
Most libraries get three or four complaints a year regarding materials on the shelves. The Mesa Public Library sometimes gets three or four complaints a month, largely because public input in encouraged, Anderson says.
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A review of the complaints on file at the Mesa Library includes one regarding a children's book titled Stay Up Late, which, among other transgressions, employs the term "pee-pee."
Anderson rolls his eyes and says, "See what we have to live with every day in the library?"
He fears things might get dicier in the wake of the Sex episode.
"I have a sneaking suspicion that we're going to see the same people who have turned out in opposition to this book start censoring the library. They're just waiting for an opportunity.