Suppose You Were Fond of Books

by L. Neil Smith
Patronize Me!

Attribute to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise

Reprinted from Issue Number 22, February 15, 1997.

Suppose you were fond of books …

You liked their leather bindings, their fancy endpapers, the way they speak to you of other times and places, the way they feel in your hand.

You even liked the way they smell.

Naturally you were aware that books are dangerous. They give people ideas. Over the long, sad course of history, they’ve resulted in the slaughter of millions—books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Das Kapital, Mein Kampf, even the Bible—but you had too much intelligence, too much regard for the right of other people to read, write, think whatever they please, to blame the books themselves.

Now suppose somebody came along who agreed with you: books are dangerous—and something oughta be done about it! Nothing you couldn’t live with: numbers could be stamped inside them, a different number, not just in each kind of book, each title or edition—but in each and every individual book.

“We can keep track of ’em better that way—it’ll help get ’em back if they’re stolen.”

But wait …. Isn’t the right to freedom of expression, the right to create, exchange, and collect books—without a trace of government harassment—to read, write, and think whatever you please, supposed to be guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution? No matter who thinks it’s wrong? No matter how “sensible” their arguments may sound for taking that right away?

You tried to defend your rights, but nobody listened. You appealed to the media; they were even more dependent on the Bill of Rights than you were, and American journalism always gloried in its self-appointed role as watchdog over the rights of the individual. But the sad truth was, that during its long, self- congratulatory history, it was more like a cur caught bloody- muzzled time after time, savaging the flocks it had been trusted to protect.

You were alone. You insisted that books don’t kill people, people kill people. They laughed and told you that people who read books kill people.

Time passed …. Still they weren’t satisfied. They wanted the serial numbers written down in record books. Then they wanted your name written down beside the numbers, along with your address, your driver’s license number, your age, your race, your sex: “’Cause we gotta right to know who’s reading all these books!”

Soon they were demanding that bookstores be licensed. They forbade you to buy books by mail or in another state and required that your dealer report you if you bought more than one book in a five day period. They forbade you to buy more than one book a month. They demanded that you wait five days, a week, three weeks before you could pick up a book you’d already paid for—at a store subject to unannounced warrantless inspections and punitive closure by heavily-armed government agents. In Massachussetts and New Jersey, the mere possession of a book meant an automatic year in jail. At one point they offered to spend tax money to buy your books: “You’ve got too many. This is a purely voluntary measure—for the time being.”

Now they want to confiscate any of your books they think are too long: “No honest citizen needs a book with that many pages!”

Your taxes will be spent to burn them, and somehow you have a feeling that it’s just the beginning, that some dark midnight, no matter how peaceable or agreeable or law-abiding you are, you’re going to hear that knock on your door …

Yes, books are dangerous. They start holy wars, revolutions, and make people dissatisfied with their lives.

But this is ridiculous!

Is it a nightmare? Another Gulag horror story? A bloodsoaked page from the history of fascism? No, it’s just the commonplace oppression people suffer every day when they feel about guns the way you feel about books.

Okay, maybe that feeling’s hard to understand. But just try justifying your own love of books to a Pat Robertson or an Ayatollah Khomeini. The very requirement that you must, in violation of your basic human rights, will make you inarticulate with rage.

Gun owners laugh at the notion of human rights, because they have none.

Guns are dangerous. Like books. Like books, the right to create, exchange, and collect them without a trace of government harassment, is supposed to be guaranteed. No matter who thinks it’s wrong. No matter how “sensible” their arguments may sound for taking your rights away.

So what makes you think your books are any safer than your neighbor’s guns? Whether you like books or guns, the issue’s the same: when anybody’s rights are threatened, everybody’s rights are threatened.