Op-ed column: Reading a book in public can be a risky proposition

There were six of us waiting outside Hometown Healthcare on State Street in Schenectady. It was a Sa

There were six of us waiting outside Hometown Healthcare on State Street in Schenectady. It was a Saturday morning, July 5, and none of us wanted to be there, but teeth and other body parts have a way of causing pain on holidays as well as ordinary days.

We were a cross-section of the Mohawk Valley — male and female, young and old, black and white, from Schenectady, Amsterdam and Fonda. What struck me as unusual, however, was that four out of the six of us were reading books while waiting for the clinic doors to open.

Seeing one person read in public is unusual, at least in my experience.

When Eleanor Burns, a literacy volunteer and professor at Fulton-Montgomery County Community College, was alive, you never saw her in public without a book, but she was unique. Sometimes I still see a person reading in a doctor’s office, but generally it’s a magazine not a book, and the ever-increasing number of televisions in waiting rooms is killing that. To see four people reading books in public at the same time, however, is worth taking note of.

I was, of course, one of the readers. I had with me The Daily Gazette, and when I finished reading that I started reading “Writing for the Mass Media” by James Stovall, a college textbook for journalists. Not being a journalist, I wanted to know what journalism professors were teaching their students.

Reading the book helped me to understand why I never became a journalist. It’s difficult for me to write without interjecting some of myself into the writing, which journalists aren’t supposed to do. I did come away from the book with a new appreciation for journalists who strive hard to be accurate and unbiased.

My wife was reading “The Tightwad Gazette” by Amy Dacyczyn, generally known as the “frugal zealot.” I have read bits and pieces of what she has written. A lot of what she says makes sense, and her books are great to have on the shelf during these recessionary times.

Looking around

Normally, I am reticent with strangers, but I had to find out what the other two people were reading. A black man was reading “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston, a book I own but haven’t read.

Hurston was the leading black female writer during the Harlem Renaissance. Criticized during her lifetime for not being political enough, she was forgotten after her death until Alice Walker helped restore her reputation.

A middle-aged woman was reading “The Ultimate Terrorists” by Jessica Stern. Somehow I had this idea that the title might refer to President Bush and Vice President Cheney, but instead it is about the evolution of terrorism from a means to an end to terrorism as an end in itself.

It sounds like a book I should read, but maybe not one I would read in public, especially after reading about the experience of Marc Schultz, a freelance writer from Atlanta. Out of the blue, the FBI contacted Schultz and arranged an interrogation. It took Schultz some time to determine why the FBI was interested in him. Apparently he had gone into a coffee shop with a news article in hand, Hal Crowther’s “Weapons of Mass Stupidity” from the Weekly Planet, a free independent out of Tampa. Someone in the shop saw the title of the article and assumed that Schultz was connected to terrorism and reported him to the FBI.

Misguided action

In another instance, Keith Sampson, a middle-aged janitor at the Purdue campus of Indiana University was accused of racial harassment for reading in public “Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan,” by Todd Tucker.

It’s obvious from the title that the book is against racism, yet the affirmative action office of the university sent a letter to Sampson which stated in part, “You demonstrated disdain and insensitivity to your coworkers who repeatedly requested that you refrain from reading the book which has such an inflammatory and offensive topic in their presence . . . you used extremely poor judgment by insisting on openly reading the book related to a historically and racially abhorrent subject in the presence of your Black coworkers.”

The author of the book came to Sampson’s defense and eventually Sampson was cleared, but not without going through a harrowing and unnecessary experience. You would think that his co-workers would have said, “that looks like a great book, can I borrow it when you are finished?” You would think that the university would send a letter of commendation to a janitor who is setting an example by reading in public; instead it sent a letter of condemnation.

Hopefully, the above examples are anomalies, but in our post 9/11 world one cannot be sure. In any event, I don’t plan to stop reading in public, and I hope others don’t either. However, with the controversy over the cartoon of the Obamas on the cover of the latest issue of The New Yorker, I might wrap it in brown paper before taking it out of the house.

Daniel T. Weaver lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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