Every year, libraries around the country observe Banned Books Week, to remind the public that even well known and much loved books can be the targets of censorship. This year, Washington, D.C.'s public library came up with a clever idea to focus attention on the issue: a banned books scavenger hunt.
Now, readers are stalking local shops, cafes and bookstores looking for copies of books that are hidden behind distinctive black and white covers. There is no title on the cover, just a phrase — such as FILTHY, TRASHY or PROFANE — which describes the reason why some people wanted the book banned.
Take "The Catcher in the Rye," for example — that was banned for being "ANTI-WHITE."
The whole idea for the hunt was motivated by the desire to have more of the public involved in Banned Books Week, which runs this year from Sept. 25 to Oct. 1, says Linnea Hegarty, executive director of the D.C. Public Library Foundation. When books are banned, their supporters disguise them and circulate them surreptitiously, she says, and the idea was to capture that spirit.
The library chose six well known books that have been banned at one time or another — and then began posting clues on social media.
D.C.-based photographer Jose Vazquez saw a post about the scavenger hunt on Facebook and decided to check it out. Previously, he hadn't known books could be banned and it made him want to find one.
"It's kind of the child in me, I guess" he says. "You try and keep something from me and I'll seek it out more."
He went out in search of "The Catcher in the Rye" and found it at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. After that success, he decided he wanted to find all six.
I joined him on his hunt — but we hit dead ends at Proper Topper, a small shop near Dupont Circle, and again at Kramerbooks nearby. Kramerbooks events manager Sara Baline says the scavenger hunt has been more popular than anyone expected — thanks in part to those attention-grabbing, black-and-white covers.
"You want to pick up a book that has 'SMUT' on the cover," she says. "You open it and you see that it's 'Catcher in the Rye' and it makes you think: Well, I don't consider this smut ... why would someone else consider it smut?"
At Upshur Street Books in the Petworth neighborhood, we finally got lucky. We found a "FILTHY TRASHY SEX NOVEL" ("A Separate Peace," by John Knowles) and a "PROFANE AND SEXUALLY EXPLICIT" book ("Native Son," by Richard Wright.)
So, three down, three to go for Vazquez. Happy hunting!