Shrine of the times 

I’m rereading The Color Purple for the third or fourth time, when the Lizard of Fun snatches the book from my hands. "Hey!" I protest. "Give that back!"

"No can do," says the Lizard, shaking its head. "It’s Banned Books Week. I’m taking appropriate action."

"By banning books one reader at a time?"

"By building my own personal shrine to banned books. I need that one for the centerpiece."

The Lizard motions to a pile of books it’s collected from my bookshelves and stacked, like a tilting house of cards, on the kitchen table. I turn my head from side to side, reading the titles. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Beloved, by Toni Morrison. In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak. Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl.

"Are you done?" I ask.

"Hardly," says the Lizard. "You’ve got a pretty touchy book collection. I’m thinking maybe I should try to enshrine the noncontroversial books instead – it’d be less work."

"What’s so contentious about James and the Giant Peach?" I ask. "It’s a kids’ book."

The Lizard shrugs. No clue. "Maybe because it has giant insects in it or something. People just don’t have the proper respect for a good, tasty bug."

"Or book, for that matter," I add, trying to grab my reading material back from the table and nearly toppling the pile as I do. "What’s with the shrine, anyway?"

"It’s a form of therapy. A way of dealing with the fact that I get really annoyed when I’m not allowed to see something," says the Lizard. "Why should someone else decide for me what I can and can’t look at?"

"Uh-huh. I’ll remember that next time you make me cover your eyes and ears every time there’s a surgery scene on ‘Chicago Hope.’"

The Lizard growls a little, and then offers me a book from its own collection. "Here. In the meantime, you want something really freaky, read this. I don’t think it’s even been censored yet." I read the title: That’s Disgusting! An Adult Guide to What’s Gross, Tasteless, Rude, Crude, and Lewd (10 Speed Press, $8.95, 180 pp.). The author, no surprise, writes under a pseudonym: Greta Garbage.

"You’ll notice," says the Lizard, "that none of the books in my shrine are referenced in that particular compendium of nastiness. Therefore, I consider it proof that the schools, parents, right-wingers, squishy liberals and everyone in between who’s ever challenged or banned or just plain hidden these books are, to put it bluntly, a bunch of quacks."

I leaf through That’s Disgusting!, and find it’s a collection of a thousand-odd bizarre and sticky blurbs about things that go goop in the night. In the introduction, the author claims that reading this book is good for you, because it overexposes you to creepy stuff, thereby raising your gross-out threshold.

"Clearly, the book banners just haven’t found it yet," says the Lizard. "Check out the chapter on ‘body parts of famous people,’ or the bit on ‘peeing in public.’"

I make a face. "Why would I want to?"

"Because it’s good, yucky fun," says the Lizard. "Besides, the point is, it’s here, and you can choose for yourself whether or not to read it. Not that wimpy Ms. Squeamish would ever dare … "

I grab the book and read aloud. There’s sex with ducks, celebrity puking and lots about boogers, not to mention assorted penis-related incidents. It reads a lot like the Darwin Awards or an Internet grossness chat room (from which many of the stories are, incidentally, gleaned).

"Ahhh, it’s probably all just a bunch of urban myths, anyway," says the Lizard, switching on the computer. "There’s a million of ’em on the Internet. Listen to these – and forget about anyone bothering to censor them, they’re too freaky to be believed, anyway."

I listen as the Lizard reads aloud from the computer screen.

A nun in India was "abducted by two men, stripped and forced to drink their urine."

A woman is caught at a German airport with 1,300 Mexican bird spiders in her luggage.

When your car is stolen, it might end up in Moscow, where traffic cops will issue the driver a permit to keep it.

"And then there’s the one about the baby in the microwave," adds the Lizard. "Which reminds me of those sicko frog-in-blender jokes you used to tell to gross out the other kids in elementary school. Man, I find the craziest stuff on this site."

I look over the Lizard’s shoulder to see which Web site it means.

"That? That’s the Associated Press news feed," I say.

"You mean it’s real?"

"I’m afraid so."

"Hmmm," says the Lizard. "Maybe those book banners should take another look at what they choose to target."

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