WALNUT CREEK -- A 60-year-old story recorded using a manual typewriter in 1953 and preserved in an approximately 600-year-old form of literary technology -- a real, physical book -- still stands as a symbol of free speech.
Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" is the Walnut Creek Library Foundation's incendiary warm-up to the eighth annual "One City One Book: Walnut Creek Reads" months-long series of events. It's the iconic science fiction tale of Guy Montag, a firefighter tasked with burning books who tailspins when he suddenly sees life's preciousness in the censoring smoke, has been published, adapted, reissued, turned into a film, excised of its "objectionable language" and placed on banned book request lists as recently as 2006.
The national literary community celebrates "Banned Books Week 2013" Sept. 22-28, but Contra Costa County libraries are jumping onboard early. With more than 11,300 books "challenged" since 1982, and the American Library Foundation reporting 464 challenges -- an attempt to remove or restrict materials after the objections of a person or group -- in 2012, there's no time like the present for continuing a centuries-old fight to protect a basic civil right.
In Walnut Creek, library foundation Executive Director Kristin Anderson thought a call to teens -- for photos of themselves with their favorite banned books -- would engage their competitive "Pinterest." The competition's due dates fell during the dog days of summer, and entries have been few.
That said, there will be plenty of energy coming from author Kevin Smokler, scheduled for a Sept. 18 appearance in the library's Oak View Room.
Calling from Chicago, where speaking engagements and promoting his new book "Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven't Touched Since High School" are keeping him on the run, Smokler said debates about increased censorship are "irrelevant" in the United States. With the Internet -- and thus, worldwide information -- in American pockets, he claimed lack of access to information is not a problem.
Expanding the conversation to the international scene, he painted a different picture.
"Even in countries with enormous populations, we've seen it's possible for the state to turn off the Internet with a flick of the switch," he warned. "We need to stop talking about the Internet like it's a foreign country we visit. It's as crucial as other civil rights; it's a utility, no different than running water."
Raised in a culturally enthusiastic family amid the vibrant, diverse environment of Ann Arbor, Mich., Smokler makes his home in San Francisco and relishes the area's counterculture/high-tech mashup. With an open door to freethinkers and abundant, progressive technology, he said readers' self-regulation is the "most needed skill" today.
"The sad result of Internet ubiquity is that the people who yell the loudest are the ones who get listened to," he said. "And our patience has been reduced to zero."
Smokler mourns "shoot first, ask questions later" news reporting, like what he believes happened immediately after the Boston Marathon incident.
"We blame innocents," he said, "the very opposite of what this country is founded on." Asked about parents who take exception to certain required books in classrooms, Smokler was deferential to teachers and practical about parental concerns.
"My hat is off to people who teach young people about books. It's incredibly noble and you find objectionable (content) in anything. It's perfectly fine for a parent to have a private negotiation with a teacher, but it's wrong to hold other kids' intellectual development hostage."
Smokler was once a "reluctant" reader. Randy Shilts' "And the Band Played On" changed everything for him, opening his mind and heart to the "bottomlessness of human creativity" and causing him to revel in how great literature freed him from his "sillier, smaller" self. His "Practical Classics" revisits high school reading lists with the passionate, "glutton for life" outlook of his 40-year-old self. With a 10-month read-and-write allowance, he simplified the task by selecting shorter classics, but made a concerted effort to include "more than just books by white, male authors."
Smokler said he sticks to the real, low-tech item when it comes to reading books. He's fine with perusing papers and periodicals on his phone and often speaks about using technology intelligently, so the preference is rational, not political.
"I lose things," he admitted. "If I leave a book on a bus, it's 15 bucks. If I leave a dedicated reading device, it's $150 or more."
His next book, examining 1980s films and how they captured a distinctive era when young people socialized in physical, instead of virtual, environments, is just one work-in-progress.
"The ability to focus is one I want to develop," he said. "But I never want to run out of ideas."
Or books, he might have added.
Author Kevin Smokler will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 18, in the Oak View Room of the Walnut Creek Library, 1644 N. Broadway Ave.