What happens when you drop the memoir of an outspoken '60s radical into one of the most flag-waving moments in U.S. history? Conservatives get angry, free-speech activists make their pleas and bookstores bulk up on security, to name just a few consequences. The book, Bill Ayers's Fugitive Days (Beacon, Sept.), recalls the author's time as a member of the radical leftist group the Weather Underground, perhaps best known for a botched plan to plant a nail bomb at a U.S. military base to protest American involvement in Vietnam. The book has become something of a flashpoint, pitting the right of free expression against those who say these times demand a greater sensitivity.
While Ayers ordinarily might have attracted little more than review attention, his tour has now inspired a national debate. In Milwaukee, news of an event at the David Schwartz bookshop on October 10 prompted angry letters to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and to the bookstore, with some customers threatening a boycott. Schwartz responded by writing an op-ed piece for the paper and going ahead with the event. Held under tight security, it drew more than 150 people. Beacon Press marketing director Tom Hallock described the event as "frank but within the bounds of good conversation." At both Schwartz's store and Barbara's in Chicago, security guards were hired, an expense that Beacon shared.
The debate went national when the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression got involved, rallying local free-speech groups and issuing a statement in support of controversial authors and the stores that host them. "The author was really targeted by writers and parts of the media in a way he would not have been before September 11. A lot of people treated the book as if it was some kind of manifesto and not a memoir," said Hallock.
Whatever one thinks of his methods, Ayers's book addresses issues, such as how belief leads to violence, that are presently on the minds of many in the U.S. Yet Beacon admits sales have been "more modest" than it had hoped and has cancelled three of his 30 tour stops, in Austin, Denver and New Orleans. Ayers is continuing with events at Iowa City's Prairie Lights, Seattle's Elliot Bay and Regulator Bookshop in Durham, N.C. After his tour ends November 16, Ayers might make up some postponed dates, including one at the Bank Street Bookshop in New York City.
Beacon is just the latest publisher to be thrown by the events of September 11, reacting with both a shrug and some mettle. "We would not have chosen this moment to publish this book," Hallock said, "but [at the same time] it doesn't seem right or responsible to not bring it to an audience."