Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Celebrate Banned Books Week: Read

A post on commondreams.org by the always-excellent Leonard Pitts alerted me to the fact that next week is National Banned Books week. You can read his article here. Banned books have been in the news a lot lately due to our wonderful VP candidate Sarah Palin, who has expressed interest in the subject in the past, and not the right kind of interest.

When I was growing up, my sister and I loved the after-school special, The Day They Came to Arrest the Book, based on Nat Hentoff's young-adult novel with the same title. For the uninitiated, the story focuses on a group of high-school students who are friends and write for the school newspaper together. They are assigned the book Huck Finn for their English class, when one of the students (who is black) takes exception to the pervasive use of the word "nigger" in the novel. He refuses to read it, his father gets involved and asks for the book to be removed from classes, the group of friends is divided, teachers are suspended, the whole town is split, and a public hearing is called.

In the climactic "hero scene," the school librarian stands up and warns people that there's an even worse book in the library that gets checked out all the time. She gives an example of some of its typical content and proceeds to spin a shocking, graphic tale of rape, adultery, murder, and cannibalism. When the audience is sufficiently shocked, she announces that the story came from the Bible.

We were recently remembering this movie, and my sister said she wished that the person banning a book was a Christian right-winger (as in the real-life example that happened in my father's school district). I think the point was that banning books is a bad idea, regardless of how solid your reasons may be, and that commuication is the answer. In the case of Huck Finn, it's an excellent opportunity to talk about racism and changing standards. If language is the issue, that's another good topic of discussion, especially given the fact that curse words are so pervasive, they're almost losing their power to offend.

Many people who object to these books don't understand that portraying something isn't the same as approving of it. The book that was banned in my father's school district was Ordinary People by Judith Guest, which had been taught for over a decade without incident. The people who complained objected to the drinking and drug use in the book, and to some of the language, as well as an extremely mild, off-stage sex scene. But the main character in the book is coping with the death of his older brother and the stress it caused to his family. You see him start to turn to drugs and alcohol, then turn away from it. I think that's a more powerful anti-drug message than the standard "Drugs are bad, people do them for no reason, don't be one of them."

Interesting side note, though: the year that Ordinary People faced a challenge, people were drawn to it like a magnet. Students in different classes read the book. Adults who lived in the area went out to the library in such quantity that it was wait-listed everywhere. Ultimately, all book banning does is make more people want to read it. Yet people continue to try it. If you didn't click through, Pitts cited an example of "passive" book-banning by a Cuban-American who disliked the way her homeland was portrayed: she checked it out and kept it. Other people continue to lodge complaints at libraries and schools. It makes you wonder what they're afraid of. But it's also kind of wonderful that in 2008, with streaming porn on demand, thousands of television channels, all the movies you want delivered to your door for a flat rate, and 24/7 online video games, a book is still seen to be so powerful that some people seek to ban it. So next week, celebrate the power of the book. Read a banned book.

Some of my favorite banned books:

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, JK Rowling
The Golden Compass, Phillip Pullman
The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Patterson
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Anastasia Again! Lois Lowry (yeah, seriously)
Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck

For a more complete listing, visit the ALA websitehere. Nominate your own favorites, or share your stories in the comments below.

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