Wednesday, October 1, 2008

I Read Banned Books

So, this week is banned book week; and since it is Wednesday, I figured I would finally get around to discussing it. Earlgreyrooibos has decided to celebrate by taking a banned book (or series of books from the same author) and discussing it. If the lime greenness of her page hurts your eyes as it sometimes does mine, those posts can also be found here. One thing that surprises me is that Beloved is on the list; not because it isn't adult and not because it doesn't have themes that adults generally decide are too offensive for minors, but because my English teacher had us read it in high school. Since she was the type of woman who shrieked when naked butts came on the screen while showing the class the 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet and attempted to cover them up with a piece of paper, I naturally assumed she would be the kind of woman who would be loathe to introduce a book with Beloved's descriptions of sexuality. But she surprised me, and I'm glad she did. Because Beloved (one of the books earlgrey highlights on Day 3) was beautiful and moving and haunting. It was also my first foray into stream of consciousness writing, the three chapters of which (20-22) I dutifully muscled through because I loved the book so much.

Banning books or challenging books present in schools is very much a problem for me, because the parents never choose to ban the boring books. I could have lived without having to read Great Expectations in 9th grade. I could have lived without being forced to read The Old Man and The Sea in 8th grade. Maybe I wouldn't have such a burning hatred for Hemingway had that not occurred. I am also sure that both of those books are great works; but when we are discussing 'age appropriate' materials, it seems strange that we ban books that deal with controversial issues the students themselves may relate to (puberty, isolation, sexuality) instead of putting on hold those books that need a bit longer frame of reference. My father is convinced that if I read The Old Man and The Sea when I'm around 30, I will love it because the frame of my own existence will better inform me of Santiago's. I suppose that may be true; but as I was reading it, I couldn't help but focus on the fact that this was a book that took 88 pages to say what could be adequately summed up in five lines.

I actually don't agree with the banning of any book, because book banning is a way of sanitizing life. As much as I like Franny and Zooey and Nine Stories more than The Catcher in the Rye, I understand the latter's significance. The reasons for banning it include the fact that Holden is a poor role model, but refuse to entertain the thought that maybe teenagers are smart enough not to look to Holden to be that role model. To ignore Holden's plight and story and impulses is to ignore the very facets of existence. To ban a book because it has profanity (which most students have heard), drinking (which most students know about), and promiscuity (I don't think I got that memo) is to pretend that those aspects of life are foreign to students and to expose them to these elements in literary form will somehow formalize ideas they hitherto did not know they possessed. Books banned generally contain themes and language that are uncomfortable for adults, not the students who who being protected. Adults do not want to believe that students are sexual, that students swear, that students are in actuality full human beings with the conflicting thoughts and desires that entails. By banning books, they seem to feel that they are protecting their children from unsavory influences. But I have never known a child to go bad because of a book.


MediaMaven said...

My ninth grade teacher did the same thing when we watched Romeo and Juliet, and I also read Beloved (which I loved) in high school, though it was three years later and with a different teacher.

I'm a big believer that certain books speak to you because of the time of your life when you read them.

Has reading a "banned" book--or even an age-inappropriate one--ever scared away anyone from reading? Even if it spooks them, I doubt they give up the practice for good (even if they do the author).

John said...

"I have never known a child to go bad because of a book." Def wont hapn now. Y rd nythg lngr thn a txt msg?
Seriously, though, I would think that school books with "objectionable material" would provide a great opportunity to responsibly discuss serious issues in a classroom with a teacher. Wouldn't you rather have your kids learning the real facts about the world's seedier elements from a teacher than overhearing (largely untrue) rumors on the street and in the halls?

We didn't read Beloved in my high school. Apparently my school wasn't as cool as yours and MM's. We did read Great Expectations in ninth grade, though, and it nearly kept me off Dickens forever (until reading Hard Times in college.)

I thought the whole point of Catcher in the Rye was that Holden wasn't a role model, that his alienation and/or delusion is something you could avoid if you have the sense to see the warning signs. Also, that people should be themselves (that includes you, Mr. Caulfield!)

The idea that certain books speak to you at certain ages makes sense, since it can also be said of music. When you're older, you can remember what it was like to be young and put yourself in that frame of mind. When you're young, though, you can't even imagine how you'll see the world when you're older.

petpluto said...

Whoa, John, I'm really out of touch with society because I had NO idea what you were doing at first! Text messaging is pretty much the bane of my existence, and this kind of furthers that.

"Wouldn't you rather have your kids learning the real facts about the world's seedier elements from a teacher than overhearing (largely untrue) rumors on the street and in the halls?"

Come on now, John. If kids don't learn those "real facts" in school, they'll never pick up on them anywhere else. If we ignore Huck Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird, we don't have to deal with the ugly history of racism. Because it obviously only exists in books until we let them out to infect the youth of the nation.