Friday, January 27, 2012

Challenged Books

by Scott Rhoades

Every year, I set at least one reading goal to help lead me to the books I'll read that year. Last year, my goal was to read the last two Twain novels I'd never read (that's Mark, not Shania), and to begin rereading all of Steinbeck's novels and selected non-fiction in the order written, to study his development as a writer.

This year, I am continuing my Steinbeck goal, but I've also decided to read at least ten of the most-often-challenged books in the US as listed by the American Library Association. I've also added a few other books to my list that have led to authors being banned or even jailed in other countries.

These are books whose very presence in a library or classroom is challenged by parents, community organizations, school boards, churches, governments, and a host of others who feel that the very presence of a book in one of those pesky storehouses of knowledge and ideas we call libraries threatens the fabric of society, the idea being that books, as well as other art forms, should always be uplifting (according to their definition of "uplifting"). The ALA website has a fascinating list of some of these books and the reasons they have been challenged by specific groups, including some right here in Utah, as well as lists and graphs describing various facts about bans and challenges.

Many of the reasons why a book is challenged are valid from particular perspectives. Parents are, by far, the largest group of challengers. Certainly, parents have a right to raise concerns about assigned reading they consider offensive or inappropriate for readers of a certain age. Whether they have the right to determine what an entire community reads based on their own opinions, well, that's an argument I won't get into here (but just saying that probably reveals my position well enough). This post is not about parental rights.

Many books are challenged or banned for reasons that appear weak to most of us. Banning the Harry Potter books for glorifying witchcraft and magic, banning Twilight because it includes supernatural characters who fall in love with mere mortals, or banning The Lord of the Rings for being satanic all sound kind of silly, but all have happened. Banning The Adventures of Captain Underpants for depicting a boy in his underwear, or banning the entire Goosebumps series for being frightening and having ghosts and other spooky ookies, doesn't sound any better. Many of these bans obviously come from people with extremely narrow views who have never read the books.

But many challenges are much more complicated. For example, the most-often challenged book in the US is often challenged, not because of closed-mindedness but because of an attempt to discourage bigotry and closed-mindedness. I'm talking, of course, about "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." True enough, That Word is deeply offensive. Even though it is considered worse today than it was in the story's (and author's) time and place, it was still not a nice word back then. In Twain's time, it was very similar in effect to the currently misused adjective, "gay." Questioning the presence of a book so full of the N-word in a classroom, especially one in which many students are likely to be personally offended, is not completely ununderstandable.

The problem is, to ban the book for depicting racism is to miss the point. Yes, it depicts racism. Huck struggles with racism throughout most of the book, believing that slaves can hardly have feelings like "real people," and questioning whether he's doing the right thing by helping him. For much of the story, Huck ponders turning Jim in. But over the course of their journey, Huck learns that Jim is, in fact, a person, has feelings, loves his family, values freedom, and is not all that different. When Huck finally decides that he'll even risk eternal damnation to help Jim become free, Twain is making one of the most powerful anti-racism statements in American literary history.

In many cases, books like "Huck Finn" are taught in order to make points that go beyond the book. Twain's opus opens the door for discussions about racism and civil rights, about how much has changed and how much change is still needed. The answer is not to ban, but to discuss.

Of course, that's not always understood or appreciated, nor is it easy. Take, for example, the recent controversy right here in Utah when a teacher was discussing Martin Luther King and the lesson morphed into a discussion about the hated N-word. Many parents were upset that the word was used in class, in many cases not an inappropriate response. However, as reported anyway, that response seems misguided in this instance. During the course of the discussion, kids mentioned that they hear the word all the time in the music they (or older siblings) listen to, so it can't be that bad. The very fact that the kids would respond that way shows why the discussion is needed, even at a young age.

Often, it's government who challenge a book. The USSR was notorious for banning books that depict anti-communist sentiments, and the USA is notorious for challenging books that are pro-communist. 1984 by George Orwell has been banned in both countries for both reasons. I think that most of us agree that when government gets in the business of controlling ideas, good never follows.

I've taken a long time to make my point, so I'll do it now and wrap up. Good art is often challenging. It challenges our society, our morals, and our beliefs. It discusses very real parts of the human condition that people don't like to talk about openly, such as sex or our own prejudices (and we all have them). It holds up a magic mirror that shows our world as it is, not necessarily the way we like to pretend that it is. Many people don't like to be challenged, and they certainly don't want their children to be challenged or exposed to certain ideas. The problem is, by hiding those ideas and those unpleasant aspects of who we are and the world we've created, we eliminate discussion and ensure that the problems will not be addressed. We contribute to the lack of change and improvement. And, worst of all, we short-change our children and their ability to think and reason and to see for themselves why the ideas and words and actions depicted in the book are considered bad, and to learn how to deal with them.

And, by pulling those books from our libraries, we prevent children and adults who have issues or questions from a safe place where they can learn more about those issues and resolve their questions. That's why libraries (and, to a somewhat more controlled extent, schools) need to contain the widest variety of ideas, including those we do not cotton to, and why access to libraries must remain free.

I'll step down off my soapbox now. Please discuss.

Today's Barnes & Noble Free Friday e-book: Zombies Don't Cry by Rusty Fisher.


Julie Daines said...

Sounds like you're going to have a busy year. One of my favorite Steinbeck's: The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights.

Scott said...

Julie, I wish he had been able to finish that one.