Tuesday, November 06, 2007
Oooooh, Forbidden Reading!
I love looking at the list of the most-banned books in the U.S. It kind of cracks me up, and then it makes me very sad, but I really like looking it over and trying to figure out what the "offense" was in each particular case. Judy Blume seems to be the perpetual champion on quantity and longevity alone, and how many of us got to be grown women without reading Judy Blume? Not me, that's for sure. I do remember that in Clinton, Arkansas, if you were reading "Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret," you had to be circumspect about it, despite the fact that it WAS in the library. One girl would check it out, and it would get passed around to several more before being turned back in.
Judy's in good company, though...among the "most challenged" authors in America, according to the American Library Association, are John Steinbeck, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Mark Twain, Alice Walker, Maurice Sendak, Dav Pilkey, J.D. Salinger, Roald Dahl, Madeleine L'Engle, Harper Lee, Shel Silverstein, Aldous Huxley...I could go on and on, but it's really bringing me down.
Interesting to me is the fact that when you stand back and examine the lists of the last 20 years or so, definite patterns emerge. Seemingly deemed particularly threatening to would-be banners are works by authors of color (seriously--I don't think Toni Morrison gets anything published for more than an hour or so before it winds up being challenged somewhere), anything suggesting that homosexuals have a degree of humanity (Most-challenged book of 2oo6? "And Tango Makes Three." About a pair of boy penguins.), or anything with ANY kind of theme that focuses on what it means to be female--girl or woman, especially if that existence is turbulent. Bonus points if you can kill two birds with one stone there, say with something like "The Color Purple," "The Bluest Eye," or "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." When I try to imagine how I'd have grown up as a reader--heck, as a PERSON--without the benefit of great writers, it puts a scare into me.
The only form of book-banning I knew growing up was when my mother would say, "You are not allowed to read that until you are older" (Peter Benchley's "Jaws," age 9), or, "You should probably not try that one until you're a little older" (Stephen King's "Carrie," age 11, William Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury," age 12). In all of the above examples, MY MOTHER WAS RIGHT, although the Faulkner was the only one I actually put away for a few more years, because I really hadn't matured enough to begin to understand the themes. The other two I read anyway, and wound up being moderately traumatized for years afterward because of it. So yes, the "challenging" of books has a place, I feel, and that place is parental. My mother never once went to the school libraries and attempted to REMOVE books that she felt I shouldn't be reading.
That is why, when I stumbled across a discussion on Goodreads.com about the recent Nitro High School (Charleston, WV) bruhaha concerning the attempted banning of two Pat Conroy books, and the author's biting response, I felt a little warm in my heart. I'm just going to reprint it here, because it's spot-on. Pat Conroy might not be on my personal top-ten list of American authors, but he's written some meaningful, impactful material, which now includes this letter to the editor of the Charleston Gazette. It's not so much a condemnation of would-be-book-banners as it is a love-letter to teachers everywhere.
A Letter to the Editor of the Charleston Gazette:
I received an urgent e-mail from a high school student named Makenzie
Hatfield of Charleston, West Virginia. She informed me of a group of
parents who were attempting to suppress the teaching of two of my novels,
"The Prince of Tides" and "Beach Music." I heard rumors of this controversy
as I was completing my latest filthy, vomit-inducing work. These
controversies are so commonplace in my life that I no longer get involved.
But my knowledge of mountain lore is strong enough to know the dangers of
refusing to help a Hatfield of West Virginia. I also do not mess with
I've enjoyed a lifetime love affair with English teachers, just like the
ones who are being abused in Charleston, West Virginia, today. My English
teachers pushed me to be smart and inquisitive, and they taught me the
great books of the world with passion and cunning and love. Like your
English teachers, they didn't have any money, either, but they lived in the
bright fires of their imaginations, and they taught because they were born
to teach the prettiest language in the world. I have yet to meet an English
teacher who assigned a book to damage a kid. They take an unutterable joy
in opening up the known world to their students, but they are dishonored
and unpraised because of the scandalous paychecks they receive. In my
travels around this country, I have discovered that America hates its
teachers, and I could not tell you why. Charleston, West Virginia, is
showing clear signs of really hurting theirs, and I would be cautious about
the word getting out.
In 1961, I entered the classroom of the great Eugene Norris, who set about
in a thousand ways to change my life. It was the year I read "Catcher in
the Rye," under Gene's careful tutelage, and I adore that book to this very
day. Later, a parent complained to the school board, and Gene Norris was
called before the board to defend his teaching of this book. He asked me to
write an essay describing the book's galvanic effect on me, which I did.
But Gene's defense of "Catcher in the Rye" was so brilliant and convincing
in its sheer power that it carried the day. I stayed close to Gene Norris
till the day he died. I delivered a eulogy at his memorial service and was
one of the executors of his will. Few in the world have ever loved English
teachers as I have, and I loathe it when they are bullied by know-nothing
parents or cowardly school boards.
About the novels your county just censored: "The Prince of Tides" and
"Beach Music" are two of my darlings, which I would place before the altar
of God and say, "Lord, this is how I found the world you made." They
contain scenes of violence, but I was the son of a Marine Corps fighter
pilot who killed hundreds of men in Korea, beat my mother and his seven
kids whenever he felt like it, and fought in three wars. My youngest
brother, Tom, committed suicide by jumping off a fourteen-story building;
my French teacher ended her life with a pistol; my aunt was brutally raped
in Atlanta; eight of my classmates at The Citadel were killed in Vietnam;
and my best friend was killed in a car wreck in Mississippi last summer.
Violence has always been a part of my world. I write about it in my books
and make no apology to anyone. In "Beach Music," I wrote about the
Holocaust and lack the literary powers to make that historical event
anything other than grotesque.
People cuss in my books. People cuss in my real life. I cuss, especially at
Citadel basketball games. I'm perfectly sure that Steve Shamblin and other
teachers prepared their students well for any encounters with violence or
profanity in my books just as Gene Norris prepared me for the profane
language in "Catcher in the Rye" forty-eight years ago.
The world of literature has everything in it, and it refuses to leave
anything out. I have read like a man on fire my whole life because the
genius of English teachers touched me with the dazzling beauty of language.
Because of them I rode with Don Quixote and danced with Anna Karenina at a
ball in St. Petersburg and lassoed a steer in "Lonesome Dove" and had
nightmares about slavery in "Beloved" and walked the streets of Dublin in
"Ulysses" and made up a hundred stories in the Arabian nights and saw my
mother killed by a baseball in "A Prayer for Owen Meany." I've been in ten
thousand cities and have introduced myself to a hundred thousand strangers
in my exuberant reading career, all because I listened to my fabulous
English teachers and soaked up every single thing those magnificent men and
women had to give. I cherish and praise them and thank them for finding me
when I was a boy and presenting me with the precious gift of the English
The school board of Charleston, West Virginia, has sullied that gift and
shamed themselves and their community. You've now entered the ranks of
censors, book-banners, and teacher-haters, and the word will spread. Good teachers will avoid you as though you had cholera. But here is my favorite thing: Because you banned my books, every kid in that county will read them, every single one of them. Because book banners are invariably idiots, they don't know how the world works but writers and English teachers do. I salute the English teachers of Charleston, West Virginia, and send my affection to their students. West Virginians, you've just done what history warned you against: you've riled a Hatfield.
Why I Read Stephen King
Justify My Love
One Morning In July