Saturday, October 07, 2006

"Burn it to ashes, then burn the ashes."

Apparently last week was Banned Books Week, and considering the fact that I was working on a censorship project as recently as the previous Monday, this shouldn't have come as a surprise to me. It did, and it's only because of Greg that I even knew about it. So, in honor of the week, I'm going to do a "Top Whatever" list, taken from the 100 most frequently challenged books of 1990-2000. Here 'tis, in no specifically particular order.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck: I really ought to read this again. It's a touching and believable story, and much better than the other Steinbeck dreck that people usually read in high school (by which I mean The Pearl). Of course, I'm sure parents have a problem with the language, and the killing, and I'm pretty sure there's some sexual content in there too. Can't have our near-adult kids reading about adult themes; can't put any faith in their abilities whatsoever.
Harry Potter (Series) by J.K. Rowling: I came late to the Harry Potter game, for whatever reason. I think I just kind of avoided it on principle. After seeing the second movie, though, I decided I'd go ahead and read 'em. It took me something like two weeks to make it through the whole series, including the fifth book, which was released just before I started my reading. I can't say much for the literary quality of the books, but they are fun to read, the characters are engrossing, the world is thoroughly developed, and anyone who thinks that reading about witches and wizards is going to turn their kids into Satanists is ignorant, deluded, and doesn't give their children enough credit.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger: I made it to Chapter 10 in this a few years back, and I haven't managed to pick it up since then. Maybe if I'd read it when I was in my angsty years, this would have struck a chord in me, but instead I just found Holden annoying, whiny, and afflicted with a terrible case of ADD. I'll give it another try at some point, but there are a lot of books I'd much rather read.
The Giver by Lois Lowry: Somehow, I missed out on reading this in grade school. I moved around a bit, so there were a lot of things that I missed because one school hadn't gotten to them yet, and the other had already passed them by. Like cursive. My girlfriend made me read it Senior Year of High School, and I quite enjoyed it. I'm a big fan of dystopian literature, and I wish I had read this at a younger age, because it's a nice introduction to the genre. Reading it after Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and Brave New World kind of lessens its emotional impact. Still, other than being mildly depressing and critical of censorship and whatnot, I can't imagine why this would get challenged.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle: I read this in 6th grade, along with the next book or two in the series. I don't remember anything about it being challenge-able, but the plot is generally kind of fuzzy in my brain. I guess it had something to do with cults, which could be construed as being critical of Christianity? If that's the case, then it's really not a problem with this book, but with a religious organization that finds parallels to itself in evil fictional cults.
The Stupids (Series) by Harry Allard: Okay, these books are dumb, but they're harmless. Why would you ban them? Is the word "stupid" too offensive?
The Witches by Roald Dahl: I know I've read the book, but I don't remember much of it; the movie sticks out much more vividly in my memory. You'd think nutjobs would like a book that portrayed witches as evil, ugly creatures. I'd be willing to bet that most of the challenges to this are from people who've never read beyond the title.
That this would be on the list, and not Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which is clearly an allegory for Dante's Inferno, boggles my mind.
What's Happening to my Body? Book for Girls: A Growing-Up Guide for Parents & Daughters by Lynda Madaras and What's Happening to my Body? Book for Boys: A Growing-Up Guide for Parents & Sons by Lynda Madaras: Uh...right. So, instead of teaching kids that puberty is normal, we'll just let them wallow in hormone-driven anxiety, letting them become a bunch of careless, neurotic, anorexic, sexually-active, sexually-ignorant, near-adults. That's sure to build character and drive away sin, right?
Where's Waldo? by Martin Hanford: Wait, what? People challenged the Where's Waldo books? On what grounds? I remember some teachers disliking the way kids got overexcited with the books, but being excited about a book seems like a poor reason to ban it. Can anyone shed some light on this idiocy?
A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein: I read several of the poems in this on Saturday night, for the first time in years (though I admit, I know Where the Sidewalk Ends a lot better than this one, and The Giving Tree better than both combined).
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes: One of my favorite books ever. I read the short story in Junior High, and picked up the novel version the first time I saw it. I honestly can't imagine not having read it; it's a powerful examination of humanity, of Prometheus, and about sacrifice.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: Well, it's no wonder that this has been challenged. Huxley's hedonistic society provides a stark contrast to the repressed dystopia of Orwell's 1984, but is nearly as powerful. The casual discussions of drugs, sex, orgies, birth control, and abortion start almost immediately, and if that's not enough for ban-happy conservatives, babies are mass-produced and Henry Ford is worshipped as a prophet. Jesus doesn't fare much better, and our one would-be Christian doesn't make much of a hero or martyr. There's plenty to get upset about in this book, but that's the point of it, or any dystopian story. Of course, if there's anything that wingnuts are good at, it's completely and utterly missing the point.
Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume: I read this two years ago as part of a project in my Children's Lit class, partially because Yorick referenced it over in Y: The Last Man. It's a surprisingly deep story about being different, growing up, peer pressure, and religion, and the only reason anyone would have for challenging it is its open, frank discussion of physical maturation and sex. Because, you know, if kids never talk or read about it, it won't happen.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: My favorite book ever. It's about race, identity, and injustice, and the greatest, most well-rounded hero ever to grace the written word, Atticus Finch. It's been attacked from the right for crazy ideas like "blacks are people too" and "the legal system in the South was rife with corruption and institutionalized racism," but also from the left, because it uses racial epithets and discusses some of the differences between black and white societies. Folks, the way to combat racism isn't by ignoring that it exists. It's through the sort of compassion and understanding that books like To Kill a Mockingbird promote.

And finally...
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: I just read this for the third time (and the first time since my Freshman year of High School), and I'd forgotten how good, how meaningful, how prophetic, and ultimately how hopeful it was. And in a case that will overload your irony meter, this book about book burning, with particular emphasis on how disgusting it is to burn the Bible and reduce Jesus to a corporate spokesperson, was challenged during Banned Books week by a concerned father who hadn't read it, except to go line by line finding things to which he was offended. Among them, the burning of the Bible, "downgrading Christians," and "talking about our firemen." If this troglodyte had actually read the damn book instead of trying to Bowdlerize it, he would have discovered that it actually does none of those things. Well, they do burn the Bible, but it's not advocated.

Man bans book about book banning during Banned Books week. Do they sell irony meters at Wal-Mart?

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Too many folks out there not thinking for themselves. I saw a picture of the man in question and could hear the banjo's playing in the background.

Dean Wilson said...

Tom, I read your blog on a semi-regular basis and enjoy it most of the time, especially when you stick to comics. I thought I would toss in my two cents on this, even though I haven't blogged in ages myself:

I agree that these are mostly good, solid books and I understand that you picked those which seem to be unreasonably challenged, so we're good so far. What kind of irks me are the little asides about who is likely to have lodged such complaints...the (religious) right-wing. Speaking from experience, and knowing more than a few English and social studies teachers as friends and family, books of any kind are far more likely to be challenged by the PC set than the right-wingers, religious or otherwise, even in the rather conservative, middle class area where I grew up. Please understand that I don't mean to say conservatives never do ask for reading lists to be changed-- though I've most often heard complaints about quality and reading level of books rather than content, from both sides of the aisle.

Anonymous said...

I've seen the cases made for the banning of most of the books Tom mentioned, and if I recall correctly, they were largely posed by conservative Christians. Tom didn't make those comments (or pick which books to make them on) at random - the man does his research. Wikipedia claims its article's been compromised, but if you search elsewhere on the books, you can find information about how the challenge came down. I'd also suggest checking out the ALA website for an overview on what kinds of challenges are happening.

Tom Foss said...

Guildenstern: Actually, I picked the books that I'd read (with the exception of the "What's happening to my body" books, which were just egregious), not ones that were specifically unreasonably challenged. As far as I'm concerned, it's usually unreasonable to challenge any book. And I was shocked to find in the ALA list that liberal and PC organizations were about equal with the usual suspects on the religious right. However, this hasn't been the case historically (as those PC groups are a relatively new phenomenon), and I think there are some key differences. From my own experience and research, while the over-PC are likely to challenge anything which contains racial slurs or things of that nature, the groups who will shout the loudest, take their fight beyond the local level, and start book bonfires, are the right-wing religious nuts. I wouldn't be surprised if it's the PC parents who are challenging more books on an individual basis, but they aren't the ones who strike up media circuses and organize national boycotts. Sure, the NAACP and other similar groups have attacked To Kill a Mockingbird for promoting racial stereotypes, but that's far from the coordinated nationwide attacks on the occult elements of Harry Potter supposedly turning today's youth into little Satanists.

And a quick glance at the challenges by type for 2000-05 bears this out. The top reason is "explicit language," which is neither left- nor right-specific, but I'd be willing to bet that the next figure, "sexually explicit" leans more than a little to the right. By my count, right-specific issues (Homosexuality, Nudity, Sex Ed, Anti-Family, Religious Viewpoint, Abortion, and the Occult) added up to 803, whereas left-specific issues (Anti-Ethnic, Insensitivity, Sexism, Racism, Suicide, and Inaccurate) numbered 262. That's nearly a 4 to 1 margin; even if we assume that everything in the "Other" category is left-specific, the PC crowd only comes out ahead by forty or so. Now, we may have different ideas about what left- and right-specific complaints are, and I'm sure there are plenty from both sides in the "violence" and "unsuited to age group" categories, but it still seems to me that the bulk of these fall in line with conservative religious concerns.

I do, however, appreciate your input, and it's always nice to hear from the semi-regular readers.

Anonymous said...

My understanding is, WHERE'S WALDO came under fire once because at least one of the pictures has a topless mermaid- the kind with her long hair covering the important bits, mind you, but still topless.