Bad Books Don’t Get Banned

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Today marks the last day of the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week, which, according to the website, “celebrat[es] the freedom to read.” The ALA site makes a distinction between challenged (someone tried to get a book removed from a curriculum or library) and banned (the petition for removal was successful in at least one place) and explains that the most common reasons for censorship are sexual content, explicit language, and “unsuitab[ility] to any age group.”

The ALA’s list for 2010-11 includes a wide range of books, from Sherman Alexie’s devastating National Book Award-winning The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian to Anne Frank’s classic Diary of a Young Girl. The list also includes Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, banned in a Pennsylvania town for supposedly promoting socialist ideas; and a book about pit bulls and guard dogs, banned in Logan, Australia, because the breeds themselves are prohibited, and, in true Stalinesque spirit, readers should not be allowed to learn anything about them.

Well, there is someone for everything. It is marvelous to live in a country where some people value the 2nd amendment more than the first, and where some people are more afraid of libraries than they are of semi-automatic weapons. One thing I’ve noticed about the banned book list, though: I’ve never read a book that made the list and wasn’t well-written. (Full disclosure: There are plenty of books I haven’t read from the list.) So-called “classics” are popular targets, because they’re assigned in school, although last year someone challenged Kate Chopin’s perennially banned book The Awakening, not because it contains an unremorseful portrait of infidelity or a mother’s abandonment of her children, but because the cover of the book showed a woman with a little too much cleavage.

However, I’ve observed that books so poorly written that I want to hurl them across the room never seem to make it to the banned books list. For example, The Bridges of Madison County, which features a treacly plot involving a photojournalist who swoops into a small town to rescue a woman with no personality from her life of mediocrity, has never been challenged, at least as far as I know. Neither has Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which is so historically important and uniquely disturbing, and so filled with clumsily written sentences. Black writers are disproportionately represented in the list of frequently-banned classics, especially considering that novels by women – already barely represented in the so-called “canon” – are only a sliver of the total list.

I can only conclude that if a book isn’t worth reading, it’s not worth banning or challenging. Books that have been challenged, on the other hand, were good enough to be recommended or read by someone who was affected enough to be offended. So many books deemed too challenging for school curricula or bestseller lists are so amply worth reading that I would never want to suggest that the ALA list should be the definitive guide to worthwhile literature.

I will say this, though: If you read something worth banning before next year’s Banned Books Week, I doubt you will regret it.

Gladly Beyond: A Place for Literature

The e.e. cummings poem that begins, “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond/any experience,your eyes have their silence” and ends “nobody,not even the rain, has such small hands” is unabashedly about love: The poem figures prominently in Woody Allen’s film Hannah and Her Sisters and was swapped between lovers in my college dorm. The idea of finding the one person whose looks can “unclose” you seduces anyone capable of undressing in the throes of a soul-mates fever dream.

Nonetheless, the lines of this poem – which seem so tenderly meant for a lover – immediately sprang to mind when, preparing for the beginning of the semester last week, I thought about how to articulate my love of literature to my new students. Reading: so much like the unfolding between cummings’ lovers, only exponentially more promiscuous. Every work of literature opens its own universe. I have only one bricks-and-mortar life, but literature gives me thousands of consciousnesses in hundreds of times and places. Each book uncloses me, transports me out of myself and into lives that are absolutely, impossibly not my own.

When I talked to my students that first day, I shared the reasons for my passion for literature and saw that my students appreciated my love of my subject but did not share it. Seeing their skepticism, I dutifully trotted out the pragmatic reasons for careful, thoughtful reading and how they might apply to the career aspirations of the students in the class, but now I regret falling back on salesmanship.

Literature, it seems to me, is the antithesis of the agenda embedded in public discourse, of social networking and Web 2.0, of everything on demand 24/7. At least in the United States, we live in an age that exalts the individual; we devote more and more of our ingenuity towards customizing our own experiences – in other words, to limiting awareness to what we have already imagined and requested. Even in education, we judge success through measurable outcomes and whether college has conferred skills that mean something in “the real world.” On our separate phones and laptops, all password protected, we can choose the apps we want, the news sources whose views we espouse, and the people who share our own interests.

I think about the trouble some students have with reading – in 2011, only half of students had ACT reading scores predictive of college readiness – and I think that at least part of the problem is that reading demands that we enter someone else’s consciousness, that we desire to understand what is inaccessible to us and learn to decipher it. The hyperlinked Web 2.0 world, by contrast, privileges the self over the other and rewards predictability, even customizing ads and offers based on a user’s browsing history. Rather than the practice of reading being an act of seeking, in the hyperlinked world it becomes an act of receiving, as Netflix puts it, “More like this.”

Literature, on the other hand, entices us from our own separate worlds into someone else’s, “whose texture/compels me with the color of its countries.” Reading, at its best, keeps us from emotional and intellectual celibacy. It gives us thousands of eyes, all unclosed, and, as we turn the pages of a book, allows us to transcend our own small hands.