Please visit Bloom (www.bloom-site.com) to discover other writers who published their first major work after 40!

Bloom

by Jill Kronstadt

1.

In the fall of 1882, Kate Chopin’s husband Oscar lay dying of malaria in Cloutierville, Louisiana, where they had lived for the past three years of a twelve-year marriage. Several months before, Kate had departed for St. Louis soon after her husband returned from a sanatorium, a trip so conspicuously timed that it aroused suspicions of marital trouble. Summoned back to Cloutierville, she returned to find medical and legal bills mounting while her husband succumbed to a series of fevers and finally died.

She was thirty-two years old, with six children and more than $12,000 in debt.

Twelve years later, Chopin, on her way to becoming one of the South’s most popular writers, published her widely-anthologized “The Story of an Hour.” In the story, Louise Mallard, a young wife with a heart condition, learns that her husband has died in a train accident. She mourns…

View original post 2,397 more words

Advertisements

No, Really and Truly – The Absolutely, Positively Worst Ideas of 2012

Copernicus_-_Heliocentric_Solar_SystemFor some reason, The Washington Post prematurely nominated its worst ideas of 2012 way back on October 1. All the Post’s bad ideas had to do with sexual indiscretion by powerful men, political incorrectness, hubris, or all three. The one bad decision in the bunch made by a woman was the failed ouster of University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan, which was spearheaded by that self-appointed defender of vision, the unfortunately-named Helen Dragas.

Speaking of hubris, though, the Post left out almost three months of bad ideas and almost an entire gender – which is sort of amusing, considering that some of the worst ideas of the year were about women. Here goes:

Do-it-yourself birth control: First, Foster Friess, a billionaire and mutual fund manager, kicked off the war on women when he suggested Bayer aspirin could prevent pregnancy: “The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly.” In case we excused Friess’s comment as anomalous, Missouri Republican Todd Akin – also known for trying to eliminate school lunches for embryos that make it to grade school – defended prohibitions on abortion for rape victims by declaring, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Rape as God’s will: Not to be outdone, Indiana Republican Richard Mourdock argued – several times! – that any life resulting from rape was “something God intended to happen.” His idea manages to be terrible on several levels: first, that (despite its frequent appearance in the Bible) rape is acceptable because the ends justify the means; second, that God means to torture women; and third, that Mourdock somehow knows what God intends.

Ayn Rand: From Rand’s excruciating prose, eugenically-selected protagonists, contempt for acts of generosity on the grounds that they enable helplessness, and glorification of selfishness, we learned that the Romney-Ryan defeat stemmed from the triumph of mediocrity rather than Romney’s staggering ignorance of the world inhabited by the ordinary riffraff. (Dana Milbank’s piece in the Washington Post, “At Romney Headquarters, the Defeat of the 1%” does the best job I’ve seen to show that Romney’s insensitivity comes straight from the heart.)

Teachers bearing arms: If I actually have to explain why this is a terrible idea, please stop reading now.

The Second Amendment: If you skip the “well-regulated” and “necessary to a free state” parts, assault weapons make perfect sense.

Jonathan Franzen’s opinion of Edith Wharton: Based on Wharton being unattractive and sexless, America’s most popular purveyor of unpleasant characters dismisses her entire body of work. The bad idea – which you really might expect someone at The New Yorker to question – is the entire assumption that women have no artistic legitimacy without sex appeal.

New Yorker cartoons: Looking for sexism? Women carping at their downtrodden husbands? Gender dynamics that haven’t changed since the 1920s? I love The New Yorker, but I wish it would reconsider its tradition of phallocentrism.

Women are helpless, except when they’re not: Okay, I’m supposed to believe that the general of the most powerful military in the world was prostrate before the siren song of Paula Broadwell? Either he couldn’t resist – which I highly doubt, given that Petraeus was entrusted with our national security – or he could have resisted, but didn’t bother since the popular press would blame the woman anyway.

Voyeurism. Maybe Invisible Children was a showcase for the arrogance of Jason Russell, but when TMZ broadcast him staggering naked through the streets of San Diego and ridiculed what was clearly a mental breakdown, it didn’t exactly show the public in a flattering light when we played along. Same with the photograph of a man about to be hit by a NYC subway car. And same with the anguished photo of a woman trying to find out the fate of her sister, who had already been killed by the Sandy Hook shooter.

Illusions of privacy. Yes, my privacy has gone the way of the Twinkie, without the anti-union rhetoric. I value privacy, but not when it gets in the way of seeing the cartoons and photos my friends post or being able to avoid entering twice as many addresses into Google Maps on my phone.

The end of the world. The true bad idea here is that I didn’t plan an end-of-the-world potluck holiday party; I hosted one in 1999, asking guests to bring the dish they would want to eat if the world really ended at the turn of the millennium. Good times. P.S. Runner-up: blaming the prediction on the Mayans.

The end of the list. And if you believe that these are the only worst ideas of 2012, I have something I want to sell you. Close your eyes, hold out your hands, and count to ten.

Not with a Whimper but a Bang

candlesThis is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

-T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

Something about the slaughter of twenty first graders and seven adults in Newtown, Connecticut makes me want to state the obvious rather than striving for eloquence. The dead deserve eloquence, but they will be honored more by a thoughtful response to our country’s dysfunctional relationship with guns.

Massacres of innocents with semiautomatic weapons have become so frequent that recent articles on the Sandy Hook shooting haven’t even had space for them all in their ledes. Grisly greatest hits like Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, and Aurora usually get a mention, but so far there have been eight mass shootings in 2012, not including a bow and arrow attack at Casper College in Wyoming last week or a man who opened fire this morning at a hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. Also left off most lists of past shootings are Kip Kinkel, a depressed 15 year-old who killed his parents and two classmates and wounded 22 others in Springfield, Oregon in 1998 – yes, before Columbine – whose story was featured in Frontline but has been all but lost in the crowd of other shooters.

An objective observer might conclude that we have a problem.

It’s not a some-people-are-evil problem, a constitutional problem, or even a mental health system problem. It’s a gun problem.

How many times have you heard that the mass murderer of the moment was “always polite,” “perfectly normal,” or “doing well”? Kinkel’s parents were dimly aware of his psychiatric problems and tried to help him; Seung-Hui Cho and Jared Lee Loughner had attracted the attention of school officials who were unable to compel treatment; James Eagan Holmes had been seeing a psychiatrist. In most cases, the guns used in mass shootings were legally obtained. The overwhelming majority of people suffering from mental illness are not dangerous and never will be. However, the overwhelming majority of people, period, are clueless about what is going on with other people, period; and those who are not clueless are often reluctant to intervene, unsure of how to intervene, or helpless to intervene.

Meanwhile, shots continue to be fired. Firearms in the home significantly increase the risk of death from domestic violence, crime, suicide, and accidents. Gun-rights advocates rightly say that gun owners who are careful, properly trained, and law-abiding can safely use guns and that Second Amendment rights trump the risks. But since when are humans consistent about being careful, properly trained, and law abiding? There are more than 17,000 car accidents per day in the U.S. with a crash-related death, on average, every 13 minutes.

With cars, though, the driver who makes the mistake is roughly at as much risk as the other drivers and passengers involved, which theoretically acts as a counterbalance to carelessness and stupidity. Not so with guns. Also, cars have keys, meaning that it is difficult for anyone but the lawful owner to use them. Again, not the case with guns. In a perfect world, only people kill people, and on purpose. But our world, the real one with routine violence and accidental death, is filled with rampant imperfection and frequent errors in judgment. It’s nice to think that only responsible people will use guns, or that these good citizens can somehow deter killers who have abandoned civility or reason, but reality is not on the side of idealism.

The gun control topic has come up regularly in my classes since I started teaching. At first, I adamantly opposed all guns in all circumstances, and I regarded the fiery psyches of my gun-owning students with suspicion. From talking with students, though, I realized that in cities, guns are used overwhelmingly for violence, but that in rural areas, they were necessary for protecting and euthanizing livestock and sometimes for defending humans against large predators. When I moved to DC and commuted on a highway to work, seeing so many deer disemboweled by cars even made me sympathetic to hunting: Which is more cruel, a clean shot or a painful and terrifying evisceration by accident?

But semiautomatic weapons? Seriously? In Newtown, the six- and seven-year-olds were shot multiple times, presumably because the guns Adam Lanza used continued to fire after the children were hit. In this as in so many other things, the bullets are speeding towards their victims much more rapidly than a shooter can think.

We’ve had almost fourteen years to think about Columbine, though, and as the gratuitous death toll has mounted, the political environment has become more hostile to gun control. So many families will go through the holidays missing loved ones who died for no reason – or, rather, who died because skewed notions of self-defense and the right to hunt have overshadowed the reality of the world we live in, in which the killers right in front of us are far more dangerous than the ones from which we imagine guns will protect us.

Reality is on the side of reinstating the ban on semiautomatic weapons, keeping guns out of schools and other public places, requiring robust background checks and review of owners’ continued ability to use guns responsibly (we do it for driver’s licenses!), and considering possession of lethal weapons as a factor in judging whether a mentally ill patient is a danger to him/herself or others.

According to the ancient Mayans (or at least catastrophizers crediting the ancient Mayans), the world is supposed to end on 12/21/12. If the world really ends, I may die regretting my blithe attitude – another day, another apocalypse that hasn’t materialized – but really I’ve hardly given the date much more airtime than it takes to roll my eyes.

In the case of guns, on the other hand, it’s time to stop pretending that we can do nothing to prevent another apocalypse like the many others that have unfolded in the past year. For every family dealing with the aftermath of the dozens of shootings that have cumulatively caused hundreds of avoidable murders, the apocalypse has already come and gone – and any of the first graders who were killed at Sandy Hook, if they had lived, could have told the rest of us what we should do to stop the next one.

Thanksgiving, 2012: Another Animal Story

On one of my bookshelves sits a small wooden box the size of two cupped hands, stained an unobtrusive medium brown, its top carved intricately with a three-branched trunk splashed with six-petaled flowers. It is one of my most precious possessions, but I almost never look at it. Mortise-and-tenon joinery frames the top – smooth, though I almost never touch it – and underneath is a flimsy slab of plywood marked with an ordinary mailing label. On the label, which I almost never read, is the name of my first cat. Inside the box, which I have opened only once, are her ashes. I do not want to see what I cannot possibly touch.

The box takes me back to the last time I held her on my lap, already sedated, and watched the veterinarian gently find a vein on her inner thigh with the needle. I looked down at the curl of IV tube and watched it fill with blood. “Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yes, I’m sure,” the veterinarian said. “Are you sure?”

I nodded. Calypso’s chin rested on my wrist the way it always had, her eyes closed, her fur still sleek where I stroked her, her skin loose and rubbery in a way it had never been before two days ago. Her ears were still and not listening, and her body draped over my knees like an empty backpack. The veterinarian lifted a stethoscope and then whispered, “Her heart has stopped.”

There is never a right time for this.

I had known we were near the end a few days before, when her purr vibrated lightly on my wrist as we sat on the couch and watched Obama make his election night victory speech after he won his first term. I smoothed her blue-black fur, circling my fingers around her ears and admiring her perfect, tiny feet, avoiding the jutting bones of her spine and hips. “I’m so glad you’re with me,” I said to her, not knowing that after five presidential elections together, we had only a few days left. The sounds of celebration rose from the streets to my windows. For months, I’d been giving her subcutaneous fluids at home, sticking giant needles into the loose skin of her shoulders while she watched me with huge, trusting eyes.

I remembered tucking her into a crate and carrying her with my younger cat, Tiki, then twelve years old, into Sea-Tac Airport for the redeye flight to Washington, DC where I’d moved for a new job. For the first time in five moves, she seemed afraid – and shaky, nauseated, and disoriented. I unpacked a skillet and saucepan, a wooden spoon, unrolled the air mattress that would be my only furniture for a couple of weeks, till the rest of my possessions arrived from Seattle, and, for the first time, let her slip under the covers to sleep.

I remembered the many times I’d looked into her aqua eyes as she posed on the arm of the sofa, the tip of her tail curled toward her belly to acknowledge my gaze. For my entire adulthood, through the emotional storms of my twenties and thirties, her eyes had been the calm, still center of my universe, always calling me back from wherever I had drifted. In those early years she learned to worry; in later years I tried somehow to let her know that she no longer needed to.

There is a picture of her on the bookshelves next to the ashes. In the photograph she perches on a pillow, with an older set of bookshelves behind her, a sunny window making her glossy coat shine like glass. The books are mostly from the library at the University of Washington, where I was in my second year of graduate school. The window belonged to the most wretched, sagging house on our block, truly an eyesore, where I rented the smallest room and chafed at the lack of privacy after years of having my own apartment. The first night in the house, Tiki, then a year and a half old, vanished. I cried hysterically, calling for him all over the neighborhood, while Calypso positioned herself on the bed and looked serene. In the middle of the night I woke and sobbed silently, not wanting my new housemates to hear me crying. I whispered to Calypso, furiously, You can smell him. You know where he is. How can you just sit there? Finally she tired of my misery and quietly left the room to retrieve Tee from his hiding place, probably in the basement, probably where he’d been all along.

Her gesture was particularly noble because she’d loathed Tiki as soon as I brought him home. At the time I was living in a studio apartment, and I locked him in the bathroom so Calypso could have the run of the main room and kitchen. Instead, she leapt onto the kitchen counters, screamed as though I were cutting her ear off, and attacked me every time I walked through the doorway, which because of the tiny size of the kitchen was well within reach of her claws. Finally I called the emergency vet, saying, “It’s not an emergency…but my cat has gone crazy!” The receptionist, wisely, told me to “ignore her until she was out of her snit” (advice I’ve applied in a variety of unrelated situations).

Before Tiki, we had Ocarina, whom I carried from a house a two-mile walk away. She was the most energetic and affectionate of a huge litter of tabbies that seemed oddly listless, scattered over a worn rug with fleas hopping out of it like popcorn. The momcat appeared, looking even more threadbare than the rug. “She looks emancipated,” her owner said, and I giggled, thinking she was referring to the cat’s release from motherhood. When I saw the woman’s shocked look, I realize she’d meant emaciated and turned away, shamefaced. Calypso, then nine months old and still malleable, hissed for a few days until a dreamy look passed across her face and suddenly they were friends. I called them The Paisleys, because the two of them were always wrapped around each other. She had a meow that sounded like “Me? Me?” and a love of cuddling, something Calypso did not permit until she was much older. When Ocarina was just a year and a half old, I discovered she had advanced feline leukemia – legacy of her sickly mother and siblings – and, with Calypso waiting at home I had her put to sleep, holding her in my arms as the weight of her body fell into my hands.

Before Ocarina, though, there was Calypso. She was born in a warehouse a few blocks from my first lousy lowest-rung insurance company job, and I carried her back to the office in a copy box a few days before Christmas my first dreadful year in Seattle. She kept nosing out of the box as I dodged the holiday pedestrian traffic on the sidewalks, but a coworker had offered to drive me to pick up supplies and then drop me at home. The next day was the office Christmas potluck. I plopped down on the futon, cradling my new kitten, who climbed onto my chest and went to sleep. When she woke, she followed me into the cavernous kitchen in my attic apartment, watching me as I cooked for the next day. Finally she curled herself into a tennis-ball sized mound of black fluff on my right foot, and as she quietly breathed and purred, I fell in love with the kitten who would be my guardian angel for seventeen years.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Coincidentally, it is also the four-year anniversary of adopting my current pair of cats, Ziggy and Stardust, just a week after Calypso died. I did not feel ready to see her go, and I did not feel ready for new kittens, but now that they are so much a part of my life, my initial unreadiness doesn’t matter much. Just as there is no good time to let a pet go, there is also no good time to let a new one into our home. If I am thankful for anything, it’s that despite everything, we still do, and that the days with a pet are doubly precious because I am so aware that they are so transient.

It has been four years since I said goodbye to Calypso, three since Tiki dropped dead without warning on Halloween, almost twenty since Ocarina died. With pets, love is always bookended by loss; the lightness of a kitten, now, reminds me of the heaviness of the lifeless bodies I’ve held at the end. And yet it’s the nature of loving animals that we love and love and love again, knowing how the story will end, but unable to stop beginning.

The Spectre of Sandy

Hurricane Sandy’s wind field as of 6 p.m. Sunday evening (Brian McNoldy), via Capital Weather Gang

On Friday, I shared a climate change case study with my transfer composition class, simulating what would happen in an eight-foot storm surge in New York City. The case study came from a four-day workshop at Dickinson College a couple of years ago, Cooling the Curriculum, which aimed to help liberal arts faculty integrate climate science into their courses in meaningful ways.

The storm surge simulation had been on the syllabus since last summer, but it ended up coinciding with the approach of Hurricane Sandy, which by then had already killed 29 people en route to the U.S. East Coast. While my students picked apart the data in the case study and discussed what it meant in an emergency, I pulled up the New York Times on the computer projector to show students how New York City planned to respond to Sandy. As of the middle of class, planners seemed nonchalant, saying they had no plans for subway closures and that they anticipated the storm would be much less severe than Irene.

Two nights later, the simulation has become a horrifying reality, with massive evacuations and citywide closures. For a while, it seemed like Washington, D.C., where I live, would not need to take such drastic measures, but by dusk, the National Weather Service had predicted hurricane-force winds, feet of snow to the West, and probable flooding of the Chesapeake and Potomac. Then the DC Metro, too, announced closures beginning at midnight; the rain totals shot up to a possible ten inches, and the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang blogged that people shouldn’t venture outside after tomorrow afternoon because of the risk of falling trees and flying debris. Almost as alarmingly, I received robo-calls from the power company and Comcast, plus emails from a credit card company, warning of extended outages and waiving fees, respectively. (Few things are as scary as a credit card company having a fit of generosity.) We were bombarded with messages on how to prepare, along with dire advisories on how to protect pets in hurricanes. I wondered: could a hurricane-force wind lift a small dog?

Suddenly, the storm threat we’d discussed in class seemed starkly real, and the giant lollipop dwarfing the coastline looked nightmarish and psychedelic. Until I moved to DC, I have always lived in earthquake country – California, and then Seattle (the quake that damaged the Washington Monument and National Cathedral notwithstanding) – where catastrophe could strike without warning, which spared us the spectre of watching it approach.

To the many, many friends, students, colleagues, and family members I know who will be impacted by this storm: I am scared with you and for you. May we all find shelter, and may we all emerge from it safely.

You Can Stop Whispering Now

Since the first time I saw The Dog Whisperer, I have had a slight crush on Cesar Millan. I don’t watch cable and so have only seen a few episodes of his show – in one of them, he subdued a dog with an unfortunate habit of attacking his owners; and in another, he schooled owners in becoming “pack leaders” after their dog became aggressive after their other dog died.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his 2006 New Yorker article, “What the Dog Saw,” speaks of Millan’s body language in adoring terms. The accompanying photo, in which Millan stands in a superhero pose, tennis ball in fist, surrounded by dogs leaping through what looks like a muddy stream, solidified my crush. By the time I got my cockapoo, Kerfuffle, on August 1, it was no longer necessary to watch Millan’s show to know all about his training methods: Like Seinfeld and Survivor, The Dog Whisperer had so thoroughly infiltrated popular culture that the average non-viewer could love Millan without knowing him.

Some of what I learned from the couple of episodes I watched made a lot of sense. For one thing, Millan reinforced the idea that dogs are fundamentally different from humans in that they don’t want to dominate; rather, they feel more secure when their humans are in charge so that they know what to expect. Like Americans, nearly all of whom (even these days) have bosses and paychecks, dogs want to have a purpose, fulfill it, and be recognized for their efforts. Dogs – carefully bred and raised alongside humans for centuries – would rather develop a strong character than be spoiled for being cute. And, finally and most revelatory for me, I learned that because dogs look to their owners for guidance, many behavior problems can be traced to failures of human leadership.

Unfortunately, however, the show also taught me that “alpha rolling” dogs onto their backs was a good way to establish “pack leadership.” The day after I brought Kerfuffle home, he snapped at the vet when she tried to examine his ears; after muzzling him to complete the exam (both ears were infected), she emphasized the importance of obedience training to discourage further aggression. Later, I discovered that he growled at me, the cats, and a friend when his toys or food were approached, even though otherwise he seemed hesitant, subdued, and shy. I watched a few videos on Millan’s website, carefully rolled Fuff onto his back, and tried to pry toys out of his jaws.

It was immediately clear that Cesar’s methods (even gently applied) were horribly frightening to my dog, who looked up at me with tragic eyes and began to roll over whenever I approached. Fuff seemed to like to go on walks, though, so I took him on a long one while I thought things over. Unlike the off-leash, insouciant dogs I’d grown up with in the age of choke chains and nose-in-the-accident housetraining, my dog withered at the slightest signs of disapproval. When Fuff barked, several people told me to poke him in the ribs and hiss, Tssst! like Cesar does on his show. I wasn’t sure what to do, but I was certain that physical punishment or harsh words weren’t a good idea for my dog. “That’s too much force for my dog,” I said to the neighbors.

Fortunately the Washington Animal Rescue League, where I adopted Fuff, has trainers available to answer questions from new pet owners, and it was there I learned about positive reinforcement training – and thank goodness I did, because it turns out that although Fuff is sweet-natured and quick to learn, his sensitivity and tendency to be fearful make him more challenging than other dogs I’ve known. Consequently, I’ve read and learned more about dog psychology, training, and body language than I thought I would ever need to know, and I’ve handed out so many treats that I feel like a human kibble Pez dispenser with a very sore lower back.

The hardest thing I’ve had to learn, though, is to listen to my dog rather than ill-informed human know-it-alls. Since he is small, I have had to figure out what his body language looks like from overhead, feel it from his movements on the leash, or infer it from the reactions of other dogs we encounter on our walks. I’ve put a yellow ribbon on Fuff’s leash, but most people don’t recognize it as a “Keep Away” sign, so I have had to experiment with pithy ways to ask people to let us keep our distance and come up with quick exit strategies when they ignore my requests. Owners have told me everything is okey dokey because both dogs’ tails are wagging, or that I should push my dog’s chest because his ears are forward and it means he’s aggressive, or that it’s fine for a dog to run off leash on a city sidewalk as long as he’s good with other dogs.

Most obnoxious, though, is when they tell me to do what Cesar says. All the Dog Whisperer videos were checked out from the library, so I borrowed one of his books, Cesar’s Rules: Your Way to Train a Well-Behaved Dog. While I’m sure the book was ghostwritten beyond belief, its tone suggests a more contemplative Millan than what’s evident from his show, and several sections seem very self-conscious about the criticism his methods have received. Organized around meetings with a variety of trainers explaining and demonstrating their techniques, the book serves as a fairly balanced introduction to competing theories about dog training, with Millan taking care to point out where his own methods diverge, but praising the strengths of each approach.

The book gave me an eclectic mix of ideas to try with Fuff, from figuring out what your dog likes to do and using it as a reward to teaching each command’s opposite (for instance teaching “stand” with “sit”). It clearly explained different types of conditioning and how to use them on their dog, and since by then I had started Basic Manners at a positive training school, the book encouraged me to experiment with different reward-based methods to see what worked best for my own dog.

Tomorrow, Kerfuffle and I finish Basic Manners, and the tentative dog I brought home has become a waggy, playful, cuddly, laundry-stealing goofball who only rolls over when he snuggles and who now knows how to watch, target, sit, come, lie down, wait, stay, drop a toy, walk on a loose leash, and dance on his hind legs. He also tends to be anxious in new situations and is going through a phase of reactivity to other dogs, but the combination of classes, practice, Pez dispensing and careful attention are making a huge difference in his comfort level and behavior.

Not long ago, Your Dog’s Friend (where I’ve been taking Kerfuffle for classes) offered a free workshop on dog body language. At the end of the workshop, the trainer showed a few video clips from The Dog Whisperer. I don’t know if the videos were representative of every session with Cesar, but the dogs all showed the obvious signs of fear and confusion I’d seen in Kerfuffle during my (luckily) abortive attempts at dog whispering. By the most recent time a sidewalk blowhard instructed me to hail Cesar, I knew enough to say confidently, “That’s not the model of training I’m following.”

Even so, I think Millan is absolutely correct that owners must also be pack leaders – but in the past couple of months I’ve learned that means being able to ignore the gusts of hot air coming from everyone with vocal cords and a television.

As for that crush? Let’s just say it has gone the way of shock collars and choke chains.

Bad Books Don’t Get Banned

Image

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.