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September 13, 2006

Ban More Books

By Elaine Viets

When I was growing up, I carried the Bible in my book bag. I kept it by my bed at night. My mother was delighted to find her quiet A-student in religious study.

Good thing Mom didn’t look any closer. I wasn’t reading the Bible. I was deep into a banned book, which I’d hidden behind a Bible cover.

I grew up in the 1960s, which were really the 1950s in Florissant, Missouri. My church and my parents had long lists of forbidden books.

I read them all.

Many of the books banned when I was a kid are still under fire, according to the American Library Association.

Banned Books Week is September 23-30. Schools and libraries can’t stop pulling classics like "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," "The Catcher in the Rye" and "Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl." They’ve added shelves of new titles to the banned list, from the whole Harry Potter series to books by Judy Blume and Maya Angelou.

Most books are banned for the finest reasons: to keep young minds unsullied by impure thoughts and bad language.

Please keep banning books. Yes, it’s wrong. It’s evil. It’s arrogant and un-American. But it’s the best way to get kids to read.

I believe in banned books. Here’s what they did for me:

(1) Banned books made me question authority.

How could any adult believe "The Grapes of Wrath" promoted Communism? That was the excuse my church gave for banning John Steinbeck. Once I read that novel, I knew the authorities were dead wrong. I figured they had to be wrong about other things, too. I was on the slippery slope to independent thinking.

(2) Banned books improved my mind.

Steinbeck, J.D. Salinger, Mark Twain, Harper Lee – I read all these banned classics. If a teacher had ordered me to read "Madame Bovary," I would have whined it was boring. Fortunately, it was banned. I reveled in every adulterous word.

(3) Banned books made me resourceful.

Or sneaky. Depends on how you look at it. I went to great lengths to conceal my beloved banned books. I read them by flashlight late at night, with a throw rug stuffed under my bedroom door.

Even the most trusting parent gets suspicious when a kid reads the Bible too much (some of those begats are pretty graphic), so I brought home piles of "age appropriate" books, such as "Little Women." They were good, but they lacked the zing of a banned book.

(4) Banned books made me strong.

Some of those suckers, especially the gloomier Brits and Russians, weighed several pounds. Hauling around weighty novels gave me real muscle.

(5) Banned books made me rebellious.

Banning books led me to more dangerous things, like racing semis on I-70 in Daddy’s Pontiac 444. Yes, there is a connection. Thanks to banned books, I thought rules were stupid, even good rules. After all, the same people who banned books made speed-limit laws.

My parents never guessed that their angelic A-student was having high-speed races on the interstate. I was lucky. The message in some of those banned books finally got through: I wasn’t immortal. I could wind up dead as any doomed heroine, if I didn’t take my foot off the gas pedal.

Don’t get the idea I only improved my mind under cover of that Bible. I read plenty of banned novels with no redeeming social value, including "Peyton Place" and "Valley of the Dolls." I didn’t always understand the sex, but I enjoyed the thrill of the forbidden.

Banned books were irresistible. I couldn’t stop reading them.

Banned books made me what I am today.

Think about that, next time you want to yank a book out of a kid’s hands.

****

NOTE: For more information about books that have been banned or challenged, check out the American Library Association at www.ala.org/ala/oif/bannedbooksweek/bannedbooksweek.htm 

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Comments

The switcheroo on the book covers was one of my favorites, too.

Our local public radio station is sponsoring the annual Banned Books Reading on the 25th. I am always amazed at what makes the list. I mean - really - Harry Potter?

We open "Literary Cinema" in September for a reason, it is banned book month. Therefore we have chosen movies suggested banned books; hence "Slaughterhouse 5" and "Farhenheidt 451." I guess we should do "1984" next year.

If you get a chance, read Ray Bradbury's interview in the latest publication of "Farenhedt 451." Bradbury makes the case that censorship begins with a minority.

Neil Gaiman said he didn't worry about what reading material was appropriate for his children. The level of reader participation required to read novels means that people just stop reading any book they find to be "over their head" or at a level they cannot relate to.

So, any book that you find intriguing, is neccessarily "appropriate" for you. A book which is sexually explicit in places will also probably have a level of sophistication in the prose which will put off someone unable to "handle" the sex.

This is probably a highly imperfect version of Gaiman's theory, but the idea has stuck with me, and let me not worry about audience so much. Tried searching over at his blog for the post but the combination of his prolificness and the ordinariness of the words involved stumped me.

Good point, Cinema Dave. I just saw the remastered version of Fahrenheit 451 -- brilliant and scary as ever.
Elaine

Good points. My bookstore always showcases banned books...it is indeed amazing what people consider unsuitable. I read somewhere that at one point even the Bible would have been considered worthy of banning had it not been traditionally bound to the church. Go figure. My parents really never censored my reading, although I think my English teacher in high school was more responsible for introducing us to JD Salinger and Jack Kerouac. Bless her.
Everyone should read at least one banned book this month :o)
Thanks, Elaine.

"Valley of the Dolls" was banned? A girl who liked me in 10th grade gave it to me with the inscription, "after reading this, you will know the true meaning of the word 'love.'"

I never read it, so I just think that the "true meaning of love' is sex (although I never thought about it with that particular girl). Is that so wrong?

Wow. I just checked out the ALA's list of top 100 challenged books for 1990-2000. I can understand (in the sense of knowing what some folks find objectionable) why some of the "classics" are there ("Huck Finn", "Catcher in the Rye"). And obviously any books about sex, especially (gasp) gay sex, are going to be included. But Shel Silverstein's "Light in the Attic"? And what could possibly be wrong with "Where's Waldo"?

My parents never censored my reading, thank goodness. Mom did suggest that I probably shouldn't read "The Exorcist" after living through my reaction to "Rosemary's Baby"; the very fact that it was the only time she ever did something like that really made an impression. Later, having sat through the movie, I was very glad I took her advice.

When it comes right down to it, I think it would probably make more sense for folks to let their kids read widely, and then take the time to actually sit down and discuss with them what they like and don't like about individual books. Surely that would do more to promulgate whatever values are in question, wouldn't it?

I think I would faint if I actually saw my 16 year old son reading a book. Who cares what he is reading as long as he is reading.

Josh - what girl was this?

Hey, I'm thinking of banning my own books. Maybe I could drum up publicity.

I let my children read---ye gods!--The Babysitters Club books. Barbie for the brain. Now they both read literary fiction, so I guess it didn't do them any harm. Of course, I found a bunch of mummy's romance novels under their mattresses, which must have caused some kind of pyschological damage in their early teens, but that's another subject.

Oh, Elaine, what a wonderful commentary!

I'll never forget my shock at discovering that books I probably couldn't have lived without were on the banned list.

Nobody in my bookish family--grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles--knew or even cared that such a list existed. I could read whatever I wanted whenever I wanted to. (Although I seem to recall being asked by my mother not to take a particular book with me to school to read during recess. It must have been something very adult and possibly salacious--can't remember what. She didn't mind my reading it, but was clearly concerned about her/our reputations if I were seen reading it!)

Our local librarian has added to my amazement by telling of certain books that townsfolk will occasionally "challenge."

Great post, I am living in St. Louis (after more "modern" places). I think that the area is at about 1990. Either way, is there any way to nicely ask these concerned folks to stop protecting my kids. Really, stop. I prefer kids that can think and a few awkward questions.

You hit the nail on the head, Cheryl. If parents want to "protect" their kids, that's their business. But it is the height of arrogance to have them tell you what your kids can read.
Elaine

Sarah,

I'd rather not name her here, but she wasn't in any of the classes we had together. She sat across from me at our loser lunch table, and every day I would throw my straw wrapper into her ample cleavage, available for such an endeavor due to the '70's peasant blouse thing, I think. She thought that meant love, but just thought it was fun. Despite the sort of woman I like, I never was interested in her.

I saw her at the Reunion last year for the first time in 25 years, and she is very happily married, with a young child, and looks great--very nice skin. I was happy for her. No, I did not do the straw wrapper thing; not that I've outgrown it (in fact, I have not), but her clothing did not present the opportunity. It was pretty cold that night, you may recall.

One scary thing about banned books is that millions of people seem incapable of independent thought. Most of us are readers, and we encourage everyone around us to read, even if just by example.

But what about the people stuck somewhere who don't have the disposable income to buy books? If they have the misfortune of having a pinhead for a librarian or a teacher or a principal, they are totally screwed.

Without opening a can of political worms, I think this is part of the reason the country seems so disjointed.

I don't know if my parents had a strategy or if they were doing their own thing, but I did a number of things as a kid that were creative and out of the box and would horrify some of the folks "protecting" the rest of us.
My parents musical taste was heavy to opera, classical, musicals and folk. As kids we were able to pick a record to hear on our birthday. I always picked "Hair". It cracks me up that one of my favorite songs was "Sodomy". Lyrics can be seen here: http://www.allmusicals.com/h/hair.htm
I was the 8 year old singing all those choice words.
My fifth grade encouraged us on the last day of school to decorate a big t-shirt to have everyone sign. It being the 70's when everything was "super", I made a picture of a cat and wrote "Super Pussy". My parents and teachers must have wet themselves.
I may have needed some "censoring", but really what would the point have been? Did anyone really want to discuss those words and double entendre with me?

There were so many books on the list that I have read, and enjoyed!!!

I am lucky in that my mom never censored my reading material, as I was a late reading-bloomer....and then she was happy that I was reading. Heck, read Roots in a week during 7th grade.

Also, I was just laughing over the fact the #96 has just been released as a movie....How to Eat Fried Worms. Not that I ever read it, cause blech, but it will be interesting once the kids realize that the book came first.

Debby ~ reminded now of Field of Dreams when Annie calls that other woman a nazi cow for wanting to ban some books!

Excellent post, Elaine.

Wow - I am suddenly very appreciative of my high school (Catholic, mind you!), which had at least 6 of those books as assigned reading in English class (and I graduated way back in '82):

Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn; Of Mice and Men; My Brother Sam is Dead; Catcher in the Rye; and Lord of the Flies.

I believe I remember a discussion of "The Scarlett Letter" as well. Of course, I'm sure they wouldn't have let the "Gay Sex" one near the place.

Many others I've read on my own. I don't censor my daughter (now 17), and only did before when I thought it wasn't quite right for her age at the time. We read Harry Potter together, heathens that we are.

Just reminds us that we have to pay close attention to those loud few that raise a ruckus and get these things done before the rest of us even realize what's going on.

Thanks Elaine, next time you stop by the Main Library, look me up. I'll give you a Ray Bradbury/Big Read CD, if you did not get one already.

The interviews are great. Bradbury gives a tearful explanation of his favorite book.

I have a daughter 14 now that has worn a button like a badge on honor "Read A Band Book Today" She has a colege reading level and has loved classics. She was about ten whaen sahe learned that librarys acctually banned books and it out raged her. She will fihgt always for what she believes is right. I am very proud to be her Mother.

One day I would like to write a banned book.

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