You Can’t Read That!

You Can’t Read That! is a periodic post featuring banned book reviews and news.

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Banned Books Week is September 23-29. In honor of those who fight to protect our right to read and write, I offer my annual rant.

YCRT! Banned Books Week Annual Rant

Every year conservative pundits line up to tell us Banned Books Week is a hoax, claiming books aren’t banned in the USA. In the years I’ve been writing these YCRT! posts, more than one reader has called me a liar for saying books are banned. Here’s my response:

I find I have to explain my use of the word “banned” every now and again. My position is this: any time people try to keep people from reading a book, they’re attempting to ban it.

In the USA, not a week goes by without parents in one state or another showing up at school board meetings to demand certain books be removed from reading lists and libraries. Not a week goes by without some school board caving to parental pressure and pulling controversial books from the shelves.

Regardless of whether the same books are available on-line or in local bookstores, the intent of parents and school administrators who take these actions is to keep others from reading the books in question. This is the very definition of banning.

The government no longer bans books at the national level, but it used to. Henry Miller’s novel Tropic of Cancer, for example, was banned in the USA from its publication in 1934 until the Supreme Court overruled the ban in 1964. Even during the days when books were literally banned in the USA, though, conservatives advanced the argument that such books weren’t really banned, because you could always board an ocean liner, sail to Paris, and buy copies there. Conservatives today recycle the same argument: you can buy “Captain Underpants” and “Heather Has Two Mommies” from Amazon, so what’s the problem with removing them from the children’s section of the library?

Book banners want to control what other people read. They may no longer be able to ban books nationwide, but they’ll do whatever they can to get books they disapprove of banned from libraries, bookstores, and school reading lists. Sometimes they succeed, and banned books are the result. These are the correct words, and that is why I use them here.

But fine, if you don’t value my opinion, here’s what Merriam-Webster says about the word “ban”:

… to prohibit especially by legal means (ban discrimination); also: to prohibit the use, performance, or distribution of (ban a book) (ban a pesticide)

Under examples, they include this:

The school banned that book for many years.

Yes, Virginia, books are banned in the USA, and they’re banned all the time. When people quit trying to prevent me or my children from reading books they don’t like, I’ll quit using the word, but not until then.

YCRT! News

“… surveys indicate that 82-97 percent of book challenges—documented requests to remove materials from schools or libraries—remain unreported and receive no media [attention].” An interesting overview of Banned Books Week (celebrating its 36th anniversary this year), with particular attention to California and the burning of Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Screen Shot 2018-09-08 at 9.18.13 AMIllustration from “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming,” a graphic essay by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell.

Challenges to and attempts to ban classic and prize-winning books in Texas schools and libraries, reported in several previous YCRT! columns, continue apace. This article includes a synopsis of the top ten most challenged books of 2017, compiled by the American Library Association.

Waiter, there seems to be a threat in my word salad: “Google search results for ‘Trump News’ shows only the viewing/reporting of Fake New Media. In other words, they have it RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD. Fake CNN is prominent. Republican/Conservative & Fair Media is shut out. Illegal? 96% of results on ‘Trump News’ are from National Left-Wing Media, very dangerous. Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good. They are controlling what we can & cannot see. This is a very serious situation—will be addressed!” —Donald J. Trump on 28 August 2018, in a now-deleted but widely documented tweet.

Facebook, as I expected based on past performance, is once again caving to the right-wing noise machine. Wonkette has the best headline so far: Facebook Is Letting Rightwing Shitrags “Fact-Check” Liberal Sites. You Won’t Believe What Happened Next!

Well, Hallowe’en is right around the corner … here’s how you can prepare your kids for the latest Satan-inspired books!

YCRT! Banned Book Review

diary of a young girlThe Diary of a Young Girl
Anne Frank, edited by Otto Frank & Mirjam Pressler
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This review is for the definitive edition of “The Diary of a Young Girl,” published in 2010. The definitive edition contains passages and entries originally withheld by Anne’s father, the only resident of the secret annex to survive the camps.

Anne Frank was 14 when she wrote this diary entry, on Thursday, May 11, 1944:

“And now something else. You’ve known for a long time that my greatest wish is to be a journalist, and later on, a famous writer. We’ll have to wait and see if these grand illusions (or delusions!) will ever come true, but up to now I’ve had no lack of topics. In any case, after the war I’d like to publish a book called The Secret Annex. It remains to be seen whether I’ll succeed, but my diary can serve as the basis.”

I first read Anne Frank’s diary in the mid-1950s when I was 11 or 12. My father was in the military and we lived on a USAF base near Kaiserslautern, Germany. I had been told about the extermination of the Jews, but even though we lived in a city where reminders of the recent war were everywhere you looked, the Holocaust was an abstraction, too big to comprehend … until I read the diary. I was outraged. I was moved. I’ve never forgotten the impact it had on me.

My experience was typical, at least of my generation. We read Anne Frank’s diary as children; we were horrified and moved; we have never forgotten it.

I decided to re-read”The Diary of a Young Girl” as an adult, partly because more of Anne’s journals have come to light since the death of her father, who prevented certain entries from being published during his lifetime; partly because I’m interested in book banning and Anne’s diary has been a frequent target of those who want to suppress books.

The experience of reading Anne Frank’s diary is still powerful, though as an adult I’m much more aware of her youth: she was very much a teenager, full of herself, impatient with the other seven people crowded cheek to jowl in the hidden rooms above the spice warehouse on Amsterdam’s Prinsengracht; in short, she could be downright annoying.

At some point in 1944, a spokesman for the exiled government spoke on the BBC, asking Dutch people to preserve their memories of the German occupation and the war in general; Anne decided to rewrite and edit parts of the diary for future publication. Certainly not all parts, though … you can tell which parts she had in mind for her notional post-war book; the day-to-day entries about fights with her mother and other residents of the secret annex were clearly meant to remain private, as were her very personal reflections on puberty and her growing interest in sex.

Most of Anne’s diary focuses on personal concerns, but her awareness of why she and her family were living in hiding was never far from the surface. When she occasionally wrote about the Nazis and what they had done, and were doing, to the Jews of Holland … to Jewish boys and girls she went to school with, who had by then been taken away to camps in Germany and Poland … my hair stood on end.

“The Diary of a Young Girl” has been an international best-seller since it was first published in 1947. Millions have read it (33 million copies sold, translated into 75 languages). Millions have visited the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. Still, there have always been those who want to suppress or ban Anne’s diary.

In the immediate aftermath of WWII, anti-Semites in Europe and elsewhere labeled the diary a fraud, claiming it was written by an adult as Jewish propaganda. Today, you can easily find anti-Semitic and Holocaust denial web sites making the same claim, despite the fact that several investigations over the years conclusively established the diary’s authenticity.

In parts of the Middle East, the diary is banned outright, and many Arabic people have never heard of Anne Frank. The motivation here is similar: anti-Semitism and opposition to the state of Israel.

Although the diary has never been banned in the United States, it has always been controversial to some. In recent years, especially since the publication of the complete diary containing entries Otto Frank kept hidden while he was alive, a few parents have demanded”The Diary of a Young Girl” be pulled from school library shelves and not studied in class. The most recent attempt was in Northville, Michigan, in 2013. Sometimes challengers say they oppose the diary because it’s depressing and dark, sometimes because parts of it are sexually explicit. I suspect there’s an element of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial behind these challenges, but it is never acknowledged.

Depressing and dark? For those who’d prefer their children not be taught about the Holocaust, I guess Anne Frank’s diary is indeed that. Sexually explicit? Hardly. One of the passages Otto Frank omitted when he edited Anne’s diary in 1947, but which has now been reintroduced into the diary, is a one-paragraph description of her vulva. It’s honest but non-erotic, really just a reminder that Anne was a growing young woman interested in how her body was developing and beginning to think about sex. One wonders what these parents imagine their own kids think about.

At any age, reading “The Diary of a Young Girl” is a profound and moving experience. You are immediately transported to a different time and place, yet one that is never far away from our collective consciousness; you cannot help thinking of Anne as a childhood friend, which makes her fate particularly stark. She personifies, in the most exalted sense of the word, all victims of the Holocaust. As Primo Levi (himself a survivor of the camps) said:

“One single Anne Frank moves us more than the countless others who suffered just as she did but whose faces have remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is better that way; if we were capable of taking in all the suffering of all those people, we would not be able to live.”

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© 2018, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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