You Can’t Read That!

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

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YCRT! News:

Arizona School Book Banning Update:

Tucson Unified School District’s banned Mexican-American Studies Program goes extracurricular. Interested students can now discuss outlawed subject matter and read forbidden books in off-campus classes while earning college credit, thanks to exiled teachers and public support! People will find a way, it seems.


The scary part of this thoughtful essay on self-censorship: that if libraries lose public funding and become commercially sponsored, they’ll succumb to pressure to remove or censor controversial books. You can see the self-censorship dynamic in action at PBS, which is now more dependent on commercial sponsorship than it is on public funding. Here’s a two-part article about PBS censoring content:

Nice one. Click to see the whole cartoon.

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Interesting look at the other side: the Illinois Family Institute’s reaction to the reinstatement of the briefly-banned book The Perks of Being a Wallflower in a Chicago area middle school.

The current scandal over NSA domestic surveillance may have little relationship to book banning or censorship, but it has a lot to do with librarians and the American Library Association, who were the first to challenge the government’s post-9/11 attempt to snoop into our reading habits.

In honor of librarians and the ALA, then, a great quotation from Kurt Vonnegut:

And on the subject of burning books: I want to congratulate librarians, not famous for their physical strength or their powerful political connections or their great wealth, who, all over this country, have staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove certain books from their shelves, and have refused to reveal to thought police the names of persons who have checked out those titles.

So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House or the Supreme Court or the Senate or the House of Representatives or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.

Of course, not everyone likes librarians or the ALA. I mentioned Dan Kleinman and his SafeLibraries organization in a previous post. Lately he’s been using Twitter to push the notion that people looking at porn on library computers is a widespread phenomenon, somehow linked to commie librarians and the ALA. Here are three Dan Kleinman porn-scare tweets, all posted on the same day:

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And here’s another one, explicitly making the librarian/ALA link:

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Notice the lack of links or photos of library users looking at porn? It’s not that I don’t believe Mr. Kleinman, but I’d like to see some proof. So I challenged him last night:

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He retweeted my challenge to his own followers, so we’ll see what happens. Next time I’m at my library I’ll check out the computer room. If I see anyone looking at porn, I’ll take photos and put them on Twitter, Facebook, and my own YCRT! posts. I actually agree with Mr. Kleinman on this one: people should not be allowed to use library computers to look at porn … not because I think porn should be outlawed, but because I don’t think it’s right to force it on others in a public place like the library.

YCRT! Banned Book Reviews

Here are three short book reviews I wrote in 2009, shortly after starting to write about banned books.

flowers for algernonFlowers for Algernon
Daniel Keyes

A story aimed at young adults but completely satisfying as adult fiction; also, another on my list of previously-unread challenged and banned books. Flowers for Algernon is the story of Charlie, a mentally-challenged man who participates in a medical experiment designed to not only heal but improve his mind; he becomes intelligent enough to learn several languages and even to take over his own experiment and predict its eventual sad end.

Along the way he recovers disturbing childhood memories, learns the truth about people he had once considered friends, and begins to live as an adult among adults, both intellectually and sexually. The latter, of course, has been the focus of effort after effort to have the book banned from school libraries and teaching curricula, even though Charlie’s experiences with women are written in a decidedly non-pornographic manner.

When I went to high school in the 1960s, people were just beginning to de-institutionalize and mainstream mentally-challenged kids. There were a few in my high school class. This book would have had an enormous impact of me and my classmates, at the very least in terms of understanding and compassion. Hell, it’s having an enormous impact on me as an adult!

Flowers for Algernon is a fascinating, compelling novel. I read it straight through in one sitting. Some of the banned books I’m reading are less than satisfying, but this one book alone makes the entire project worthwhile.

the giverThe Giver
Lois Lowrey

A fun, engaging read, a Margaret Atwood-style near-future story of a heavily-regulated conformist dystopia, and a young teenager’s dawning awareness of other possibilities, other ways to live. Although The Giver is aimed at teens, it’s a good and memorable read for adults.

Oddly, The Giver seemed to me the sort of novel book-banners would love. It’s a celebration of freedom, for goodness’ sake, and a ringing endorsement for the presence of God in human affairs. I was shocked to learn that it’s frequently challenged at school board meetings across the land, often by parents claiming it insults or demeans their religion, primarily because “the community”—the dystopia in which the story takes place—practices euthanasia and infanticide. Beyond that, parents have challenged the book for discussing sexual awakening among teens, the degradation of traditional motherhood, and the use of occult terms like “clairvoyance”—all things that are mentioned in the book, true, but not advocated or endorsed … which they’d know if they’d read it themselves.

Children, of course, are plenty tough enough to read The Giver, and I can’t think of a child anywhere who wouldn’t benefit from reading it. Or many adults, either, especially the ones who reflexively challenge it and try to have it removed from school reading lists.

chocolate warThe Chocolate War
Robert Cormier

Stories for and about adolescents typically follow a time-honored convention regarding bullying. Brave young boys and girls stand up to social and peer pressure, buck conformity, and do the right thing. They look bullies in the eye and the bullies back down. The bad guys lose. The good guys experience adversity but triumph in the end.

What the hell kind of story is The Chocolate War? Jerry Renault does the right thing and everyone—literally everyone—turns against him. The bullies don’t back down; on the contrary, they kick his teeth in, with the full backing of Brother Leon, the acting headmaster of Trinity School. The message? Conform or die. The bad guys triumph, the good guy loses. Uh, I have just one question: how did Robert Cormier manage to find a publisher?

What I don’t question is why parents continually try to have this book taken off school reading lists (it’s been near the top of every banned book list published since 1974). It’s just too real for parents. They want their children to have a more idealistic picture of the world they’ll someday inherit. Of course, the world their children actually live in is the same world Jerry Renault lives in, but don’t tell their moms and dads that.

Interestingly, though, the essential cynicism of the book doesn’t seem to be what gets parents so het up. No. It’s the occasional references to masturbation. Don’t believe me? Follow this link to read an actual challenge to The Chocolate War, and marvel at the forces of Puritanism still loose in the land.

This is a great story. If I had read it as a freshman or sophomore in high school (had it existed then … it was first published in 1974), it would have had the same impact on me Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 did in my college years. I’m glad I finally got around to reading it. It’s beautifully written, it’s true to life, it stays with you.

© 2013, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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