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! banned book news

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was removed from a New York City school’s summer-reading list after parents parents complained about a reference to masturbation. As so often happens in these cases, the author gets the last laugh:

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Alabama parents demand stronger school internet filters after their child looks up Tallulah Bankhead on Wikipedia. I guessing they objected to this anecdote: “And, as everyone breathed a sigh of relief, Chico (Marx) told her, ‘You know, I really want to fuck you.’ She replied, ‘And so you shall, you old-fashioned boy.'” The parents say a passage like that would never have made it into a print encyclopedia … and I have to say they’re probably correct on that point.

Of course, filtering objectionable content on the internet is very hard to do, and may even be impossible. Here’s an interesting discussion on that subject, prompted by British plans to block internet porn.

We’re used to reading about book challenges at the primary and secondary school level. In my last YCRT! post I described former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniel’s efforts to ban a highly regarded history text from state colleges. Challenging college-level books seems to be a new trend: “’If this book were a magazine it would be wrapped in brown paper,’ said Oran Smith, director of Palmetto Family Council. ‘We reviewed every book assigned in SC this year. Many were provocative. This one is pornographic. Not a wise choice for 18-year-olds at a taxpayer-supported college.’” The book? Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel, Fun Home.

In my previous YCRT! post I described how University of Alabama students, believing that most school-level book challenges and bannings don’t get reported, filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the state’s school districts to unearth this information. Results so far: 77 districts reported no challenges in the past 5 years; 46 districts failed to provide any information, and 9 districts reported challenges. The reported challenges are ones we already knew about: reference books about pregnancy, teen vampire novels, books that contain profanity. But what about the 46 districts that didn’t provide any information? I hope the university students refuse to take “no comment” for an answer. I’ll keep an eye out for future news from Alabama.

Here’s a strange kind of censorship: words Apple regards as so sensitive they refuse to include them in spell check programs. Words that make Apple squirm include: rape, murder, virginity, masturbate, fornicate, bullet, ammo, and abortion. Based on the number of times I’ve seen people spell masturbate “masterbate,” I’d say Apple is doing the world a disservice.

“A pastor in Wichita Falls urged people to check out Heather from the library and not return it. Around the country, people stole, defaced or burned the book and protested libraries that carried it.” Lesléa Newman, the author of Heather Has Two Mommies, speaks.

YCRT! banned book review

east of edenEast of Eden
John Steinbeck

East of Eden was John Steinbeck’s blockbuster novel, a sprawling tale of brothers, fathers, wives, good and evil, love and hate, the end of the 19th century and the beginnings of the 20th, California history, war and peace. The heart of the novel is the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, twice explored . . . first with the brothers Adam and Charles, then again with Adam’s sons Aron and Caleb.

I hadn’t read Steinbeck since college; it’s grand to make his acquaintance again and I’ll certainly now re-read The Grapes of Wrath and some of his other works. Steinbeck tells a hell of a story and I devoured East of Eden, all 602 pages of it, even the longish philosophical discussions between Adam Trask, Samuel Hamilton, and Lee. I hung on every development in the characters’ lives, happy, excited, or sad right along with them . . . I cared, as if these were people I loved and had grown up with. It’s rare for me, as an adult, to experience fictional characters as real people; Steinbeck had a great gift, and novels like this are few and far between today.

“Ungodly and obscene.” That’s how school board officials in Anniston, Alabama described East of Eden when they banned it in 1982. Really? An extended retelling of the Genesis story of Cain and Abel ungodly?

It’s difficult for a reader in 2010 to discern what was so objectionable about Steinbeck’s work to school officials. One would think they would have been so busy counting each of the 782 instances of the word “fuck” in The Catcher in the Rye they wouldn’t have time left over to worry about the occasional “damn” or “whore” in East of Eden, but apparently book censors never rest.

Personally, I think it would be wonderful if people started reading Steinbeck again.

© 2013, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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