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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Street art by Escif*

* Yeah, I thought it was Banksy too. Click the image to learn more about Spanish street artist Escif.

YCRT! Banned Book News

The best stories are local, and here’s a hilarious one from my own town, Tucson, Arizona: Censored Sabino high school yearbook quotes revealed. Among the quotes covered over with black stickers (12,350 stickers in all, carefully glued by hand over 13 student quotes in 950 yearbooks … oh, and they made the students on the yearbook committee do it): “Every white girl needs a Mexican best friend,” “I’m drunk on you and high on summertime.” It is to ROTFL, as the kids say.

An Avon, Connecticut family accused three Spanish teachers and a guidance counselor at Avon High School of luring their daughters into a religious cult promoting martyrdom and celebrating death. How’d they do that? By teaching a block on magical realism in literature.

Point: High School Principal Cancels Entire Reading Program To Stop Students From Reading Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother

Counter-point: Why I’m sending 200 copies of Little Brother to a high-school in Pensacola, FL

Counter-counter-point: I read Little Brother. I thought it was shit. And Cory? It’s high school, not high-school.

Trigger warnings and book banning: ” … if trigger warnings become more widespread, if it becomes common for books to be listed in catalogs with trigger warnings, then we will be handing the book banners another weapon in their fight to remove literature from libraries and schools. We might even see parents groups pressuring schools and libraries to not buy these books in the first place, simply because they come with a trigger warning. And if that happens, we are all going to be harmed.”

There’s been yet another parental challenge to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, this time in Wilmington, North Carolina. So let me get this straight: you think not allowing kids to see the word “masturbate” in print is going to keep them from doing it?

The Tennessee school board I wrote about in an earlier YCRT! post has rescinded its vote to ban The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. But they only did it after the school board’s attorney explained that banning the book and literally confiscating copies from students who had already taken them home and were writing book reports would not stand up to a lawsuit. “I certainly don’t believe in censorship, but I believe that we could find a book where the author could express themselves and get their point across in another way than what this particular author did,” explained a school board member who totally does believe in censorship.

Tropic of Cancer, the banned book of banned books, was first published 80 years ago. Here are two interesting articles about Henry Miller and his novel, here and here. Both articles, to my dismay, describe Henry Miller as a forgotten author. I certainly haven’t forgotten Henry Miller. Have you? Paperback and electronic versions of Tropic of Cancer are still in print and available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Forgotten? Says who?

Speaking of 80-year-old banned books, I just finished re-reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

YCRT! Banned Book Review

BraveNewWorld_FirstEditionBrave New World
Aldous Huxley

As a blogger who writes about banned books, I keep an eye out for stories about attempts to remove books from schools and libraries around the country. In late March this article popped up in my news feed: Cape school board debates “explicit” content in Brave New World.

Yes. Parents and school board members in Delaware are trying to remove Aldous Huxley’s classic science fiction novel from an English class reading list. In 2014.

I read Brave New World as a high school sophomore in 1962. Everyone I knew then read it too, usually back-to-back with another dystopian classic, George Orwell’s 1984. Part of the joy of reading these books was that they were controversial. Both had been banned at different times in different places, which added to their appeal.

Brave New World, immediately upon its publication in 1932, was formally banned in Australia and Ireland. India banned it in the 1960s. Throughout the book’s 82-year history, self-appointed censors all over the world have tried to keep people, especially students, from reading it. In the USA, a Maryland high school teacher was fired for teaching it in 1965. It has been challenged again and again in the years since, right up to the present day. It was 52nd on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 most banned books of 1990-2001. In 2010, the ALA ranked it one of the 10 most frequently challenged books of the year. In an echo of the 1965 Maryland case, the parents in the current Delaware challenge have threatened to sue the school for teaching it.

The most common objections to Brave New World, according to the ALA, center around the novel’s perceived insensitivity, use of offensive language, racism, and explicit sexuality. Opponents in the USA have claimed the novel makes “promiscuous sex look like fun,” and that it is “focused on negativity.” Others have accused the novel of showing contempt for religion, marriage, and family. In 2010 a would-be book banner in Seattle blasted Brave New World for containing a “high volume of racially offensive, derogatory language, and misinformation on Native Americans.”

Aldous Huxley wrote his satirical sci-fi dystopia in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and the novel reflects the Big Ideas of the time: eugenics, capitalism, Marxism, mass production, consumerism. In the London of 2540 (632 AF … “after Ford”), children are inseminated and incubated in test tubes, then raised in factory-like schools, eugenically engineered and psychologically conditioned to take their places as adult members of stratified castes with specific social and industrial duties. The lowest working castes, Gammas, are short, simian, and swarthy, lacking intelligence and curiosity, happy to push brooms and dig ditches; the highest caste, the Alphas, are bred for intelligence and physical perfection, and hold down the white collar jobs. God has been replaced by Henry Ford (Ford in his Flivver, as they say), the economy is driven by forced consumption of consumer goods.

Everyone has been conditioned, a la Pavlov, to be happy with his or her lot. Most women are sterile; those who are not carry contraceptives at all times and are drilled in their use. Sex, free of the consequences of pregnancy and disease, is pervasive. Promiscuity is a social virtue in men and women alike, and is one of the tools used by the world controllers to keep the population happy, productive, and distracted from larger issues. Monogamy and parenthood are unheard of. Infantile recreational pursuits … sex, silly games, community singsongs … are encouraged during non-working hours. No one reads; today’s classics are forbidden knowledge. A Valium-like drug, soma, is distributed to all castes by the state, its use encouraged as yet another method to keep people content.

In short, everyone is happy and productive. No one gets pregnant, no one raises children, no one has a mother or a father (and in fact the very notion of family, of spawning children like so many cats and dogs, makes people blush and giggle). Citizens live their lives in the full vigor of young adulthood, free of disease and visible signs of aging until they reach their 60s, when they quickly die and are replaced.

Huxley’s is quite a different future than the one Orwell envisioned in 1984, and when I read Brave New World as a teenager, that’s what I focused on. 1984 was the sad future. Brave New World was the happy one, and if I had to guess then which of the two futures western civilization was more likely to embrace, I’d have said it would have been the happy one.

Re-reading Brave New World in my 60s has been an eye-opening experience. What a difference age, education, and experience makes in one’s appreciation of this hoary old classic! As a kid I was unaware of Huxley’s blithe acceptance of the racist views of his day, his unquestioned assumption that the Alpha caste of the future would be very similar to what Hitler at the time was already calling the master race. I didn’t pick up on Huxley’s patriarchal bias in relegating women to the role of pneumatic sex dolls. I missed the significance of naming characters after major historical figures of the late 19th and early 20th century. His use of the term “savages” to describe those who live outside civilized Fordian society escaped my notice. I thought nothing of it when I read words like “moron” and “octaroon.” This time around, each of these things clangs like a cracked bell. Where’s a trigger warning when you need one?

Yes, Huxley was a man of his times, trapped in prevailing prejudices, but his goal in writing Brave New World was to warn us away from certain social trends, so his heart was in the right place. The hero of the novel is John the Savage, a white boy raised by an actual mother on an American Indian reservation in New Mexico, ignorant of civilized society, armed only with the works of Shakespeare, who is suddenly dropped into the very heart of London. He sees what the citizens of 632 AF have been conditioned not to see: that by being shallowly happy all the time they will never be really happy, that they have unwittingly given away what it is to be human. He can’t fit in; he becomes for a brief time a hermit, then an object of national ridicule, then commits suicide. The novel is short, brilliant, and devastating.

As for the quality of the read, Huxley wrote Brave New World with a broad brush. The emphasis is on big ideas and social trends; satire is uppermost and characterization brings up the rear. Still, though, even 82 years after its initial publication, the novel makes readers think. As I have learned, the more experience, knowledge, and education the reader brings to the task, the more historically interesting Huxley’s ideas are. The dystopian novels I read today, the ones by authors like Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Hugh Howey, and Paolo Bacigalupi, are far better novels, rich in character, detail, and background, with audacious visions of possible futures. But Huxley’s novel still packs a punch, and it was rewarding to study it again after all these years.

Back now to the censors’ objections:

– I’m always suspicious when book banners cite vague concepts like “insensitivity” or “negativity.” What are they getting at? I suspect what they’re getting at … without wanting to spell it out … is that character names like Lenina and Marx, references to Freud and H.G. Wells, and use of terms like “Bokanovsky process” and “Pavlovian conditioning” are a tie-in with communism and socialism, and that’s the real reason they want to take Brave New World off school library shelves and reading lists.

– As to objections centering around sex and the lack of respect for marriage and family, yes, it’s undeniably true that a central characteristic of Huxley’s Fordian future is promiscuous sex, practiced with equal enthusiasm by men and women who never marry and certainly never ever have children. But that is satire. Did anyone ever honestly believe Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal would lead to the eating of children? Does anyone honestly believe that a satire about a future society where people behave sexually as they have never behaved at any time or place in human history will actually lead to such behavior?

– Religious objections? True again, Huxley’s satire posits a future where Ford supplants Jesus. Like there’s an actual danger this book is somehow going to make that happen. Like letting a kid read Huxley’s words on paper is going to turn him or her into an atheist.

– Racism? Yes again. Huxley takes it as a given that whites are and will remain the world’s dominant race. Who else are we going to ban along with Huxley? Every other western writer born before approximately 1960? As for the cringe-inducing descriptions of the “savages” on the Indian reservation in New Mexico, for all Huxley’s apparent cultural hostility, don’t forget that his point was to hold the Indians up to the citizens of the Fordian future, to show by comparison the Indians as humans in full, the Londoners merely debased cogs in a machine run by shadowy world controllers.

In short, the censors’ arguments are contemptible ones, mere excuses. What they’re reluctant to come right out and admit is that Brave New World challenges their notions of what’s right and proper and by gum that’s reason enough to try to keep their kids from reading it.

I hope Brave New World is as central to the experience of being an teenager today as it was when I was one, and that it is still a book everyone reads in high school or college. I hope the know-nothings keep trying to ban it … and that every time they do a new generation of readers will pick it up.


© 2014, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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