You Can’t Read That!

can't read_11Arizona:

Tucson Unified School District is still in damage control mode, denying that it banned any books.  But the story’s out of the box … unlike the books TUSD rounded up and put in boxes labeled “banned books.”

Banned books, cancelled classes, fired teachers — when anti-intellectuals who hold learning and scholarship in contempt take over, it’s what’s for dinner.  Coming soon to a state near you!


Tennessee recently forbid mentioning “gateway sexual activity” in schools. I guess it’s only natural they’d immediately start banning books from school libraries too. Sigh.  By the way, the first book banned under the new law is John Green’s award-winning young adult novel Looking for Alaska (which I recently reviewed).  I expect there’ll be many more in the days to come.

Nudity without a purpose“?  Oh, so that’s why a Chicago area elementary school banned Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen 30 years ago … a ban which still stands.

Here’s the way it ought to work: a concerned parent disapproves of a book her son brings home from school and makes her case to the school board.  The school board decides the First Amendment is more important and tells mom she’s the ultimate authority over what her son reads.  She accepts the decision.  Now wasn’t that easy?

Every now and then someone suggests a rating system for young adult books.  But who would do the rating?  Publishing houses?  The American Library Association?  Individual school boards?  Giant state schoolbook selection committees with national impact, like the Texas or California boards of education?  I don’t see it happening, and I certainly don’t see authors self-rating their own books.  Still, I’m not opposed to the idea, and this writer makes a good case for such a system.

Ray Bradbury died last week.  He once wrote a science fiction novel about book burning, a novel that was itself banned — even burned — in several places around the country, a book still challenged by parents today, a book whose very name has become synonymous with censorship: Fahrenheit 451.

Really?  A Utah school district banned a book about kids being raised by lesbian mothers?  I’m shocked.  Oh, Illinois too.

Fifty Shades of Grey … you as sick of hearing about that damned book as me?  My wife wanted a copy, so it’s on our Kindle, and I guess I’ll have to read and review it some day.  Some say that when it comes to “mommy porn,” there are better books to read … here are some suggestions.

You Can’t Read That! banned book review:

the wars

The Wars
Timothy Findley

In 2011, Canadian parents challenged the inclusion of Timothy Findley’s award-winning novel The Wars on a high school reading list, describing it as depraved and full of sex. I mentioned the challenge in one of my periodic banned book blog entries and promised myself I’d read it. It took me a year to run down a copy — it’s a Canadian novel from the 1970s and you never see it on book store shelves, at least here in the States — but with the help of a bookseller friend I found a copy.

And I’m glad I did … but I know you’re here for the depravity, so let’s get right to it: the novel is about a young Canadian man, Robert Ross, who joins the military to fight in World War One. The depravity is the war itself, in all its mindless horror. While the complaining parents were busy counting repetitions of the word “breast” (five times!), I was counting the bodies of the senselessly killed (I stopped after the first hundred thousand). Nevertheless, there it is, that word “breast.” Also “penis.”

Early in the story Robert visits a whorehouse in Alberta; while there the girl he’s with leads him to a peephole in the wall; through it Robert witnesses a homosexual act. Later in the novel Robert has sex with Lady d’Orsey. Later still he’s raped by fellow soldiers in the bathhouse of an insane asylum. In between these acts of depravity Robert fights in the trenches near Ypres and St. Eloi, where he witnesses, participates in, and commits acts of unspeakably lethal obscenity, all for the glory of Canada and the preservation of the British Empire. The parents in Ontario, like so many of their fellow book banners, idiotically confuse condemning depravity with depravity itself, so let’s hear no more of them, the small-minded fools.

This is an anti-war book in the great tradition of anti-war books, filled with shocking detail but no overt anti-war commentary — the action, the carnage, the deaths speak for themselves. Of course Robert goes off to war an innocent young man; his fellow officers and the soldiers under them are innocent young men too. That is affecting; what is more affecting is the inclusion of animals and their sad fates. One of Robert’s trenchmates collects small animals — toads, hedgehogs, rabbits — creatures as shellshocked as the men around them. Robert, accidentally, becomes the officer in charge of mules and horses; indeed the climactic showdown occurs during the Somme offensive as Robert is trying to evacuate a hundred horses from a stock barn about to be shelled by the Germans. Birds, horses, dogs, mules, cats — everywhere are animals trapped in the chaos of the front lines, helpless in the midst of human chaos.

I’m more than halfway convinced the Canadian objections to this book are really a reaction to the ringing clarity of its anti-war message, that counting repetitions of the word “breast” is mere cover for the agenda of suppressing dangerous books that might turn cannon fodder into pacifists, much like the hidden agenda behind the repeated challenges to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (my review here) in the States.

Anti-war books may not be your cup of tea. But this is one of the best ones I’ve ever read, certainly one of the best written, and I’ll long remember it.

© 2012, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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