To Ban or Not to Ban

What exactly is “banning” anyway? Is it a law, an attitude, a way of thinking? Or is it something more sinister than that such as advice and etiquette from Miss Manners? As near as I can tell it’s many different things, but in general it has something to do with books that are objectionable. According to the American Library Association’s list of classically banned books, there are different reasons for taking such extreme measures. Usually it has something to do with graphic depictions of sex, although a book won’t get banned just for that. Only if it becomes popular will the book then be banned.

Usually what happens is parents get together and decide some previously innocuous text known and beloved of teachers around the world is inappropriate for their kids. They demand that a book not be taught in the classroom, or that it not be available in the school’s library, or if it is available, a child is not allowed to check it out without parental consent.

On one hand, I believe parents have a right to restrict access to materials they deem objectionable. I remember parents. I had a couple when I was growing up. Back then most parents had never read any of the books on ALA’s list. Our parents didn’t care what we read; they were ignorant of the power of the pen. A bunch of us read those books, though, and apparently something made it through the haze of marijuana smoke. When we grew up we remembered reading scenes of depravity and bestiality. We were ashamed and couldn’t face ourselves in the mirror. We didn’t want that to happen to our own children.

I’m not sure how these books could have scarred us. Aren’t most of them incomprehensible to the average high school scholar? They probably don’t really get Call of the Wild (yes, it’s on the list) or Lord of the Flies. The listed books are just nice little adventure stories. Thin on plot in some cases. Can a kid even get through Grapes of Wrath? It’s a longish book and not a lot happens in it. If I remember correctly there’s a whole chapter describing the color and texture of Route 66. Not the scenery along the roadside either, but the actual macadam.

The point is the objection to these books seems to be not with plot or theme, but with a bit of explicit sex or a couple of cuss words. The latter seems to be the most troublesome. For some religions, four letter words, especially those involving G*d are a definite no no. Trying to teach your children that adults don’t use that kind of language must be exasperating enough given TV and movies, but damn near impossible when it’s right there in black and white for a kid to go back to over and over again like they like to do with the dictionary.

So a group doesn’t want their kids exposed to that. I understand. It’s their loss. Personally I think kids should be forced to read books like 1984 and Brave New World. Mostly because they’re intelligent science fiction and people need a dose of that to offset Hollywood’s idea of our genre. But that’s just me.

Then there are books like Lolita. I think a lot of people miss the point here. I remember the lascivious looks college boys gave each other when mentioning the title. Honestly I think they were referring to Kubrick’s movie which I’m pretty sure missed the point. Yes, I know Kubrick is a genius, but sometimes he seems like a frat boy. Anyway because of those college boys’ reaction I always assumed Lolita was some story about a hopelessly beautiful nymphomaniac that tempts an older gentlemen.

Imagine my surprise when I finally read the book. Yes the college boys missed the point. And I wonder if high school kids would get it that the main character, the protagonist we have been trained since we started reading to identify with, is a twisted predator, loathsome and deserving of what he gets in the end. Humbert Humbert is not a tragic character. He is formed of the sludge found on the bottom of a not very well-drained farm pond. It’s hard to feel that way about the hero of a book. Will high school students get the importance and subtlety in this book? Probably not. Should they then not be exposed to it? Dunno.

Does it matter if children raised in certain religious groups are not exposed to thought-provoking literature? Maybe. Should people be allowed to live in their own world even if it means they have their head in the clouds? Yes. Will that hurt society as a whole. Probably. What can be done about it? Nothing. This is a free country, get over it. If the majority of parents in your school ban a book, it’s up to you to make it available to your kid at home. Oh, you need the power of the school curriculum to force it down your kids’ throat. Easily solved. If you feel your kids should read Lolita but your school won’t let them, do what my parents did when they wanted me to read something, shove it in the back of the bookshelf at home so it looks like they were hiding it.

Point is, censoring for sex and strong language is something parents do all the time. It’s sort of a non-issue. More disturbing is censorship based on theme; one group deciding what another group may think about. Even there, though I think you could make a case for censorship. Do you really want your kids watching Birth of a Nation or reading misogynistic, racist stuff? No. Unless—and here’s the biggee—putting these materials in the schools is exactly where you want them. And especially in the classroom. That is the place where discussion can take place. If a book or movie is banned it’s a sure way to make people, and especially kids, consume it. And if they consume it in some back alley, they will grow up taking the book’s reality at face value. They’ll no doubt totally miss any subtlety or depth the author brought. Put that filth, that racism, that depiction of narcissism gone bad in Lolita in a classroom—a laboratory, under a microscope—and the child will surely never take the content at face value. He or she will understand the subtleties. They will get it that you don’t want to hang around people like Humbert Humbert.

Then there’s the type of censorship that simply baffles. Both of Orwell’s famous titles, 1984 and Animal Farm, were banned because Orwell was supposedly a communist. That when these two books excoriated communism. You see why I’m worried about people missing the subtlety? These books are not subtle. Unless of course you think a two-by-four upside your head is a delicate way to get someone’s attention.

On the other hand, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was banned in Russia because it was “inimical to communism.” Here’s a serious piece of anti-capitalist propaganda written by an avowed socialist. Go figure.

Censorship can also be sad. To Kill a Mockingbird and Beloved are both considered objectionable because of their depictions of racism. This is when it becomes hard to make a judgment on banning. There is no way to write stories about racism without appearing racist, in my opinion. Racism is bad, no question, but we need to talk about it to get beyond it. And the best place to talk about it is the classroom.

And then there’s Ulysses. How can this book be banned? I mean, does anyone even know what it’s about? I’m amazed that somebody not only got through it but found some sex scenes in it. I got half-way through and gave up. All I ever got from it were a few pub discussions, a couple of parades, and a funeral. I had to read the CliffsNotes just to be able to map the story onto Homer’s Oddysey. Oh, they’re sirens, that’s why they were singing so much. I got lost in the scene changes across town, across time, and across characters. Ban it? Definitely, unless of course a translation is included.

Sue Lange
Sue Lange’s book, Tritcheon Hash, is full of hot sex, four-letter words, socialism, communism, fascism, racism, narcissistic misogyny, and capitalistic propaganda, and it’s for sale right here at good ol’ BVC.

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To Ban or Not to Ban — 10 Comments

  1. 🙂 I think you have succeeded in your argument that most censorship is kind of dumb. And it often does miss the point. I read The World According to Garp for a high school assignment, was shocked and disgusted and confused as to why someone would even bother to write something that weird and incoherent, and found the whole exercise so useless that I had to read two other books on the reading list before I found something that I could write about. If we had talked about it in class, maybe (maybe) I would have been able to appreciate it, though for high school students – no one would have ever stopped giggling. But assigning that sort of book to an independent project, which assumes school cred but also doesn’t give any guidance, it’s kind of the worst place for it to be.
    But hey, now I’ve read it. And who would I be without having read it? Better or worse, it’s impossible to know.

  2. I had to laugh out loud. I still haven’t gotten around to Ulysses, but I have read Chaim Potok’s The Promise, and one of the main characters was writing an entire thesis about the Ithaca section of Ulysses. Ironically, I think that’s why I haven’t gotten around to Ulysses yet — because if you can write hundreds of pages on one section of a novel, then it’s probably denser than I need in my life right now.

    Not being a Cliff Notes person (I’ve had but two experiences with them. They taught me that they’re useless, and to cite everything.) I had not considered that Cliff Notes actually have a third lesson — they can tell you what a blasted book was about.

    Now I know where to start. ;^)

    And then there’s Ulysses. How can this book be banned? I mean, does anyone even know what it’s about? I’m amazed that somebody not only got through it but found some sex scenes in it.

  3. The best place to talk about it is actually the home, though having it first discussed in the classroom is part of that. I can think of situations where I’d want to be able to explore further or possibly even counter the interpretation of the school. I have a number of friends who have sent their kids to religious schools for various reasons, who kept constant tabs on such things.

    I really like the distinctions you’ve drawn between reasons for banning and the degree of impact they can have.

  4. I am vastly encouraged by Sherwood’s blog post over this past weekend, in which she noted in passing that banned works in 18th century France enjoyed huge popularity and were passed avidly from hand to hand. In other words, banning is totally ineffective, as good as bailing the tide with a tea cup; if people want to read it they will find a way. (Would any of those high school boys ever even have contemplated Nabokov, except for LOLITA’s reputation? May we hope that some lad ISO porn instead was led into the ways of literature, and is even now penning a nostalgic article for THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR recalling how his life was changed?)

    I too have cunningly avoided reading ULYSSES all my life. There was a moment, when I was writing a short story about Odysseus, that it looked like I was going to have to, but luckily I have read THE INFERNO and since Ulysses/Odysseus appears there I was able to skate out of Joyce. It is -obviously- inefficient, to read a three-inch thick novel to aid in the writing of 7000 words of fiction.

  5. Dante’s Inferno, Brenda? That’s another one. I loved it but only because there were footnotes explaining all the jokes.

    I agree with Patricia about discussion in the home, but I wonder if the classroom isn’t better. Parents are somewhat dictatorial and not always open-minded. A classroom will expose children to opposing points of view, assuming it is a heterogeneous class. The teacher may want to guide the discussion to a certain conclusion, but kids are more than happy to argue an opposing viewpoint.

  6. “to get beyond racism”
    Man that is a liberal Dream.
    You must be thinking of a planet where robots have taken over and wiped out humanity.

    Racism is on the same ladder as Sexism and also Regionism. And not to far from that but the most biased of all groups. Relationism (thats where your related to the group i.e. Family)

    Some of my most Racist Friends are Black. But I can forgive them as they are trained that white people are Racists/thats kinda my point in a Nut Shell and you can look at that line much more deeply then on instant “I gots this” and sure it can be looked at from both sides of the fence. even both sides seeing both sides(WOW)
    But you won’t get it unless you want to Get It.

    Human Nature is here to say, I’m sad to tell ya(unless those bots do come to life)

    • Human nature changes all the time. We may still have lots of racism and sexism to deal with, but we’ve made great strides in the last 50 years on both fronts. Just because human beings don’t change overnight because of intellectual recognition that certain things are wrong doesn’t mean that we don’t change over time.

  7. I checked the list at the ALA link. As a junior working in the library at my high school in Arkansas circa 1977, I pulled several of those from the shelves according to a list and loaded them on a cart for disposal. They were from, I think, the second or third list we were given; there was more than one purge. The first list was primarily anything “racist” such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, all works by Mark Twain, and various authors and titles I wasn’t familiar with at the time.

    I remember the second list contained “A Communist Manifesto”. I was surprised it was on the shelf at all; I had tried to borrow a copy from the public library some time before, resulting in a warning call to my parents. However, the list also contained “The Federalist Papers” and other books on politics or history.

    As far as I can remember the purges were ordered by the School Board, but there was no public opposition to their actions.

    Given how many of the ALA list entries are connected with legal action, I now wonder how many libraries simply followed “guidelines” or self-censored with no one paying any attention.