Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A Case for *not* Banning Books

I saw a post recently by a homeschooler about books she would not allow her children to read. Let me preface this commentary by stating that I don't have a problem with parents censoring what their children read. Not at all. And, in fact, I think all parents, every where, regardless of schooling choice, should know what their kids are reading. Parents should be reading the books their children read and not just leaving it up to someone else to decide - at very least so that if touchy subjects arise, the parents will be able to have an informed conversation, because the parent knows the context in which the events took place.

What bothered me about the post was not this parent's decision to outlaw certain books, but the fact that she posted the list of objectionable books without a commentary as to why she chose to ban them from her home. Her list was compiled by a teacher friend of hers from a very specific set of criteria, and she was, in turn, sharing the list with the group, but just the title of book that contained themes or scenes that were objectionable to her, but nothing about what those themes were and/or why they bothered her.

One of the books on the list was The Grapes of Wrath. Those who know my blog won't be surprised to note that I credit this book with being integral in leading me to my current path in life. I grew up in a middleclass, suburban family, and while I experienced tough times growing up (haven't we all?) and was very poor as a college student and post-grad/pre-job, I have never known true poverty - the kind of soul-sucking poverty experienced by the Joads in Steinbeck's timeless classic. Interestingly, there are some themes in that story that we often overlook when we discuss what the book is about and those themes are frighteningly applicable to our current time.

In her post to the homeschool community, the above-mentioned mother said that she was given a list of "better" books for studying the "Dust Bowl" - as if The Grapes of Wrath is about the dust bowl.

It's not (in fact, most of the story doesn't even take place in Oklahoma).

It's about a whole lot more than the storms of dust clouds that blanketed Oklahoma and the panhandle of Texas during the 1930s and forced a mass migration of homeless souls to the agricultural belt in California. It's about getting into debt one can't repay and losing one's home as a result. It's about being forced to take low-wage jobs that can't support one's family. It's about losing loved ones. It's about desperation and bitterness and betrayal and heart break. But it's also about hope and the strength and integrity of the human spirit. And it's about Mama Joads' failed attempts to keep her family intact against a tsunami of events that ultimately rip them apart. It's also about compassion, and the one scene that seems the most offensive and the most oft cited reason the book makes the banned list in too many years is that - in the end - after the Joads have lost everything one can lose, Rose suckles a dying man, giving him the milk she would have given to her stillborn child. It's a beautiful scene, but because this adult man is given breast milk straight from the breast, it's deemed obscene. So sad.

And in the overall context of the story, it's such a tiny portion of the whole that to outright exclude the entire novel for that one scene is just a little disappointing, in my opinion. I won't disagree that the age and maturity level of the readers really should be taken into account when recommending books, but to just outright ban it is a little extreme.

What also bothered me about the mother's posting of this list was the fact that she had, admittedly, not even read some of the books. She posted this list of books she was suggesting other parents might want to exclude from their children's required reading lists based entirely on the advice of the teacher who had compiled the list ... and then, sharing her list with the group, stating that she had received "warnings" about the titles with no clue given as to what those warnings were.

There are a lot of books I wouldn't recommend to my children, not because I object, necessarily, but because I'm not ready to have certain conversations with them. There are other books I wouldn't give my kids to read, because I haven't read them myself, and I'd like to read them before I have my kids read them.

All of the books on this person's list were "classics." Classics are labeled as such, because they contain themes that are timeless in the human experience. No, not all classics are appropriate for children. Nabokov's Lolita is a classic, but I wouldn't give it to my kids. The prose was absolutely stunningly beautiful and the word choices were lyrical - like a beautiful piece of music -, but the content was incredibly disturbing. In fact, I wouldn't, really, recommend it to anyone, based on the content. I wouldn't ban it, though. I just wouldn't recommend it, and if I were a teacher, I wouldn't assign it.

There are two issues here:
First is that our culture has the mistaken idea that all classics are always appropriate for our children to read, because, well, they're "classics"; and second is that banning books with themes to which we object, even if we've never read the book, is an appropriate way to protect our children.

In the second case, the reality is that, in the world we live in, even if we're very careful and we monitor everything our kids read and watch and listen to, they're going to learn these things. No, we don't have to give them the matches they use to burn themselves, but rather than trying to keep them away from fire (not going to happen), maybe a better response is to teach them how to be around fire without getting burned.

We should definitely be reading the classics, because these books are well-written prose with themes that are applicable even today. They teach us to speak better and to write better, because they are well-written, but they also give us insights into human behavior. The thing we tend to forget, however, is that most of these books were written for an ADULT audience, not children, and rather than an outright ban, perhaps, we should be ensuring that we are making the best age/maturity level choices for our children. What we should be teaching, therefore, is not "the classics", but rather a love of reading so that when our children are older and better able to handle some of the more adult-themes in these books, they will want to read them - not because the books are assigned reading, but because they are good books.

We need a well-read population of people, because people who don't read are more easily manipulated by those who may not have pure intentions. Please consider this when encouraging others to ban books. I haven't loved every book I've ever read, but I guarantee every single one of the thousands of books that I have consumed has made me think and many times challenged my core beliefs, which is, actually, a very good thing. If we never challenge what we think we believe, how can we know what's best?


  1. Amen. I like Scott Turlow's quote- "there is also a profoundly anti-democratic effect when people turn their backs on the opportunity to read. If you don’t have a citizenry that is trained to think precisely about ideas, then your democracy increasingly will be one of know-nothings. As long as people accept the illusion that they don’t have to learn to read and write well, they will essentially be locking themselves out of any opportunity to actually take the levers of power in this society". As an elementary librarian I'm all about lots of different kinds of reading...

  2. My heart go's out to children who are given an education that sets limits on their minds. How sad that once they are thrust into "the real world" they will be unable to deal with, gasp...people with different ideas/different thoughts than theirs ! My only hope is that they will find their way into any wonderful library around this country and their minds will be opened to the wonderful world therein. Many years ago we gave our youngest son a book he adored from early childhood.The joy on his "older" face is one I'll never forget. He immediately began to tell his daughter all about the adventures that were between the pages.
    Will she teach her children about the book burning in Germany and the result of keeping people ignorant?
    Thank you for this most interesting blog--I'll be checking in often !!