Reading Banned Books

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micemenLast week was Banned Books Week, so we asked a few of our students, alums, and professors to talk about a banned book from the ALA’s list that held a special importance to them. 

Sara Marchant: When Harriet the Spy was ‘challenged’ (by the extremely mentally narrow) my mother made sure I had a copy. I loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and, of course, Anne Frank’s Diary. My family consulted the banned book list as a sort of recommended reading…but we obviously have issues.

Mark Haskell Smith: From the transcript of the obscenity trial, when William S. Burrough’s Naked Lunch was banned in Boston, Massachusetts.

Attorney for Burroughs to Norman Mailer: When you use the words, “absolutely fascinating,” and so on, do you mean also, it has importance to you as a writer and other writers? Are you expressing notion of its importance?

Mailer. It has enormous importance to me as writer.

Attorney: Before, you mentioned the unconscious and subconscious. Do you have a feeling, as a writer, that one of the important tests of a writer is to be able to summon up, to evoke unconscious material and put it into artistic form, and that in order to make his contribution, as a writer, to society? Is this part of your feeling of one of the writer’s tasks or problems? And if so, has Burroughs done this very well?

Mailer: Well, I think that I don’t want to go to great length about what I think.

Eli Ryder: When I was in the 8th grade, Uncle Tom’s Cabin got yanked from our curriculum because of the use of a certain racial term. One of our classmates brought it home, and her parents stormed the school and the district office and demanded that our teacher no longer mortify their daughter with that book and the terms in it. As it turns out, after an unfortunate public confrontation between her parents and school administrators, she was far more ‘mortified’ by her parents’ behavior than she was by anything in the book. To this day, I refer to Simon LeGree as the most wonderfully named villain that I’ve ever read and can’t help equating those who would censor reading as attempting to create slaves of thought.

David L. Ulin: Howl by Allen Ginsberg. Challenged in court for obscenity (particularly its gay content). Sixty years later, who won? Ginsberg. And, by extension, the rest of us.

Alexandra Neumeister: In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry’s teacher Dolores Umbridge makes him write outharry-potter-series1627 “I must not tell lies” over and over again. Not an unusual punishment, but Harry is horrified to learn the pen she forces him to use takes his own blood as ink and leaves a scar on his hand in the shape of the words. What struck me about this scene is that I had experienced that same pain as Harry, in the most literal sense possible. I was diagnosed with a disability called dysgraphia, and for the first ten years of my life that was exactly the feeling I experienced when I tried to write by hand, a knife carving the muscle from my bones every time I put pen to paper. Until one day, a magical implement was given to me, a simple computer and keyboard I could carry around everywhere I went. Words, sentences, paragraphs, stories flowed out of my head like magic spells onto the screen, and I realized I had access to a power I never knew before. I’m now in an MFA program for Creative Writing, my own personal Hogwarts, when I never thought I would be able to write more than a sentence without being driven to tears by the pain. Before Harry Potter, I had never even been able to describe what was going on with me, an experience that no one else seemed to be having and that I couldn’t explain because I’d never seen it depicted in “realistic” stories. When schools and parents say that fantasy books like the Harry Potter series serve no purpose, that they’re just a wasteful escape from reality and should be banned in favor of “the classics,” that they impart wrong or evil lessons, this could not be farther from the truth. Fantasy gives us the face of evil, yes, but only so we can recognize it. These books showed us our demons, and, more importantly, gave us the sword to fight them.

Stephen Graham Jones: If Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia had been locked up in a room of banned books, I’d have maybe never become a writer. Did it get challenged because it provokes feeling? Pass the soma, I guess. Don’t let Harrison Bergeron take it all again. Or is today the Ludovico Treatment?

John Schimmel: I presume there are people who would, if they could, take away my license to be a father once they learned that the first “adult” book I gave my son was Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. Banned at various times for its irreverent look at war – specifically, WWII – and bureaucracy, it was nevertheless a book I read several times a year trough high school and college. I still believe that army clerk Milo Minderbinder, pilloried for arranging with the enemy to bomb his own troops until he opened his books and showed his enormous profit, is the shining precursor to the Goldman-Sachs types who thought it was morally fine to destroy their own clients, and ultimately the US economy, so long as they made enough money out of the deal. The vainglorious and incompetent Colonel Cathcart is literature’s very own Donald Rumsfeld. The list goes on, but in my view Heller managed to find universal truth – and universal black comedy – inside the madness of war. The book should be required reading as a portrait of modern times.

Ross Helford: The first time I read CATCHER IN THE RYE, I was younger than Holden Caulfield, and he was a hero to me, funny as hell and with an ability to express a disgust with the world I shared, albeit while using language I myself wasn’t capable of. The second time I read it, I was a couple years older than Holden, and he was still a hero to me, though I was better able to recognize the deep sadness that drives his attitudes and actions. The third time I read it, I was the same as Salinger when he wrote it, and in addition to feeling no small degree of envy at the author’s talents, for the first time, I saw the book through an adult’s perspective, and wasn’t the slightest bit disturbed that there’d been a time in my life when I wanted to be like Holden. Last year, when I read it for a fourth time, I was struck by the profundity of Holden’s suffering (his three traumas, two of which are explicit, the third lurking just below the surface), and his attunement to the suffering of others; his search for authenticity in a world crawling with phonies (is ‘phony’ a euphemism for ‘bully’?); the fact that not one adult who can help him will do so selflessly, and that the first selfless act anyone does for Holden comes not from a grown up or a peer, but from his little sister. I find it ironical ( that while the “fuck you” graffiti Holden finds toward the end of the book surely has added no small degree of fuel to the book banning fire, his attitude toward seeing the profanity, in fact, essentially evokes the same kinds of fears (“I thought how Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they’d wonder what the hell it meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them—all cockeyed, naturally—what it meant, and how they’d all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days.”) and actions (he tries to scrub it clean) that (I imagine) would resonate with the book banning crowd.

Jill Alexander Essbaum: For my 17th birthday my parents gave me an unabridged dictionary. I was the happiest little nerd in all of Nerdville.  The English dictionary (choose your own adventurous edition) is my all-time favorite book. And it gets banned more often than one might think. I didn’t become a writer so much to tell stories as I did to play with words. All the words. How they bump up against each other is what brings me my deepest satisfactions. Words rule.

Annette Fuller: There’s a lot of history, knowledge, and wisdom out there that isn’t crammed into your grade school curriculum. Religion is taught in historical terms, but it always feels like walking on eggshells, trying not to offend anyone. We did a banned books unit in the tenth grade and I picked Martel’s Life of Pi and Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. For the first time, I was able to analytically explore religion as a philosophical prospect, as more than just dates of holy wars. What does it mean to the individual? Why do some of us need it, and how can it make us better people? What exactly is this driving force behind moral decisions, wars, and progress? Martel and Vonnegut explored all that for me, and taught me how to consider how beliefs can shape us, our history, and the world. You don’t generally learn that in public schools, and I’m infinitely grateful that I got the chance when I was young enough for it to make the most impact.

Tod Goldberg: The first book that ever made me cry, that ever made me feel something beyond the life I was already living in, the first book that made me want to write my own stories, was Of Mice and Men. I had to steal it from the library in Walnut Creek when I was about ten years old, because the librarian wouldn’t check it out to me, said it was too adult, and that I needed permission to read it. When my mom found that I’d stolen it, she marched me down to the library and informed the librarian that I had permission to read every single book in the library, forever.

Yennie Cheung: One of my best memories of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson stems from discussing it with teenagers. While getting my MFA, I participated in the Writers in the Schools (WITS) program and taught two freshman writing seminars at the local Catholic high school. My students had just finished reading Speak, which was handpicked by their principal as required ninth grade reading. They loved the book, and I remember one boy in the front row had no problem saying it had made him cry. I told them the book was frequently banned and that some adults have called it “pornographic” due to one scene that briefly describes sexual assault. The students were incredulous; they saw nothing titillating about a girl their age recounting her abuse, and they called the bans crazy. As far as they were concerned, the book was an accurate portrayal of teenage cruelty and an eye-opening look at post-traumatic stress. Since then, I’ve thought of the book as required reading not only for ninth graders but for adults as well.

Gail Mackenzie-Smith: Sherman Alexies’ book, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian” is apparently #1 on the list for the following reasons: “Anti-family, cultural insensitivity, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence (PHEW) and for thIs additional one: “Depictions of bullying”. Kudos to Alexie for covering all the bases. If you’re going to banned you may as well do it thoroughly. But we all know the real reason for his top of the chart rating: Alexie Sherman is an uppity In-Jun and we can’t have that, even in the 21st century. It’s an awesome book. And although I’m five decades older than Junior, the protagonist, (and a girl) I related to every experience he had. I hope being banned brings this book to the attention of zillions more readers.

Jim Jennewein: Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” is one of my favorite reads for one simple reason: It’s brilliant. It encapsulates powerful human truth. It speaks truth to power. And it’s one woman;s honest attempt at getting at the hard-to-reach inner-inside-your-gut kind of truth that is so rarely available to any of us today, especially if it even reeks of anything political. Oops, that’s actually 4 reasons, or 4 and 1/2, but F it, I don’t care. And I despise these people who are trying to ban books. I find reality TV shows beyond obscene and degrading and if anything should be banned those should be the first things to go. But we are a free and open society, and thus we allow the free flow of all thought and feeling, no matter how puerile or craven, provided it not be gratuitously hateful. There. Rant over. Whew. Now, where’s my Xanax?

fahrenheit451-1Xach Fromson: That Fahrenheit 451 is on the ALA’s list of challenged books from this century is perhaps one of the most ironic choices, alongside 1984 and Animal Farm. Fahrenheit 451’s darkly satirical warning, espoused by Captain Beatty, was of exactly this type of behavior. Only people who want to ban books would feel the need to ban a book about the fallout from this philosophy. It’s reductive reasoning at its…best? Worst? But the novel also ultimately shows the futility of such endeavors, which may very well be the other reason why so many among the ban-happy want to see it wiped from the shelves. Reading this book when I was younger was absolutely instrumental in my belief that not only is reading and literacy instrumental in protecting a free society, but that speculative literature can offer a wonderful allegorical criticism of a society, and it may have directly influenced my desire to create a literary nonprofit devoted to promoting speculative literature.

Deanne Stillman: Charlotte’s Web by EB White, banned because “lower life forms” talk. As Charlotte the spider said to Wilbur the pig: “You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die.”

By | 2017-05-18T16:48:12-07:00 October 5th, 2015|Categories: Uncategorized|Comments Off on Reading Banned Books

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