Against Censorship:  Books Are Civilization

Passionate readers do not read expurgated editions of books.  We do not want to read Readers’ Digest condensed books or abridged classics. We do not want sanitized versions of Ian Fleming’s James Bond series or Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  We are relieved that in 1960 the ban was lifted from D. H. Lawrence’s controversial novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  But how long will this freedom last? The barbarians are at the gate. Book-banning is legal in some red states and some publishers have capitulated to pressure from both the left and right to update, i.e. censor, the classics.

How did our society regress so quickly ?  It is a political issue. It is pandering to a tiny right-wing minority. It began in our blue state when it turned seeing-red in 2016. The state government has regressed so far that it recently legislated banning books in the schools. At this point I should draw a cartoon depicting the state legislators with their protegees, Moms for Liberty, gleefully romping and flicking lighters as they prepare a bonfire of books.  The caption would have to be:  “Vote for ignorance!”

The banning of issue-oriented Y.A. books in the schools does not particularly concern me.  That’s because the school libraries should invest in better-written, more challenging, mature books anyway.  What actually concerns me is the banning of classics.  Here’s what the red states are banning these days:  Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Art Spiegleman’s Maus, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Orwell’s 1984, and (déjà vu) Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. What’s the next target? It is likely to be public libraries.

What I want to know is:  when did censorship become a women’s issueMoms for Liberty, founded in 2021, has received much publicity, though it boasts only 120,000 members. Still, they can take some credit for the new censorship policies in the schools.  They have worked to wrest power from teachers and librarians. They aver that parents are entitled to dictate the public school curricula.  In addition to banning books, they demand that teachers limit discussions of race and LGBTQ+ issues.  This year the Republicans, particularly the presidential candidates, noisily support Moms for Liberty.

Here’s what I wonder:  what do Moms for Liberty read?  Have they read Joyce, Morrison, Faulkner,  Orwell, and other books on their banned list?  Wouldn’t you love to infiltrate their group for a day? My guess is that many prefer racy Netflix shows to reading, but they may enjoy the S/M former best-seller,  Fifty Shades of Grey, the latest Colleen Hoover, bodice-ripper romances, celebrity biographies, and People magazine.

Of course I shouldn’t generalize.  For all I know, they’re scholars.

But I doubt it.


Deep Breathing, Dystopian Classics, and Obama’s Letter to Librarians

I’m breathing smoke from Canada and coughing. I tell myself, “Stay calm.” I sit down on a tree lawn and riffle through my bag to find my inhaler.   It is buried under a small notebook, a paperback mystery, and a wad of Kleenex.  

One walker slows down and asks if I need help. “Or are you vaping?”

“It’s for allergies, “I explain.

The plastic inhaler resembles a Pez dispenser, but instead of Pez it emits puffs of albuteral sulfate. It was prescribed for my new allergies to dust, smoke, pollen, and the unhealthy particulate matter caused by air pollution this summer.   

I wonder how many of us are breathless in this new, quasi-post-Covid, wildfire-riddled world.  Some of us may have long Covid; all of us are breathing more particulate matter from the wildfire smoke. And we also inhale generous amounts of microplastics (little plastic bits) daily. “There’s a great future in plastics,” Benjamin was advised in the 1967 film The Graduate.

Information from scientists, the writer Bill McKibbon, the Sierra Club, and countless other environmentalists is ignored or met with delaying tactics. And because of the negligence of corporations and politiicans, we are living in the worst possible future: a dystopia where burning fossil fuels controls the earth, raises the temperatures, and burns the planet down.

And so we turn to dystopian novels, because science fiction writers speak the unspeakable and suggest alternatives – and most do scientific research before they write. Here is my personal Dystopia 101 syllabus (I have reviewed most of these here): John Brunner’s  The Sheep Look Up, Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility. Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, Margret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, Neal Stephenson’s Termination Shock, Richard Powers’s The Overstory, Karin Boye’s Callocain, T. C. Boyle’s Blue Skies,  John Christopher’s The Death of Grass, and  Orwell’s 1984.

Of course not everyone has access to these books. That is another problem. And a growing number of mad book-banning groups are challenging books chosen by librarians and teachers, insisting that such tomes will corrupt their progeny. They campaign against classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, biographies of Democrats, and Y.A. fiction with LGBTQ themes. Whether they have read these books is another issue.

Fortunately, President Obama is a hero. He has written a brilliant, articulate open letter to  librarians on the importance of providing books that introduce readers to a variety of ideas.

Here is the link to Obama’s letter.

She Only Reads Novels!

Buy the old James Bonds before the revised, sanitized editions hit the shelves.

“Oh, she only reads novels!” said a phlebotomist who used to belong to book group. As I entered the conference room, she was gossiping about moi, and claimed that my fondness for novels was a character flaw.  

Then she made my kind friend Janet cry. When Janet recommended Joy Harjo’s latest collection of poetry, the phlebotomist gave her a sharp tongue-lashing.   Fiction may be dangerous, but poetry apparently is too-too!  The rest of us thanked Janet and decided to read Harjo.
One of us suggested that the phlebotomist was actually a  “racist vampire.” That made me laugh, but to give credit where it’s due, I doubt that the “vampire” knew that Joy Harjo was a former Poet Laureate, or that she was a Native American. In fact, I am sure she knew nothing about her!

The prejudice against novels and poetry is prevalent in our society – something to fight against in our new age of book-banning and “revision.” Good old Dad once called me “a non-participant in life” and punished me for reading on a weekend by making me mow the lawn.  All the neighbors saw me sobbing and mowing, so he rescinded his order – for his image. I raced inside, slammed the door of my room,  and returned to my book – possibly J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye

Thank God my mother and grandmother encouraged reading!  Is there anything more glorious than discovering Dickens? The  richness of language, his gorgeous use of anaphora and hyperbole, eccentric characters, wit, and brilliant storytelling?  I was also enamored of  the Brontes, especially Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Influenced by Gothic novels and the Romantic poets, the Brontes wrote vigorously, lyrically, and  suspensefully about impoverished, independent heroines, dark, brooding anti-heroes, and forbidden love – not without wit!

Reading novels can be serious or fun, or serious and fun, but it is not an uncritical activity.  We do not consider Georgette Heyer the equal of Jane Austen, which is not to say that Heyer doesn’t  have her merits. (But I simply cannot read Heyer!)  And then there are Margaret Drabble and A. S. Byatt, both great writers, two quarreling sisters – do we have to choose one?  Or can we read both? 

Some psychologists and psychiatrists use fiction in their classes.  The late Robert Coles, a professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at Harvard, considered in his book,  The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Imagination, the role of novels in students’ lives.  Over the years he taught fiction in elementary schools, high schools, universities, law schools, and medical schools.  The texts he used included Ralph Ellison, John Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Tillie Olsen, Charles Dickens, and William Carlos Williams.

 He learned from students that novels expanded their world view and changed their perspective on class and racial differences.  He interviewed a  rich white student who identified with Toni Morrison’s Sula, and a poor Black student who identified with Portia, an orphan in  Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart who is  very much in the way of her older half-brother and his sophisticated wife.  

When someone belittles reading novels – or attempts to ban a book – I think of banned 19th-century Russian novels, Lawrence’s The Rainbow and Lady Chatterley’s Lover,  Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn, Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, and the long, long history of censorship. Now editors at publishing companies are “revising” (censoring) Ian Fleming’s  James Bond books to expurgate the language and attitudes of the past and brighten things up.. I dread the prospect of a sanitized James Bond. 

With this high level of book-banning and censorship, how long before the Library of Alexandria burns – again?

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