Banned Books Week: East of Eden

EastofEdenCoverSometimes it’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that hundreds of books are either challenged or removed outright from schools and libraries each year in the United States. And many more bans or challenges go unreported. That’s one of the reasons Banned Books Week was formed—to address the growing number of challenges and to work to prevent censorship in our communities.

It’s one of the reasons I’m such a diehard supporter of the effort. Each year, to commemorate Banned Books Week, I read a book from either that year’s most-challenged list or choose one from the many, many classics that have had the most challenges lodged against them.

This year I picked East of Eden. I’d read The Grapes of Wrath a few years ago (I don’t know why my English teachers didn’t assign us either of these books back in high school) and I wanted to applaud, it was so wonderful.

East of Eden is similarly marvelous and deals with mature themes—war, suicide, murder, racism, and sex, just to name a few. My main takeaway is that man is a mixture of good and evil and that we choose which impulses we act upon. Steinbeck tells it plainly with beautiful language, haunting in its simplicity, with sentences so powerful I kept highlighting them all the way through. And he tells it not to throttle a particular bias or to preach or to scold or to titillate, but to be truthful about real life. Which I think is what high-school-age readers need. At that age, our brains are thirsty for answers, even to questions we don’t know we have yet. It’s when we learn that the world exists not in black in white but in shades of gray. I can understand why some might want this book not to be taught in schools, but I don’t agree with them. Taught well and with open discussion, books like East of Eden can get high school kids thinking about complex and very human issues. Because we are all complex and very, very human. Learning about people in different walks of life—real, true, and unvarnished—can only increase empathy for and understanding of others.

What a loss it would be for the world if literature like this was not allowed to be read. These books are a record of our culture, good and bad and all the shades of gray in between.

Honor a Banned Book

Sometimes we won’t read a classic work of literature until a teacher plops a copy on our desks or they show up on a college “recommended reading” list. True, I have randomly picked up books like Moby-Dick, The Catcher in the Rye (banned as late as 2001), Cat’s Cradle, and The Sun Also Rises (also banned, and burned in Nazi bonfires), but I’m more likely to go for a contemporary novel. As a novelist and as a person I want to be well rounded, but since I write contemporary novels this is what I usually like to read.

Then I got an interesting freelance assignment: to help write test prep questions for an international academic competition. Each year the organization chooses a theme; that year it was The Great Depression. The students were to address it from a bounty of angles: the literature of the times, popular music, the economy, politics, the legal milieu, and how geological conditions contributed to the Dust Bowl in the Midwestern United States that further depressed the economy and pushed a large chunk the population west.

Before the category assignments were given, I bought a copy of The Grapes of Wrath. I applied to the company to write about literature, film and poetry, so I thought I’d get a head start. But because I was fairly new to the team, a freelancer with more experience scored the literature category and I was assigned to geology.

Although I find the fossil record and many aspects of geology fascinating, science was never my strongest subject. But I still had my copy of The Grapes of Wrath and I felt it calling. All I knew of Steinbeck were the novels my teachers assigned me – The Red Pony and Of Mice and Men (banned and/or challenged so many times the references take up two pages in the list of classic banned books.) I didn’t know much about Steinbeck’s life and why he chose to write about this particular subject, but his prose style hooked me from the first page.

As I read, I could see why some people wanted it banned. Yes, we have the usual complaints about taking the Lord’s name in vain, the cursing and the sexual references (which are laughably tame by today’s standards) but the biggest one was that Steinbeck took the side of the fledgling unions, which, at the time, was tantamount to declaring yourself a communist. Although the record shows that nobody who wanted this book off the shelves or out of the hands of young people referenced its politics.

Many an artist, writer, or filmmaker had been blacklisted for writing about communism, back in the days of the McCarthy witch hunts, and it was extremely brave of Steinbeck to write this novel. Which made it that much more appealing to me.

Not only is he a brilliant writer, but in pinpoint focus he takes a snapshot of what life was like for a subset of Americans during this time. How deep their struggles, how they bore their losses and kept their heads high and moved on. In a community where you lose your land, can barely afford to eat let alone bury your loved ones when they die, it makes complete sense that a preacher would lose his faith in God, a father would want to work to feed his family no matter the consequences, and occasionally people would swear. I can’t imagine a world where a book like this would be banned, where the only fossil record of the Dust Bowl years would be found in dry textbooks and not through the eyes of the Joad family.

What’s the last banned book you read? Did you like it? Do you think it deserved to be banned?