My Favorite Banned Books: The Grapes of Wrath

Banned BooksLike most people trundled through the American public school system, I was coerced into reading a selection of “classical” literature as a teen. Because I didn’t like the way it was taught in my district—all this emphasis on theme and metaphor the author might not even have intended—I didn’t enjoy it all that much, little goody-two-shoes rebel that I’d been. As much as I grumbled when teachers said that the tree at the end of the book meant crucifixion and the way the moon hung in the sky was a symbol of the protagonist’s ennui about his impending marriage, I loved reading. I loved the places a good story took me to and the opportunity to see life through someone else’s eyes. Without someone telling me what it all meant. Only now, some (mumble mumble) decades later, rereading some of those works, am I more deeply appreciating the opportunity I’d been given. Some students have had wonderful 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) removed from their libraries and school districts. Some countries do not permit their distribution at all. Continue reading

Have You Read a Banned Book Lately?

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Have you ever read a banned or challenged book? Chances are that if you had a public school education, you’ve already read plenty of them. The Grapes of Wrath? Banned for its religious and labor union references. Brave New World? Banned for references to drug use and sex without benefit of marriage. The Catcher in the Rye? You name it. One of my favorite novels, Lolita, has been on a banned or challenged list pretty much every year since its publication.

First launched in 1982 and held during the last week in September, Banned Book Week celebrates and supports the freedom to read. It seeks to bring together everyone in the book community—schools, libraries, bookstores, publishers, writers, and more—to preserve the freedom to share ideas, even those out of the mainstream.

Part of that celebration has included some great videos on YouTube. For weeks now, people have been uploading videos either about banned books or of someone reading from a banned book. Why not make your own? Or check out some of the other events going on this week, like Twitter parties and virtual hangouts. Here are a few of my favorite videos.

A Catcher in the Rye

About Banned Books

Bookmans Does Banned Books

What’s the last banned book you read?

(Note: Part of this blog has been stolen, er, borrowed, from one I wrote on the subject for Indies Unlimited.)

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?

The Not-So-Great Gatsby: A Literary Abomination

In a brilliant blog post yesterday, film critic Roger Ebert lays into Macmillan Reader Editions for putting out a “dumbed down” version of The Great Gatsby. This series, apparently, is designed to relieve high school students of that nasty responsibility of parsing complex sentences and ideas by spoon-feeding the text to them with fewer (and shorter) words and none of those pesky metaphors, similes, or allusions.

Which, according to Ebert, defeats the purpose of reading great literature. Or, as he puts it,

“There is no purpose in ‘reading’ The Great Gatsby unless you actually read it. Fitzgerald’s novel is not about a story. It is about how the story is told. Its poetry, its message, its evocation of Gatsby’s lost American dream, is expressed in Fitzgerald’s style–in the precise words he choose to write what some consider the great American novel. Unless you have read them, you have not read the book at all. You have been imprisoned in an educational system that cheats and insults you by inflicting a barbaric dumbing-down process. You are left with the impression of having read a book, and may never feel you need return for a closer look.”

Along with doing our children a great disservice by stripping from them the opportunity to learn and to stretch their minds, I fear that this edition of Gatsby (and, God help me, other “retellings”) could set up a lifetime aversion to challenging reading. This is bad for the individual and does not bode well for our culture. Breaking down classic literature into “manageable” plot lines is as wrong-headed as censorship. Both crimes prevent readers from experiencing an author’s vision of the world and its inhabitants as he or she intended.

But, you may be saying, isn’t it better to offer students a book they can easily read and regurgitate for good test scores rather than giving them one that’s too challenging?

No. No, no, no, no, no.

Sure, I wasn’t wild about Shakespeare in high school. Mainly because I hated the idea of someone telling me what I should be reading. I hated the personal agendas of certain English teachers. But I’m grateful for the gift of great literature. I learned how to read critically. I learned about different cultures. In my little corner of nearly all-white exurbia, I learned about the world.

Through reading I also learned how to write, because reading the masters is how we get better. Reading amazing books like The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, Catcher in the Rye, and A Visit from the Goon Squad, for a modern example, make me want to be a better writer.

Greatness begets greatness, in my opinion. Part of the teaching of great authors involves a study of their artistic influences. Or, as Isaac Newton wrote, “If I have seen further than others, it was only by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” How can a new generation see further if they’re standing on the bare, osteoporotic bones of plot summation?

Don’t Censor Huck Finn

Next month, an updated, combined edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer will be published by NewSouth Books, minus two-hundred-plus total instances of the “n-word” and several other racial slurs used at the time.

According to Twain scholar Alan Gribben, English professor and editor of the new release, as reported by Publisher’s Weekly, “This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind. Race matters in these books. It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”

But Gribben’s choice of expression (mainly changing the “n-word” to “slave”) hobbles the sheer force of that word, a word so powerful many of us (myself included) refuse to speak or write in its entirety.

I can understand why Gribben, in his many years as a teacher in Alabama, found it more comfortable (for himself?) to replace the offensive expressions when he read the works aloud to his students. I’ve seen people flinch when the n-word spits from someone’s mouth like snake venom. As a Unitarian Jew, I’ve had my share of epithet-bombs lobbed my way, but I have no way of understanding how that particular word might feel to a young African-American reader. But whitewashing the ugly from America’s past is doing all of us a greater disservice.

Because if we selectively edit our nation’s history, how will generations after us remember? Could we just as easily remove references to Japanese internment camps in breathtaking works like David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars and Jane Smiley’s Private Life? Indian massacres? The shame of the 1921 Tulsa race riots? Lynchings? Matthew Shepard and other young men murdered for being gay? Could some future “scholar” come along and hack up Lolita because some may find the themes of pedophilia too offensive? Or The Help because of its racial overtones? The Godfather because some complain of its ethnic stereotypes?

Where will it end?

And why are we altering an artist’s original intent? That’s what I find wrong about censorship. Twain expressed the manner and mannerisms of a particular slice of America, told through the eyes of a particular American boy. (Make that two American boys.) The uneducated and ignorant people in the universe of Twain’s “boy adventures” used the “n-word” in reference to anyone of African descent, whether they were enslaved or free. (Therefore “slave” is, while true in some cases, not a 1:1 replacement for the ugly epithet.) If this book is to be taught in school (and many have banned or challenged it, as early as one year following its 1884 publication date to 1998 in Tempe, Arizona), it is to be taught in its historical context and in a greater discussion of racial conflict in America. Upper high school and certainly college students are mature and intelligent enough not to condemn an entire, important work because of the one or two words that people used at the time. I think they’re smart enough to know that those who use that word are showing their own ugliness.

Yet Gribben sees it from the opposite angle. Local teachers wanted to teach both Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, but felt they couldn’t. “In the new classroom,” he said, “it’s really not acceptable.” He also said that for “…a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs.”

You can kill the word, but you can’t kill the concept, Professor Gribben.

Count me among the “textural purists” whom Gribben believe will be “horrified” by this act of censorship. We are all entitled to know the history of our culture – the good, the bad, and especially the ugly – as told by the road map of our great literature.