I recall some of the authors and books we studied: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, The Red Badge of Courage, The Scarlet Letter, and others. We were also allowed to choose from a variety of books that we would then be called upon to review in a book report. This was not your usual "what happened, who were the major characters" sort of book report. Mr. Hogan required that we think about the meaning of the book and attempt a statement of the book's theme and overall purpose. Tough stuff for a 17-year-old high school student.
Now enter the current debate over what is "appropriate" for teen readers to study in their arts classes in high school. I ran across a somewhat exasperated blogger who was irritated at the "small-minds" (direct quote) who would ban books from being appreciated by thoughtful students of literature. Normally, I would probably side with this guy. I remember reading of people who would have the nerve to ban books like Huckleberry Finn because it contained the word "nigger" and depicted a world in which the United States still had slaves. These kind of arguments I found profoundly stupid and managed only to produce students who were woefully unfamiliar with the formative literary history of our nation.
But I decided to follow the provided link to "the ravings of these people" (another direct quote) just to see what they were trying to ban now. I was expecting to see advocates for a ban on Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln or something equally politically correct and silly. But instead, I ran across this list:
1. All the Pretty Horses
2. Animal Dreams
3. The Awakening
4. The Bean Trees
6. Black Boy
7. Fallen Angels
8. The Hot Zone
9. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
10. Lords of Discipline
11. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
12. Song of Solomon
14. This Boy’s Life
I only recognized a few of these books (Cuckoo's Nest, All the Pretty Horses). Yesterday I was in Borders briefly (no I never bought anything...) and saw Song of Solomon displayed as a recommended read (and an Oprah book club title, no less). So naturally, when I saw that on the list, I clicked through the link to see why that book had been "banned". This is the rationale for banning given by the "raving" people:
And it kept getting better. The whole bottom of the page was filled with excerpts from the book. I have to say I didn't get far before I couldn't read any more. I found myself rapidly backpeddling, wondering if this book shouldn't be "banned". Oprah book club title? Acclaimed black author? Required (!) reading for high school students?!
The novel begins and ends with suicide. The main character, Macon Dead, nicknamed, “Milkman,” is the youngest child and only son of a failing marriage. He learns his family history from his father, mother, and aunt, which leads him on a search for gold. His friend, Guitar, needs gold to fund his band of assassins who get revenge on a white person each time a black person is killed. Guitar follows Milkman to Virginia, where Milkman discovers his great grandfather’s name, Solomon.
The novel contains an enormous amount of profanity, sexually explicit discussions, vulgarity, violence (murder), and racial slurs. In addition, the plot is disingenuous and the characters are far-fetched. The overall tone of the book promotes a depressing, animalistic view of the nature of man.
Types of sex include:
- - Breast feeding a boy (not a baby, not a toddler) for pleasure
- - sex with dead people
- - oral sex
- - discussions of sexual relations between a daughter and father
- - descriptions of foreplay and undressing
- - teen sex at 16 with multiple partners
- - fantasies of sex between a mother and her son
- - sex with whores
- - sex between cousins
- - anal sex
- - oral sex between men
- - sex using objects forced into each other
- - discussions of sex with various animals and plants
Then I went back to the original page. It turns out they weren't on some please-ban-these list at all. The folks posting the "raving" web site were asking for alternatives for their children, preferring that they not have to wade through this on some pretext for passing the SAT's. The fact that they expect children to know material specifically from this book for the SAT's is a rant for another day.
Admittedly, I only followed one link on the page to information about one of the books. Perhaps the others are all being lumped unfairly in the same category. But is there better stuff our children could be reading for the study of literature? Does this represent the pinnacle of literary art (is it even in the top ten or fifty)? Does the need to include African American authors mean that this is the best literature African Americans can produce?
I often complain about the lack of good science fiction and fantasy out there because so much of it seems to contain material (weird sex and perverted social schemes) that I just don't want to have to wade through. I had no idea that "mainstream" literature was quite this bad. And I find myself seething over the fact that literature teachers are holding up this garbage ("well written" or not) as high art before the eyes of high school students who may have never been meaningfully exposed to decent literature prior to this.
I'm hardly an advocate of censorship and I have no desire to shelter children from the real world. But I wonder what it will be like when my kids are going through school. To what abyssal depths will literature have sunk by then? And with what joy and sense of social responsibility will the literature teachers rub their noses in it?