A blog dedicated to keeping abreast of issues and ideas in the profession.
Thursday, October 2, 2014
What Kind of Town Bans Books?
by: Annie Julia Wyman
Last week, during the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week, I found out that a group of parents had recently pressured the public school I attended, in Texas, into “suspending” not just one but seven different books from assigned reading lists. The plain fact of the suspension wasn’t surprising to me. Highland Park High School, situated in perhaps the best school district in the state, serves a conservative community in two small towns that thrive on football and prayer and whose combined population of thirty-one thousand is ninety-one per cent white. During my time there, we had a chaplain for every sports team, creationists on the teaching staff, and a mandatory daily recitation of the Texas State Pledge. But people who live in places like my home town are not necessarily ignorant. People who ban books do sometimes read them. The towns my high school serves, Highland Park and University Park (collectively known as the Park Cities) are the two most educated municipalities in Texas. The Dallas Morning News reported that more than a hundred concerned residents attended a school board meeting to debate the suspension, many armed with “books flagged with sticky notes” from which they argued.
For a week—before a backlash and an online petition from alumni and other parents led to the reinstatement of every book but one—no teacher in my old high school was allowed to assign these seven volumes in class: “Song of Solomon,” by Toni Morrison; “Siddhartha,” by Hermann Hesse; “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie; “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” by Garth Stein; “An Abundance of Katherines,” by John Green; “The Glass Castle,” a memoir about poverty by Jeanette Walls; and “The Working Poor: Invisible in America,” a nonfiction study, also about poverty, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David K. Shipler.
Anyone who knows the Park Cities will understand that the suspension of these books wasn’t driven so much by provincialism as by conservatism. It makes sense that a concerted faction of people in my mostly white home town would want to foreclose conversations about race and empire (goodbye “Solomon,” goodbye “Diary,” goodbye “Siddhartha”). The community does not want to talk about sex, abortion, or prostitutes, since it is largely pro-life and pro-abstinence (goodbye “Glass Castle,” goodbye to all the Katherines, goodbye “Siddhartha,” again). You should probably skip exposing your children to an investigation of the structural conditions that drive poverty and homelessness if you’re living in a ten-million-dollar home, and there are many of those where I come from, and many families who head enormous oil and real-estate companies. The Dallas Morning News reported that parents were concerned about books containing “anti-capitalist sentiment,” which is, again, unsurprising: in the state-mandated curriculum for Texas public schools, exposure to what is called the free enterprise system begins in kindergarten.
Parents also raised objections to obscenity and age-inappropriate material, and they seem to have held most tightly to that concern. One book is still contested—the most banal of the lot—precisely because it contains descriptions of sex that parents feel are unsuitable for tenth graders. “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” by Garth Stein, is a Times best-seller narrated by a dog who sometimes recalls what a human reader would recognize as intercourse between the dog’s owner and his wife. You can read much more explicit things in the Biblical Song of Solomon. Parents argue that no teacher should force students to talk about sex in relation to themselves, which is true. But why would students have to talk about their own sexuality because a book contains a sex scene? If such discussions do arise, the fault is not the book’s but the teacher’s. And what about the idea, defended by decades of feminists, that literature that encompasses sex helps us to talk about sexism? Even a book such as Flaubert’s oft-banned “Madame Bovary”—in which the most obvious moral seems to be that curious women deserve unhappiness—raises important questions about women, desire, and freedom.
My own story provides some evidence of how books can expand the horizons of a kid growing up somewhere like Highland Park. As a young woman with desires for things that I’d read about but couldn’t find in my home town—including what felt like non-negotiable forms of social and economic justice—I stayed away from the Park Cities during and after college. I refrained, too, from talking about where I came from, because it embarrassed me. I could see only that I came from homogeneity; I was terrified I would be rejected from the new life I’d stumbled into, a life that was richer and more complex. But I should have been more honest. I never would have known to be embarrassed had I not gone to world-class public schools where I read whatever I wanted. Books were there, and they had taught me to value difference.
Literary luminaries regularly showed up at our high school’s annual literary festival. In 2003, it was George Plimpton. Foppish and raffiné, his every gesture sketched out for me a strange, sophisticated world maybe not so far beyond the limits of the one I knew. (This year, Jeanette Walls, the author of “The Glass Castle,” will speak at that same festival—she was invited several months ago. One can only imagine her bafflement when she learned of her book’s suspension.) From a little podium in the middle of the gymnasium, Plimpton told us about participatory journalism and how he had immersed himself in lives much different from his. I found what he had to say moving, and joyful.
Now I study and teach literature at Harvard, Plimpton’s alma mater, and I see some of my own students struggle not to express hatred or shame in the face of lives and values different from their own. When asked to read about the experience of immigrants or the white poor, students from affluent families often stammer and avoid addressing their peers directly. Their peers, in turn, often don’t take them seriously. Part of being a student is learning how to advocate for your beliefs by writing and speaking about them calmly and impersonally. This includes intensely personal matters like race, religion, sex, love, death and evil. At the very least, thinking adults must be able to say why they don’t believe in discussing their personal opinions on those topics. Preventing students from reading about issues that make them uncomfortable only deepens their discomfort when they are forced to face those issues.
The Highland Park Independent School District, and all the other American institutions that still censor books, grapple with a set of very old and perhaps unanswerable questions: What is art, anyway? Must it be good for us? Do we accept a character’s moral flaws if we read about them? Must we experience everything an author puts into a book, or can we skip the things that disturb us or with which we disagree? On one side of the cultural divide, the pro-books side, our answers align against moralistic messages, against utility, against excisions of any kind. We feel that, while art is so powerful it can change lives, it is also so fragile and precious that it badly needs our protection. But there are other answers to these old questions—new perspectives that literary culture allows us to access. The talking dog from Garth Stein’s novel says, “I learn about other cultures and other ways of life, and then I start thinking about my own place in the world and what makes sense and what doesn’t.” That’s exactly the kind of openness that I want to teach, and exactly what I learned in the place where I grew up.