BBW

It’s a measure of how busy I am when Banned Book Week has started before I realize it.  Most years I make it a point to read a banned book at this time, but my reading schedule is so crowded that I seem to have missed the opportunity this year—I didn’t see it coming.   I’ve read a great number of the top 100 banned books over the years, and I’m sure I’ll read more.  I’ve recently been reading about America’s troubled history with free expression.  Probably due to a strong dose of Calvinism combined with Catholicism, many of the books challenged and banned, as well as prevented from ever seeing the light of day, have to do with bodily functions.  Sex, especially.  In American society, as freely as this is discussed, we still have a real problem when someone writes about it.

Why might that be so?  Many religions recognize the privacy aspect of sexuality without condemning the phenomenon itself.  The Bible (which is on the list of Banned Books) talks of the subject pretty openly and fairly often.  Our hangups about it must be post-biblical, then.  Much of it, I suspect, goes to Augustine of Hippo.  Although he had a wild youth, Augustine decided that nobody else should be able to do so guilt free, and gave us the doctrine of original sin.  Add to that the legalistic interpretation of Paul and his school, and soon the topic itself becomes difficult to address.  Victorian values, obviously, played into this as well.  Literature, which explores every aspect of being human, is naturally drawn to what is a universal human drive.

Banned Books also treat race—another topic that haunts America—or use coarse language.  Some challenge religious holy grails, such as special creation or Christian superiority.  It seems we fear our children being exposed to ideas.  The wisdom of such banning is suspect.  The publishing industry has many safeguards in place to create age-appropriate literature.  Banning tends only to increase interest by casting the “forbidden” pall over something that is, in all likelihood, not news to our children.  American self-righteousness tends to show itself in many ways, making much of the rest of the world wonder at us.  We seem so advanced, but we fear a great number of rather innocuous books.  The reasons are similar to those behind why we can support tax-cheating, womanizing, narcissists as leaders: our faith blinds us.  I may be late in getting to my banned book this year, so I guess I’ll just have to read two next time.

Banned Wagon

In celebration of Banned Book Week (go ahead, let your hair down!), I thought I might muse about some good news.  Since I already posted on my banned book (Slaughterhouse Five) I need another angle of approach.  One of the less envious aspects of being an editor at an academic press is being yoked to facts.  Many authors have a basic misconception about numbers in their heads.  They think their book will sell on the scale that Barnes and Noble, such as it is, will stock them on the shelves.  I have to admit that I dream of walking into a bookstore and finding one of my titles on the shelf—and I know it’s not likely to happen.  Those of us who work in publishing see the hard figures, how many copies have actually sold.  And the results can be quite sobering.

The news isn’t all bad, though.  I ran across an article by Andrew Perrin titled “Who doesn’t read books in America?” and the way the question was phrased made me think.  I’m used to thinking of it the other way around: how many people read, or buy, books?  I once read that about 5% of the US population constitutes the book-buying market.  Now, that is a large number of people, even if it’s on the smaller end of the overall spectrum, but Perrin’s article from the Pew Research Center states that only 24% of Americans state they haven’t read a book, whole or in-part, over the past year.  This, I think, is cause for celebration.  It means more of us are reading than are not, even if we don’t always finish the books we’ve started.

Think of it like this: whether print or electronic, people know to turn to books for information.  Oh, there are all kinds of details I’m leaving out here—the safeguards of a reputable publisher over the self-published manifesto, as well as the self-published brilliant book over what managed to squeak through the review process at a university press because an editor felt the pressure of a quota—but the numbers are encouraging nevertheless.  Looked at this way, more people are reading than are not.  And the best way to promote books is to suggest they should be banned.  That’s why I don’t despair of the shallow books praising Trump—if they’re banned they become prophetic.  Academic books, my colleagues, don’t sell as many copies as you might think, even if they’re not banned.  The good news is, however, that we haven’t forgotten whence to turn for knowledge.

Firestorms

Banned Book Week technically doesn’t start until the week after next, but I have a pathological fear of being late.  I don’t know why.  It could be that I’m aware time is of limited quantity and much of it is owed to the beneficent corporation that keeps you alive, so you have to trade it for food.  And books.  Not much of it is left to do what you want to do.  In any case, my last book for the 2018 Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge was in the banned book category.  Long ago I had decided it would be Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.  I’ve read it before, of course, but it had been long enough that the details had been sanded away and I could only remember parts.  One thing I’d forgotten is how much Vonnegut brings religion into the story.

Writers who avoid religion miss the motivating factor of the majority of human beings’ lives.  This has always seemed a strange denial to me.  I’m not suggesting that every novel should mention religion, but since it is concerned with ultimate interests, it is somewhat surprising that it’s so often overlooked.  Not that it plays a major role in Slaughterhouse Five, but any novel concerned with death is inherently in the realm of ultimate concerns, I should think.  Right, Dr. Tillich?  In any case, I’d forgotten that Slaughterhouse Five was such a poignant, funny, and sad novel.  Vonnegut’s experience of World War Two clearly haunted him—most writers are haunted by something—and his musings were, and often are, banned.

If there were banned books in my high school (and I grew up in a conservative area, so surely there were) I didn’t know about them.  Let’s face it, teens seldom sit around talking about significant novels.  Many, at least among my classmates, didn’t read those that were assigned in English class.  Slaughterhouse Five wasn’t one of them.  I learned about Kurt Vonnegut from a friend while in college.  This is the third of his novels that I’ve read in 2018.  The first two I’d never read before.  So it goes.  I’m keenly aware of time.  I’m also aware that those who would ban books are often those who obtain elected office.  And when you find that your own nation has turned on you, remembering the fire-bombing of Dresden is an appropriate response.  For such reasons Banned Book Week remains important.  It should be a national holiday, at least among those of us underground during the firestorm.

Good Wrinkles

Since I was late getting my Banned Book in order this year, I went to something that I could read within a week. While my bus time is generally reserved for non-fiction reading, I had to pick something fairly easy so that I could get back to more serious stuff. Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time was published the year I was born, and I’d never read it. It has ended up on banned and challenged lists every decade since it was published, so I was prepared for some radical stuff. Instead what I found was a well-written book for young readers that quoted the Bible quite a bit and even had a worldview that was appropriate to the Gospel of John. When the Murry children try to name the forces that fight the encroaching darkness, the first name offered is Jesus. The differences between good and evil are the subject of discussion among the characters and it’s pretty clear there’s an obvious distinction. So why is it a challenged book?

Never underestimate the sententiousness of the self-righteous. Objections to a medium, and characters—perhaps best understood as guardian angels in the book itself—perceived as witches, have led to the now familiar accusations of the occult. Here is a book that quotes the Bible, upholds the distinction of good and evil, and encourages children to fight for the former rather than the latter. Yet it also teaches tolerance. Parents who want children to think that only those like them can possibly be righteous start to shudder a little at that. The only good heretic is a dead heretic.

When I saw just how benign A Winkle in Time was, I had to think back over my own Bible. In addition to stories of horrendous violence, explicit sex, and with even a “witch” or two, the Bible contains diverse views. Paul argued with Peter in public, after all. Madeleine L’Engle was concerned about the book burning tendencies of Nazis. We now seem to think that the place for illiteracy is in the White House and, more recently, Alabama. Reading the news convinces me more and more each day that a steady diet of banned books is just the catholicon our society needs. Different viewpoints, like the rays of the sun, will shrink the mildew that finds its ways into dark corners, rotting the very fabric of our universe. A Wrinkle in Time may not sway adults in the same way it has engaged the wonder of children for the past half-century, but it is a start in a battle against darkness that is never-ending. There’s always time to read a banned book.

Sense or Ship

I can tell I’ve been too busy when I haven’t planned for Banned Book Week. A kind of unofficial holiday since, well, it’s about banned things, the point of this observation is that we should be free to read. A fairly large portion of the fiction I read anyway, at one point or another, ends up on the banned list. Not surprisingly, most banned books have diversity content—racial or sexual minorities portrayed in sympathetic ways. Trump has shown us clearly how dangerous such thinking can be. It’s well known that such perspectives are allied with some evangelical Christian interests, or, perhaps I should say, lack of tolerance. There are lots of ways of looking at the world out there, and many of them aren’t evil. I should’ve planned ahead.

Censorship implies a certain arrogance. One way of looking at things is right and all others are wrong. Although we all know that any logical system runs up against its limits (we call them paradoxes) we’re reluctant to let go of that which we suppose, with or without justification, to be right. Banning is an effort to control minds. It’s no coincidence that many of the titles on banned and challenged lists are intended for younger readers. Those who favor censorship want to close the eyes of the young and pretend the real world will just go away. Yes, many of the banned books are fiction, but fiction tells us truths. Those who ban books are uncomfortable with such truths. That’s not to say all literature is created equal, or that all banned books are great literature. As someone who writes fiction, though, I can attest how difficult it is to get it published. That in itself tells us something.

It’s banned book week and here I am without a banned book to read. I’ve got some ideas, of course. My wife and I both take on book reading challenges each year. One of this year’s books (at least) was a banned title, but one that I read too far in advance. Besides, although we have too many books in our apartment already, I used Banned Book Week as an allowance to go to the bookstore. What better way to fight literary fascism than to buy a book? The problem is deciding which one. The lists are long and grow longer each year. Intolerance, it seems, knows no limits. I’m about to do my civic duty for this time of year. I’m about to go to a bookstore and buy a banned book.

What Did You Say?

inpraiseofprofanityThis driver and this passenger had interacted before. Unpleasantly. You could feel the tension mount when the passenger watched carefully to see who the driver was as the bus pulled up to Door 1. Although bus routes change drivers somewhat frequently, there is a regular driver to my route and this passenger, like a cat sensing the visit of a nasty relative, wanted to see if it was safe to come out. It was the driver he didn’t like. He got on anyway. An argument started, since he always sits in the front seat, just across from the driver. A profanity worked its way into the conversation. “No blasphemy on my bus!” the driver warned loudly. I couldn’t help but smile. I’ve sent author contracts from respectable academic presses where the author has to sign that nothing libelous, blasphemous, or obscene will be included in her/his book. Blasphemy still sets some people off.

Michael Adams’ In Praise of Profanity isn’t an easy book to read on the bus. The dust jacket can be removed, and that’s a plus, but the guy who sat next to me on last night’s commute took a good, long leisurely look at the page I was on. Bad bus etiquette, but then so is falling asleep leaning on the stranger next to you (which he also did). Speaking of bad things, In Praise of Profanity makes the reasonable case that there are no “bad words.” Bad intentions, to be sure. Bad choice of when to utilize certain vocabulary, certainly. Bad words inherently, no. And the book will take you into some strange places to demonstrate this. The section on bathroom graffiti makes the point nicely.

Adams does discuss, briefly, the religious objections to classical profanity—taking God’s name in vain. Having grown up with all kinds of circumlocutions (more technically, I learned, euphemisms) for interjections one must not say, it was interesting to note that nearly all our pseudo-swears go back to violating this prohibition. Even “Jiminy Cricket” was a not so subtle riff on the name of the carpenter from Nazareth. Gosh, golly gee. All three disguised blasphemies. Being a linguist Adams takes this particular analysis with a healthy dose of fun, but there are many people I know who would be quite offended by this study of the vulgar way vulgar people speak. At the same time, looking at what words like “profanity,” “obscene,” and “vulgar” mean, we might need to head back to the lexicon to learn just what species of blasphemy it is to which my driver objects.

Banned Books

I feel short-changed. Cheated, if you will. This is Banned Book Week, and a story in Publishers Weekly over the summer touted the benefits of the local independent bookstore. Owners of indies know that these stores are centers of community. Gathering places for those who love literature. I feel cheated because my local town has no independent bookstore. Neither did any of the towns where I grew up. For a year when money was almost as scarce as it is now, I lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan. There were bookstores there. For a couple happy years before that I dwelt in Boston—a city in which books are never difficult to locate. Edinburgh is known as one of the literary capitals of Europe and my days in that magical city were inundated with books. Even Nashotah House, with its somewhat backward facing eyes, had a little bookstore. And there was another indie over in nearby Oconomowoc. I now live in the desert.

Oh, there are bookstores nearby. Independent ones, I mean. When’s the last time you saw a chummy conversation among locals at Barnes and Noble? Princeton has the Labyrinth. Bernardsville has the Bookworm. New Hope (while across the river in Pennsylvania) has Farley’s. There’s an indie in New Brunswick and I discovered Watchung Booksellers in Montclair just a couple of weekends ago. Clinton has a tiny little shop where my daughter once met a children’s author doing a book signing and I picked up some Ray Bradbury. These are my happy places. All of them require a drive of at least half-an-hour. I’m not a local. I don’t see anyone I know, except some of the clerks.

Analysts have been saying for decades now that we live in unhealthy isolation from our neighbors. I get up and jump on a bus before most houses show any lights in the morning. I stumble off and fall into bed after eating supper following the return trip. I’m not alone in my attempt to survive in this late capitalist purgatory. One thing that would help, I believe, is a local bookshop. There used to be a used bookstore in my town, called Chapter Two. I used to walk there of a Saturday morning, just to browse. Rent grew too high and it moved to the next town over and its name changed to chapter eleven. My local town is affluent. There are signs for Trump everywhere. What’s obviously missing is a local independent bookstore. I, for one, would be a regular patron.

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A Dusty Return

dustreturnedThe fiction author who had the most influence over my formative years was Ray Bradbury. Wait—let me qualify that a bit. I read of number of series aimed at juvenile, male interest (Doc Savage, Dark Shadows, and such) but these weren’t really intended as “literature.” I also read quite a bit of Poe, and his influence may certainly have rivaled Bradbury. The thing was the latter was still alive and producing books, mostly of short stories that tickled my imagination. Despite my reluctance to let books go, there have been several periods in my life where I’ve had to sell off my collection (this is the mindset of the non-affluent) and all of these childhood collections went, except for Poe. Now that I’m a more reflective adult, so I’m told, I have found a renewed interest in some childhood classics, and Ray Bradbury books are seldom expensive. When I found From the Dust Returned in a used book shop for a steal, I said “why not?”

This particular book came from long after I’d sold my Bradbury collection. I had never seen nor heard of it before. As an adult, interestingly, Bradbury doesn’t seem scary at all. From the Dust Returned, like many other Bradbury collections, is a somewhat novelized set of stories. This one is set in a haunted house where, in his usual descriptive style the storyteller offers artful prose and painterly writing, but no real scares. As we are coming upon Banned Book Week, however, I did note one of Bradbury’s common themes—the lack of belief leads to the death of characters. I’d read some of his stories where this took place before. Still, this time he goes a bit further. Tapping into things just ahead of the rest of us, as he had a talent for doing, one of his characters laments the loss of belief in religion as well as creepy, Addams-esque characters. People are no longer believing and it causes ghosts pain.

Part of Bradbury’s appeal is clearly to the young imagination. I’ve promiscuously read hundreds of authors since my last Bradbury book. My tastes have evolved. I find the same is true when I go back to the Dark Shadows books that were so cheaply had at my neighborhood Goodwill. I still go back to these early writers, however, and there is a kind of innocence about them. These were stories I’d read before I’d learned that Poe was certainly not as macabre as real life could be. “Marilyn Ross,” “Kenneth Robeson,” Edgar Allan Poe, and Ray Bradbury may not feature of lists of banned authors. Some of them aren’t even whom they seem to be. They did instill a childlike belief in reading, in my case. Even if they’re now on the bargain shelf they will still receive my admiration for starting a lifetime of reading.

Banned Truth

bluesteyeBanned Book Week is one of my favorite holidays. Don’t worry—you haven’t missed it—it occurs the final week of this month. I’m not very good, however, at guessing how long it will take me to finish a fiction book, so I start early, just in case. My banned book of choice this year was Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. It’s not easy to read a novel which is so close to the truth. As any writer of fiction knows, just because something didn’t happen precisely as described doesn’t mean that it’s false. Indeed, fiction is often factual. It’s not easy to read because the “race”—a dubious distinction at best—to which I belong has often throughout history victimized others. While I’ve never knowingly participated in this criminal action—and despite what politicians might say, it is criminal—it’s never comforting to hear from the victim’s perspective. The Bluest Eye is about African American experience in the land of the free. At least in name.

What becomes clear from the beginning is that the families around which this story revolves are pushed to their limits. In an affluent society they are forced to live with less than their “white” neighbors have. Slavery may have ended, but the superiority mindset that permitted it in the first place hasn’t. I grew up in poverty but I didn’t have the added burden of being treated badly because of my “race.” Stories that remind us of that reality are never comfortable places to be. We’d rather think that since slavery ended prejudice went away with it. In reality, however, it is still here. Interestingly, the culture portrayed so vividly by Morrison is deeply biblical. Indeed, surveys of Bible reading in North America show that African Americans tend to actually read the foundational book more than their oppressors. The biblical worldview spills easily across the page.

Although the Bible made it onto the list of top ten banned books last year, The Bluest Eye was challenged because of its sexuality. That’s another defining aspect of the novel. It’s a frank exploration of the human condition. The protagonists are not only African American, they are also all female. Their perception of sexuality is, in many ways, inherently that of victims. Not that love doesn’t enter it, but rather that poverty often leads to a state where sexual gratification is held up as one of the few positives in a life that includes regular mistreatment, poor pay, and jail time. It isn’t an easy story to read. Morrison’s deft hand, however, prevents the story from becoming gloomy. It is like spending a sunny day knowing there’s something you shouldn’t see in the basement. Banned Book Week may be some time away yet, but it is always the right season to read about the truth.

Monster Smash

MnfsttnMnstrsIt’s the time of year when young men’s minds turn to monsters. Well, at least this middle-aged man’s does. Seeing a book by Karl P. N. Shuker entitled A Manifestation of Monsters, I was intrigued. I had some Amazon points burning a hole in my internet, so I took a chance on it. The fact is good books on monsters are hard to find and Shuker is listed as “Doctor” and that sometimes stands for something. Subtitled Examining the (Un)usual Suspects, the book is a curious Mischwesen of folklore, actual animals, and cryptozoology. The latter should be no surprise as Shuker is a noted cryptozoologist. Compiled from many of his previously published articles, the book contains some fascinating accounts of extinct creatures and some improbable accounts of modern monsters.

Since Banned Book Week is a time to explore challenged ideas, why not read about some cryptids? They are anti-establishment monsters. Banned creatures. As is usual with monsters, there’s little rhyme or reason to the arrangement. Unlike many in the field of cryptozoology, Shuker is skeptical of outlandish claims, and has actual training as a zoologist. What stood out to me as I read accounts of unusual creatures is that some people report seeing the oddest things, and that other people are driven to hoax all kinds of monsters. It is clear that the human mind is programmed to believe in the possibility of the improbable. Critical thinking, as anyone with advanced training knows, is hard work. Belief can be a far simpler matter. We crave a world with the exotic, and potentially dangerous. Shuker’s piece on the mythical chupacabra demonstrates that nicely.

While I’m pondering things that are banned, I consider how some who use critical faculties well like to disparage others. This, of course, is not in the best interest of science. We haven’t discovered everything yet. We think that because of the internet we’ve gone about as far as we can go in hive-mind mentality. Never mind that bees and ants beat us to it. People, many of them very intelligent, continue to see things they can’t explain. Others say that any living creature larger than a breadbox has already been discovered. I tend to think the world is a pretty big place and that people prefer to huddle together in cities for a reason. The mountain gorilla, for example, was discovered just in 1902. Now that the season for monsters is upon us, I like to imagine what else might be wandering around unseen by human eyes. And I hope banned ideas may continue to thrive in the forests of our minds.

Forbidden Love

LadyChatterleyBanned Book Week is upon us. In that time of year when we begin to think of spooky, scary things, the prohibition of literature naturally comes to mind. Every year I try to read a banned or challenged book for the occasion. This year I went to perhaps the jugular vein of banned books, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D. H. Lawrence. Now, I’m not a romance reader, but I was curious about this sexually explicit novel that had been banned to the point of being outlawed and was now considered a classic. Lawrence’s last novel, it tells the tale of a woman escaping a loveless marriage with the help of lover below her social class. The steamy bits are tame by today’s standards, but Lawrence does use several words that are still rarely heard in the media due to their offensiveness. From my perspective the story was a bit too drawn out, and the fawning wasfs a bit over the top. What struck me even more, however, was the fact that this novel was largely about social justice. Not that Lawrence was an activist, but his concern for the poor and discarded of the industrial revolution is quite clear throughout the novel. The privileged having affairs within their class is acceptable. The scandal is that a titled lady falls for a common gamekeeper.

I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, a franchise that has made even romance writers jealous. From the criticisms I hear, however, the concern is less the sex than it is the lack of literary value. I’m sure Fifty Shades of Grey is a banned book in some location. Still, the deeper concern for humanity that runs through Lady Chatterley’s Lover is part of its appeal. Several times I put the book down thinking, “this isn’t just surface stuff.” It is, baldly put, the search for redemption. Sir Clifford is an invalid who wants to control others. In an era when men laid claim to control of women’s sexuality this was no small demand. He also sees his coal miners as pieces in a larger game that is, it turns out, only to his own benefit.

Although the book ends with the lovers parted, and hoping for reunion, Lawrence’s final words turn toward economic oppression. Mellors (the gamekeeper) writes, “If you could only tell them that living and spending isn’t the same thing!… If only they were educated to live instead of earn and spend…” He defines Mammon as “wanting money and hating life.” No doubt, the book was a vehicle for Lawrence’s desire to see writing about sex to be part of literature and not pornography. Still, there is something deeper here. The story is more than carnality, although carnality is what brought it to fame. It is a banned book that proclaims liberty that, despite the license of contemporary society, is not really as free as it might seem. As banned book week unfolds, it is a moral obligation, I believe, to read those books that have threatened settled mindsets and raised the ire of censors. In so doing, we learn what it is to be human.

Casing the Promised Land

In one of the great ironies of the English language “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same thing. Sometimes an extra syllable can make all the difference. “Ideas are incombustible,” wrote Ellen Hopkins in the final stanza of “Manifesto.” Unlike inflammable, that which is incombustible can’t be burned away. Most literally expressed in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, ideas are, however, endangered in a culture that claims to support them while secretly allowing them to be banned. Orwell called it doublespeak, and we all owe it to our heirs to fight it wherever we can. Sometimes the promised land may not be all that it seems. Can the brave truly be this afraid? Some politicians think “Born in the USA” is a complimentary song. Never has there been a better case for emphasizing literacy.

We fear the ideas our children might encounter, making them into the people they are meant to be. I’d like to return to an idea I broached at the beginning of this year’s Banned Book Week—the Bible has been a banned book. According to the antics of various preachers and vigilantes, so have been the Quran and the Book of Mormon. Destroying books or their authors, however, only creates martyrs. Until the world begins to understand that memes are more durable than genes we will fight our futile wars to drive the thoughts away. Azar Nafisi in Reading Lolita in Tehran tells of how some regimes want to control even our dreams. As if cutting the wings from angels were even possible. How do you physically cut an incorporeal being? Some may need to look “incorporeal” up in a dictionary.

I can’t remember when I started to read for fun, but I do know I haven’t been able to stop since. I have no idea how many books I’ve read, but it certainly comes out to more than the money I’ve ever been able to save. I write this with not an iota of regret. In my humble opinion people are products of the books they read, the songs they hear, the movies they watch. Ideas. Ideas permeate us and we, like sponges, absorb our nutrients from them. Inevitably we come to resemble the concepts we ingest. Ingesting concepts is perhaps the best way to think of Banned Book Week. Inflammable and flammable mean the same thing. Incombustible, however, is something completely different.

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Afraid for God

ReadingLolitaInTehranReading Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi, is not easy. It is, however, rewarding. Appropriate for Banned Book Week, we might want to remind ourselves what a society that bans books actually looks like. Nafisi, an Iranian teacher of English literature, had broadened her mind and had traveled abroad. When she returned to her home country to take up a teaching post, she discovered that the world you always knew can be very unstable. It can change without you realizing it. (Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin, left even the sages scratching their heads.) The Revolution, as it was known in Iran, brought in the radical conservatism of religious outlooks that saw women as little more than temptations for men. The wearing of the veil was enforced by law. Nafisi was told it was a small price to pay for the greater good. The rhetoric is the same every time I’ve been frisked at the airport, although I’m a lifelong pacifist. In Iran, things were much worse.

Nafisi recounts gathering a group of her women students together after she was forced out of the university. They would meet at her apartment to discuss literature, including Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. How must it feel to be a woman reading about a man’s obsession with a girl so young? As Nafisi points out, girls of Lolita’s age are considered marriageable in some Islamic states. It isn’t Islam that’s the problem, it is extremism. When I read about how she became “irrelevant,” I literally shuddered. In my own way too, I had been made irrelevant to higher education by those who felt any means would justify religious ends. And the bookstores in Tehran were closed, for they sold dangerous ideas. The irrelevance of one woman, or even half the population, is a small price to pay for self-righteousness.

“You say you’re afraid for God,” Ellen Hopkins wrote in “Manifesto.” Afraid for the Almighty. Such a strange concept. Fundamentalists of all monotheistic stripes believe in an all-powerful God whom they arrogantly presume to protect. How can a human even conceive such hubris? We feel secure in our Bible-emboldened superiority, challenged when reminded that the Quran, the Book of Mormon, or even Science and Health came later, and by definition supersessionism inevitably takes hold. “Paranoia is in bloom,” Muse reminds us. Missiles fall on Tehran, killing women and children. We elect, however, officials who agree that healthcare for women is politically negotiable. The reason has nothing at all to do with justice. It has everything to do with using a black-bound book for power over those who are just twelve-year olds wondering how any of this is even possible.

Academic Freedom

Azusa Pacific University, 2013. Emmanuel Christian Seminary, 2012. Interdenominational Theological Center, 2012. University of Illinois, 2010. Carroll College, 2005. Nashotah House Episcopal Seminary, 2005. Unfortunately the list could go on and on. Academic institutions in the land of the free and the home of the brave dismissing faculty for saying or writing something that offended their doctrines. This is the land of my birth, and yet I’m still rocked by its permissiveness. That’s not permissiveness in that sense. I was latterly working on a paper called “the myth of academic freedom.” I know too many people for whom that myth has become a reality and all the while the governments, state and national, try to decide on more important issues such as whether or not to give children equal opportunity, our institutions crumble for petty points of pretentious pugilistic piety. Not only books may be banned, but those who potentially write them as well.

“You say you’re afraid for America,” Ellen Hopkins’s “Manifesto” suggests. Academics, of all people, should be afraid. Our society asks us to borrow thousands and thousands of dollars to become experts in some obscure topic only to release us from any possibility of finding employment that allows us to pay off said debt. “I don’t need no arms around me,” but I sure could use a podium in front of me. I am afraid for America. I am afraid for a nation that doesn’t defend its thinkers, instead following the wealthy to the peak of an unscalable Everest.

Academic freedom was once the guarantee that no question was disallowed, no thought anathema. We live in a time of pronounced conservative pushback, where those who feel threatened by knowledge persecute those who dare to think. Ironically in this situation many academics have become complacent. Having a place of your own, and the compunction not to make waves in this bathtub will allow your toy boat to float for many a year. Long enough to reach safe harbor. Beneath the surface shipwrecks lurk and books will never be written. Banned books are easiest to engineer at the aborted career stage. Even a pro-lifer knows that.

They don't write 'em like that anymore...

They don’t write ’em like that anymore…

Lola Lolita

LolitaAs a father, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is difficult to read. With Banned Book Week upon us, however, and with my wife suggesting I read Reading Lolita in Tehran, I figured I’d better read Lolita in New Jersey first. It’s not the kind of book you want to be seen reading on the bus. As is well known, the novel is written from the sympathetic point of view of a pedophile. It is distinctly creepy and yet also strangely sincere. Effacing the distinctions between love and lust and healthy and ill psyches, the story draws you into the life of a single-minded Humbert Humbert and his twelve-year-old obsession. I had been prepared for the end of the story, having seen Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic version some years ago, still, this tale distresses. Banned books take us to places we’d rather not be, and cause us to linger there. This is part of their secret appeal. These authors are honest enough to make us question assumptions. You have floated out of sight of land.

Lolita, through euphony, if not something more, reminds me of “Lola.” The Kink’s hit. I first heard “Lola” while I was in seminary, although it had been released a decade and a half earlier (I tend to run a little behind the times). When I listen to songs I pay attention to the lyrics, and I was disturbed to find that “Lola” was a catchy tune with a (to me, at the time) disturbing message. I confessed to a friend that I liked the song, but wasn’t sure that I should. We ban songs just as we ban books, because they bring us to a place where we question what we thought we knew. In my case, it often doesn’t take much. My friend Dave gave sage advice not to overthink the whole thing. If you like a song, you like a song. Let the music play on.

“You say you’re afraid for children,” Ellen Hopkins’s second stanza of “Manifesto” begins. (I confess to following a different scansion of the poem, call it poetic license.) I believe, however, our fear is for ourselves. We know that we could have a monster lurking inside. Lolita does not encourage pedophilia. Like many social crimes, pedophilia is the manifestation of an illness that some people, like sociopaths, unfortunately suffer. The lack of empathy for others is a frightening thing indeed. It makes for some of the scariest movies, and headlines, that I have ever seen. We do ourselves no favors, however, by pretending it doesn’t exist. I know little of the life of Nabokov, but I know that he died in Montreux. I know that he could afford to live there at least in part because of the royalties from Lolita, a novel whose manuscript he had once attempted to burn. And I know that in Montreux “some stupid with a flare gun,” well, you know the rest.