Fictional Truth

In honor of Banned Book Week I read Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  Funny and poignant, it tells the story of Arnold Spirit Junior, a Spokane tribe boy on the reservation.  Born with a disability, he nevertheless overcomes adversity to become both a good student and excellent basketball player.  I suppose you’d classify this as young adult literature since the protagonist is a teen and many of the issues are those of kids in that age group.  Although it’s funny, and the illustrations underscore this, there’s a realism that account for various people wishing to ban it.  First of all, it reminds readers that white men put Indians on reservations and, despite our national guilt about this, we still refuse to do anything to try to lift them out of poverty.  And, like most boys his age, Junior likes to talk about sex once in a while.

Fiction can be the most nonfictional form of writing.  Junior describes the realities of reservation life.  Alcoholism, poverty, and violence are part of his everyday experience.  He attends far more funerals than his white counterparts.  This particular point gave me pause.  A New York Times article that appeared pointed out, statistically, that American Indians had much higher death rates from Covid than many other demographics.  It was like the genocidal introduction of European diseases during the “age of discovery.”  I suppose people would’ve grown curious and explored their world, regardless of the distorted Christian belief that they were to take it over.  At least we could’ve treated those we met with respect, as equals.

I think about the missionary mandate quite a lot.  Based on an undying literalism, it became an excuse for behaviors explicitly condemned by Scripture itself.  There’s a real danger when conviction comes with guns.  At least modern-day missionaries try to help those they’re attempting to convert with hospitals and medical care.  Still, that doesn’t help the American Indians.  They still struggle and our policies still ignore their problems.  Their plight stands in the way of capitalistic exploitation.  And when an Indian writes a fun book, honest about the experience of his people white critics begin to raise their voices to ban it.  How do we think the situation of the Indians will ever improve if we refuse to listen?  And what better time to get people to listen but when they’re young enough not to have been corrupted by our system of entrenched unfair treatment?


Headlines

I see many headlines in a day.  One from Book Riot caught my attention with its linked story on BoingBoing.  This particular story is poignant and points to the ridiculous polarization politicians are stoking to play for our votes.  (I swear, politicians should be made into their own country so they can ruin their own lives without affecting the rest of us.)  This headline deals with the remarkable person George Dawson.  The son of a farmer, and descendant of slaves, Dawson made a living as a laborer in Texas.  His life was probably no more noteworthy than those of many other working-class individuals, but Dawson had a story to tell.  Illiterate, he learned to read at the age of 98—let that sink in.  At two years shy of a century he decided to improve his life.  He subsequently wrote a memoir, Life Is So Good.  So far, so good.

For reading, not banning!

His story was so inspirational that the Carroll Independent School District named a middle school for him.  He became a adult “poster child” for literacy.  Now, here’s where the headline comes in.  The very school that is named after him is trying to ban his book.  As part of the reactionary Republican response to race relations, politicians—local and national—are trying to rewrite American history so the white guy is always right.  Always good.  Always Christian.  Always moral.  It doesn’t matter how many times he cheats on his wife and his taxes, he is the paragon of virtue and respectability.  To suggest that he promoted slavery and treated Black people as property and beat and lynched and left them in poverty, well, that’s just too powerful of a pill to swallow.

Banned Book Week begins this month, on the 18th.  Every year I try to read a banned or challenged book in honor of the occasion.  Censorship has been on the playlist of fascists from the beginning.  Propaganda works.  All you need to do is use emotional appeal to short-circuit the rational faculties and then laugh all the way to the bank.  Slavery?  What’s slavery?  Do you mean to suggest that white men used slaves?  Poppycock.  We have always been as upright with the same moral rectitude as the Donald.  And the Ronald.  And all white men who stand under the big R.  Pay no attention to the Black man who learned to read at an age when most of us are dead.  Is that such a big deal?  What need do you have to read when Fox News can provide all the (mis)information you need?


Banning Ideas

It’s been in the news lately that some communities, in keeping with the current fascist trends, are starting to ban books.  One of the plays in the Nazi book was to burn them, followed soon after by destroying the people who read them.  Ideas are, by their very nature, dangerous things.  Trying to destroy them by banning books, however, doesn’t work.  The kinds of books being banned are predictable: those that portray races as equal, those that offer understanding and acceptance of those differently gendered or oriented, and books that show the white man caught with his pants down (metaphorically, although in actual life this happens quite often literally as well).  Books premised on lies are just fine, but as soon as we get to ideas that make us think, well, we ban and burn.

Book banning is normally presented as protecting the children.  Something any attentive parent knows is that children understand a lot more than we think they do.  I suspect they realize that books are prohibited because they contain the truth.  Nobody bans a book of “harmless” fantasy—books where white men have all the answers and solve all the problems.  And when they lose their tempers they start wars, which, of course, the white guys always win.  Such stories, based as they are on basic untruths, are fantasy indeed.  Our slow move into the new millennium from the growing awareness of the sixties, has shown us the necessity of looking deeper.  Expanding beyond the stories white men tell to comfort themselves.  Those invested in this narrative are very reluctant, of course, to let it go.

The more we move into the new millennium the more determined we seem to repeat the last one.  That one had a pandemic near the beginning and wars and white men only on the front pages.  The younger generation, thankfully, by and large doesn’t share these poison biases.  They were read to as children.  Teachers and other heroes didn’t ban books, but encouraged reading them.  Local communities are making a concerted effort to break down learning and then we wonder why the United States has the highest infection rates in the world.  If only there were some way to figure out why that might be!  Reading books with uncomfortable truths might be a good start.  Ideas that can’t stand up to logical challenges may not be the best ones for building a society.   Read a book rather than banning it, and see if we all might learn something.


Banning Banning

Banned Book Week gets me all aflutter.  There have been years at I’m so busy that it slips by before I notice it, but each year I try to incorporate it somehow into my reading challenges.  This year my book was Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, by Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell.  Yes, it’s a young readers’ book.  Most banned and challenged books are.  Why censorious adults feel the need to keep ideas out of print is pretty obvious in these Trumpian times.  (Please note, dear Republicans, many Democrats criticize Biden on a regular basis; we do not worship him.  American Marxist my donkey!)  Book censoring only serves fascist tendencies.  Ideas will find a way to be born, regardless.

Scary Stories, of course received a shot in the arm by Guillermo del Toro and his interest in making a movie based on it.  The stories themselves are drawn from folklore—they’re populist, you might say—and reflect what passes around from perhaps less insane times.  As an adult a reader tends not to find these stories frightening.  For one thing, many of them are stories we’ve heard before.  For another, life has already thrown many scary things at us.  Not only that, but we try to ban books to make adulthood even scarier.  You see, folklore doesn’t go away just because children are kept from the books.  These stories find the gaps just as water does.  They get told in the dark.  Instead of trying to censor them we should try to talk about them.

Adults’ own discomfort with ideas such as death and decay often stand behind our efforts to “protect” our children.  Then they reach maturity not prepared for the adult world of sex, exploitation, and dying.  Our modern comfort-based lifestyle tries to shut away the unpleasant aspects of existence.  Books, however, are the food of the imagination.  To ban them is to try to suppress the truths that authors have uncovered.  Growing up in a conservative household, we weren’t subjected to censorship.  I couldn’t afford many books, but my mother never said “No, you can’t read that.”  Some of my early reading faced uncomfortable facts.  I read both Jaws and The Godfather long before I ever saw the movies.  I read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark as a form of solidarity with young minds.  There are benefits to learning to deal with fear early on in life.  And Scary Stories, even if not so frightening, has an appropriate place in it.


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.


Protest Reading

In these days of bold ignorance, reading in public is an act of resistance. A world that follows the uninformed to perdition requires those who stand as witnesses. Those who read. As a cabinet of the wealthiest people in the country is being assembled we need to remind each other that wisdom and wealth aren’t the same thing. Not even close. We read to improve our minds and we find, in such reading, that wealth increases happiness only to a point. Excess wealth leads to misery, but like the addicted, those who have it just can’t stop. Stop, I say, and pick up a book. To help with this my wife sent along the Banned Book Advent calendar. That’s not to say we can read a book a day, but I believe the world would be a better place if we could. Especially if those books were banned.

You see, banned books cause us to think. That’s the payoff. I’ve read many, many banned books. Some of them I didn’t like very much, but that’s not the point. Liking what you read may lubricate the process, but it is the reading itself that stretches the mind. Makes use of mental muscles we didn’t know that we had. Those who ban books want prejudiced minds to prevail. Think about it: prejudice comes from the combination of the prefix for “already” and the root for “judging.” The prejudiced have already decided. Reading challenges. It has from the earliest days of myths on clay down to the era of ordered electrons on a flat screen. Reading makes you question. The thought police prefer mindless acquiescence. Want to show your true colors? Pull out a book and read.

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The season of Advent is one of anticipation. We all know what’s behind door 25, but the journey is the point. That journey is better when it’s literate. When I travel my carryon always has books. More than I can read on the trip, just in case. Books are banned because we fear knowledge. Once exposed to an idea we must deal with it. Far simpler to lock it away in some sealed room and continue to do things like it’s still the 1450s. Before Twitter started revolutions, books did. When we put down our books we are opening an invitation to ignorance. Last month showed what happens when that invitation is given. I won’t make it through a book a day this season, but I flip out my reading material whatever chance I get. And I believe a better future will result.


Biblical Stories

The Bible had quite a week last week. It went from being vetoed as the “state book” of Tennessee to making it onto the list of the ten most challenged and banned books of the year for the first time. Did you ever get that feeling that you should’ve thought a bit more closely about career options? I mean, the Bible’s not half bad. Yes, it has some naughty bits, a few instances of cursing, and adult situations. There are homicides, suicides, and genocides. It endorses slavery and advocates religious intolerance. It’s not all bad news, however.

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We find it easy to make summary judgments based on our own tendency to elevate human products to divine status. That which is most holy, after all, becomes the most profane when it’s defiled. The Bible itself can be like any other book. Printed on paper, bound between two covers, it contains ideas that must be interpreted. There’s no such thing as “just reading.” Even that road sign that says “slow children” is open to hermeneutics. What is objectionable is the use to which the Bible is put. And that use is objectionable due to the claims made about it. Saying that God rolled up his immaterial sleeve and took a transcendent pen into his incorporeal hand and began to scrawl is a bit naive. We know that people wrote the Bible—and much of it is sublime—and other people compiled it into a book that eventually acquired sacred status. It wasn’t born holy, it had to grow into it.

Once the Bible became objectified it turned into what people eventually use all objects for: a weapon. We can take sticks and stones and break your bones (no, that’s not in the Bible), and we can take paper and ink and hang you as a witch. Or pillory you as a liberal. Or say that it forbids the love you feel in your God-given heart. Something strange has happened here. The Bible’s not a bad book. It’s a bit on the long and repetitious side, but it has many, many memorable sayings and noble sentiments. Entire civilizations have been based on it. Or readings of it. They’ll ask you to put your hand on it and swear in court, and then they’ll ban it so your kids can’t read it. It’s been a tough week for the Good Book. Somehow, however, I don’t think we’ve heard the last of it because people love a conflicted story.


Real Reading Rainbow

Libraries rule. According to recent studies libraries rate higher than religious institutions, according to public surveys, in their usefulness to society. From the lost library of Alexandria of yore to the local Carnegie, libraries have been the repositories of information almost from the beginning of civilization itself. Last week the American Library Association, according to an article forwarded to me by my wife, and the Banned Books Week planning committee, announced a theme for this year’s recognition of the books various groups (many of them religious) tell us we shouldn’t read. Banned Book Week, of course, falls in September. It might seem strange that planning has to go into this, but the banning of books has never ceased and the list grows year by year. I recently mentioned John Green, one of the authors who frequently appears on banned lists for children. In an age when encouragement to read should be running high, we hide behind platitudes to keep our eyes toward a predetermined prize. Among the reasons frequently given for banning a book: its religious outlook. I.e., the “wrong” one.

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I often wonder why we think sheltering children who are old enough to read from the collective knowledge of the human race does them any favors. Our culture so successfully removes us from nature that we don’t experience the “facts of life” that our ancestors no doubt noticed early and often. Violence, sex, drugs, and death, however, haven’t become any less common. They are only hidden until their knowledge hits with often catastrophic force, leading to neuroses about how unsafe our world really is. A function of story, if neurologists are to be believed, is to help us navigate the many trials we’ll encounter by seeing how others have done it before. I don’t doubt that there is age-appropriate material for children, but they understand a lot more than adults like to think they do. In my teaching days I was always amazed at how much undergraduates knew that I was only beginning to discover as a professor. Books seem a good way to introduce knowledge appropriately.

The internet, of course, gives access to unvetted knowledge to anyone with access to a computer or phone. Published books, it used to be, had the added value of passing through editorial hands on their way to public presentation. A funny thing happened on the way to the library. We’ve democratized the writing of books through self-publishing, but we’ve not yet ceased to ban them. Perhaps the real way to protect our children is to listen to them. We seem to think telling is better than hearing, although the flow of knowledge can go both ways. Instead of banning books for our young we might all benefit from opening of our own minds.


East of Nowhere

EastOfEdenThere was a time when you could assume a lot about your readers. Although it was only a little more than a half century ago, John Steinbeck could assume a biblically literate readership. East of Eden is so thoroughly pervaded with, one might say interlarded with, the Bible that the key scene could have three men sitting up half the night discussing 16 verses of Genesis, and not one of them being a priest or preacher. The earnestness of their conversation is haunting in its intensity. You know the boys will be named Cain and Abel and that only one of them will come out of this alive. Okay, so they decide on Caleb and Aron, but you get the picture. Of course their father is Adam. Even the title of the book is drawn from the last words of the 16th verse.

Ironically, this biblically literate author is one of the most frequently banned from high schools. Some censors can’t get beyond thinking that being good is the same thing as being a realist. In East of Eden, characters are flawed, and they tramp out the course laid in the Bible with an unwitting solemnity. The entire book hinges on the ability to change one’s fate, and yet, the characters dutifully enact their parts. Those who watch over the morals of youth are bothered by an occasional word with four letters, which, I must say, Steinbeck uses with moderation. They mistake the packaging for the message.

But why should we care? Hasn’t the world moved on inexorably these past sixty years? It is the wisdom of Lee, the Chinese servant, who answers this. “Any writing that has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important.” This does not refer to the Bible alone—although at this juncture in the story it does—but it is a message that many who simply dismiss the Bible as just silly myths would do well to remember. Lee is a literate character who turns to Marcus Aurelius for comfort as well as other classics. Sometimes the Bible is regarded as so holy that we forget it too is a classic. Classics become what they are through the impact they have on innumerable people. East of Eden is considered a classic although the author walked this earth just half a century ago. And those who reject Steinbeck for their children would do well to read the Bible they would put back into schools in his place, if only to consider the irony.