Corrupt your mind. With books!

Posted by admin on October 14th, 2009 filed in Books, General, Parenting, What?!

Banned Book Week 2009 just passed, so I was thinking about books.  I love books.  I love to read them, hold them, make piles of them, and even attempt to write them.  I stayed in the library/guest bedroom at Mark and Jody’s house last week.  They have hundreds of books in there!  The only way it could have been a more comfortable place is if there were complimentary chocolates (hint, hint – get on that guys).    I fell asleep thinking of how many people were in that room with me, living in the books.  Some good guys, some bad guys, some undeveloped background characters.  They were complete people, with huge adventures, and they were conceived in a mind and locked into existence in the little tiny bit of space that is a paperback.  Some of these people I knew, many I didn’t, and none of them knew me.  But all I would have to do is open the book, and there would be some fictional person and sometimes years of their life.  You know, some literary characters have been more inspirational to me than 90% of the people I’ve met in real life.  It got pretty abstract because I was falling asleep, and, um, maybe a little drunk.  Anyway, point is, I love books and they are really something special.

It’s always a bit of a struggle for me to understand that someone can think something so completely opposite of what I believe.  Banning books?  Why?  Books are so important.  Why would anyone want to limit them?  For the children.  Right.  Ye gods, I have so much trouble explaining why I feel so opposed to this.  I know I have a good argument in there somewhere, one that’s much better than me gesturing wildly at the bookshelf and shouting, “Books!  Sacred!  Gahh!!”

Most books are banned because of content.  We don’t want our kids to have access to them because they are going to be exposed to racism, rape, violence, a delicious myriad of sexual acts, etc. in these inappropriate books.  But here’s the thing, all children grow up.  What is the use in denying that we live in a world where these bad things happen?  The kids are going to have to deal with them someday, and preferably they will have some idea of the dark side of humanity before they encounter it in real life.

I’d better add a disclaimer here.  Not all material is appropriate for all maturity levels.  With my own kids, I’d rather base this sort of decision on how grown up they are and on their reasoning abilities than on age.  If something is too advanced for them, they will probably give me cues.  Maybe they will not be interested (and most questionable content will go over their heads) or they will be scared of the monsters and epic battle scenes, or any number of tells that say something isn’t for them.  With Beren right now, he is very stressed about any story that involves the separation of a family.  Once he’s had a little more experience and learns more, I’m sure he’ll be certain of his own life and be more comfortable with that sort of story.  This may happen for him when he’s 5 and it might happen for another boy when he’s 15.  I don’t think that means we should keep all books featuring the death of a parent from all kids.  This really should be taken on a case-by-case basis with the parents as the judge.  If a child does not yet possess the understanding that violence is not the best tool for most jobs, don’t let him read books about war.  If a child is going to repeat in public every lewd sentence she comes across, don’t let her read books about sex or with swearing.  This doesn’t seem very difficult to me.

Two of the common reasons for banning a book were that it was anti-Christian or had witchcraft.  I think even Harry Potter was on the list for these reasons.  I would think that a Christian person would be secure enough in their beliefs that it wouldn’t hurt them to read about what someone else thinks.  There are non-Christian people in the world, so it stands to reason that there are non-Christian characters in literature.  It seems unfair that religion would have anything to do with a book getting such a strike against it.

To me, this whole thing reeks of conformity.  Like we’ll somehow end up with only good, pure, Christian Americans if our children only read books where nothing bad happens and nothing dirty gets through.  But we are humans, and we can’t deny that in our lives or in our literature.  We like to have sex.  We experiment with drugs, even if it is just an occasional cigarette or beer or espresso.  We have violent impulses.  I can see that my toddler sometimes hits things when he gets frustrated, and it’s natural.  It’s my job to teach him to control his actions and find a positive way to cope, rather than pretending that no one ever gets the urge to smack someone else in real life.  Maybe that’s my problem with all of this – we can’t pretend that people don’t get cancer and that pet dogs never die and that people don’t get raped.

So if we’ve stripped books of all the “bad” stuff, what’s left?  Pretty boring books.  Stereotypical heroes with clean mouths and chastity belts.  Bad guys with no motives besides the desire to do harm, ones who will leave readers unable to see the real swindlers and backstabbers when they meet them on the street.  All the books would be the same.

Are we magically able to handle adult material when we hit age 18 or 21?  It’s hard for me to understand.  Before I was married, my grandmother never mentioned sex or romantic kissing or anything like that to me.  Shortly after I got married, she was all about talking about it, like in an anecdotal way.  I kid you not, I seriously had a mental shut down and willed myself to disbelieve.  If you save all the adult things for when someone becomes an adult, it’s not going to go well.  I really think it would be better to let kids have a growing up process, where they read things as they are ready for them.

What are we scared the kids will do?  Use these books as a checklist for all the wild things they want to accomplish in life?  Try swearing.  Check.  Hang out with people of questionable morals.  Check.  What’s next on the list?  Attempt to summon demons.  Yes!  I think if you took a poll, most adults have tried (or at least would try, given the opportunity) many of the milder things in books that they are worried about exposing their kids to (swearing, sex, drug use).  They probably wouldn’t even attribute it to the books they’ve read.  I read a lot of questionable material when I was underage.  I didn’t rush out and copy-cat.  I don’t even swear that much.  On the Road by Jack Kerouac and Diary of a Drug Fiend by Aleister Crowley are still two of my favorite books.  While I feel they were instrumental to my development, I’ve never done the things those characters did.  Most of it’s too crazy to actually do.  I certainly did enjoy reading about it though, and I turned out fine.  Live vicariously through beatniks and a magician.  Check.

I am confident enough in my ability to read really dense and worthwhile books to admit that I have a soft spot for werewolf and vampire books.  They’re a fun read and the genre hasn’t even managed to convert me from a cat person to a dog person.  It’s hard to imagine being so out of control that a book could warp me into whatever the book burners are afraid of.

So what about the really bad stuff that might be in a book?  Like suicide?  I think that is definitely a subject for a very mature reader.  But, it’s something you are going to hear about (and hopefully not come into contact with) in your life, so it shouldn’t be banned.  I doubt an account of suicide would inspire a person to kill themselves if they weren’t already planning to do so.  Suicide, however selfish and awful, is the ultimate expression of human will.  How can you hide the concept from someone who will hopefully be a well rounded, philosophical and educated person some day?  Maybe if we talked about these taboo subjects, like death and suicide, people would realize how truly devastating something like that is to the survivors.

And how about political works, like Nazi propaganda?  I don’t especially want to read that, but it’s still part of history.  I don’t feel information is harmful (although it definitely can be distasteful).  It is the person reading it who needs to be responsible.  Hence my disclaimer about waiting for a person’s maturity level to match the material they are reading.  If I saw my kids reading something truly alarming, it would warrant a serious conversation with them.  But I don’t think I would say no.

I would say that on the whole, good triumphs over evil in literature.  Even if there are some less-than-kosher bumps along the way, there is a good message for people when they read.  Maybe we can overlook that our children are exposed to sexist viewpoints or the genocide of a fictitious people if it means that they have the ability to sift through all this and find the real value behind these books.

And what’s wrong with all the books of our youth being about fluffy white bunnies and happy endings?  I’ll tell you, because this blog post isn’t long enough yet.  The great stories, complete with the stuff that would get them banned, exercise our imagination.  You could watch a movie with the most spectacular effects Hollywood has to offer, but it’s not going to make you stretch your mind the way a book would.  You can’t just become a creative person overnight with no help.  If you read about fantastic things, you are using the muscles of your imagination.  If we all spent the first 20 years of our lives reading only the approved material, we’d all be the same and we’d be like children until we hit 3o or more years.  Even if you aren’t planning on doing anything creative with your life, reading is still important. It opens your mind.  Small minds have small dreams, and that’s not what I want for my children.  I think books give us an idea of how to really enjoy life.  Think of the adventure!  And the romance!  THE PERIL, PEOPLE!  I love to feel all these emotions along with the characters.  Because I can read, I don’t have to be melodramatic in my life.  How can we take that from young readers, even if we think we are protecting them?

Because of all the controversy over certain books, I can understand not flaunting them.  When I worked at the front desk in Pitt’s Law School, they often requested that I put book covers on my books.  No problem!  It’s fine to be sensitive and not offend people.  I certainly wouldn’t want to lend a banned book to a minor without their parent’s permission.  I’ll just be responsible for corrupting my own kids, thanks.

So yeah, I’m all for guiding our children in literature, discussing what they’ve read if it seems to be bothering them, helping them know what would be at their level.  And maybe even looking the other way if they pick up something “adult”.  I mean, I can remember being really excited to find out what was going on in an adult mind when I read books intended for someone above my age.  It’s good to be able to test out these ideas in the mental arena before seeing them for real.  But banning books and saying no one can have them?  That’s sick.  Besides, it’s not like they can’t just buy the books from Amazon if they don’t carry them in the school library.

What do you think?

5 Responses to “Corrupt your mind. With books!”

  1. jo Says:

    Oh MAN! I wish you were taking my class with me! I will print out some copies of our readings for you. You will love it! You have the heart of a librarian!

  2. Rebecca Says:

    I can’t think of a single book I would want to ban. Even the worst ones teach you things and make you think in new ways. There is no subject too taboo. There are only books that you might have gotten a much more complete education from if you had read them earlier or later in life.

  3. admin Says:

    I am curious to see what I will think of this in a decade when I have a 13 year old and a 10 year old. I remember Younger Megan thinking things about parenting that went right out the window as soon as I actually became a parent. Maybe my views will change when I have kids that can read by themselves.

    I love the books they have for kids now-a-days that teach kids that there is a dark side to life and that they have the tools and intelligence to deal with it. But what if my kids are more interested in reading about Bratz and Gossip Girls?

  4. jo Says:

    This exact topic is our subject matter for this week in class. I am surprised to find myself struggling with it still. The protective parent in me “but but buts” when confronted with the raw bones of freedom of information.

    I am no prude mind you! I read a list of challenged books and laughed out loud. I would never try to limit access to those. And I understand that libraries should have the world of writing and information in all its glory and gore available for citizens to access.

    It is in fact our job as parents is to know what our kids are ready for and capable of absorbing and to monitor their development as readers and people.

    One thing is for sure, I won’t be letting Abby wander around a public library alone for a very long time, and not because I am afraid she will butt up against Harry Potter or a book about a child’s two mommies. My qualms are not so much about literature as they are about unrestricted unfiltered Internet access, which a lot of people want for children in public libraries. As if librarians will be able to monitor what is being oogled at… especially in these tough economic times when there won’t be enough librarians in the first place.

    Tim and I got on the Internet for real together in our early twenties. We logged into the world wide web and went searching for the worst society has to offer. And hoo boy did we find it! Certain images were burned into my eyeballs at that time that are still there! It was OK though, I was an adult. I thought I was open minded, but had a very rude awakening about a whole world of very weird people and ideas out there I just don’t want Abby to know about until she is older. Like very extreme body modification.

    I was raised in the way you object to Megan, with no real exposure to the real world, experience or practice making up my own mind before going off to college. There are some real disadvantages to being so totally naive! But I understand where my parents desire to shelter me came from. I don’t want to fetter Abby’s access to understanding the world we live in forever of course. I’d like her to be much less naive and more of an independent thinker than I was.

    But at the same time, I agree with the notion that too much exposure to too much extreme human nature/behavior at an early age is bad. It seems plausible to me that seeing too much violence at a young age might normalize it, or make it more acceptable somehow.

    And certain ideas may be frightening to sensitive children. I don’t think we need to throw all the sadness and ugliness and horror that exists in the world at children as soon as possible.

    So for me it isn’t an issue of flat out restriction, but timing.

    I am going to mail you some copies of some of our readings. I think you will really enjoy them!

  5. admin Says:

    I agree, timing, not restriction. We do that now with movies. Violent movies scare Beren and he is sensitive to conflict of different types. So he just doesn’t get to watch those movies yet. We can still watch non-violent movies that have more mature ratings and he usually isn’t interested and things just go over his head. I think that might be coming to an end soon though…

    I looked over a list of 100 banned books and I have read 23 of them. They were not books that I would have guessed were challenged. I even read some of them in school, like The Great Gatsby.

    Anyway, sometimes I rant and get all righteous, but I’m a little calmer in real life. Don’t worry, I’m not going to throw the worst of the worst at the kids. I have hopes that they’ll grow up liking some of my childhood favorites (Gertrude Chandler Warner, Beverly Cleary, etc.). I have those “but, but, but” moments too. Sometimes it’s a real challenge to reconcile what I believe with my job of raising little people.