It’s Banned Books Week – the time every year when the academic and bookworm communities team up and tell meddlesome parent associations that they can suck it. And of course, they can and should: banning books is not cool. It usually happens because parents pressure schools and libraries to get rid of things they don’t want their kids to see. That would be fine if it was because these books were truly awful, like A Child’s Guide To Excluding Other Religions or Racism 4 Kidz. But that’s usually not the case.
Here’s the thing, though. If books can be banned simply because folks don’t want their kids exposed to the greater world, I think it’s only fair that the rest of us should get to arbitrarily have books banned too – because we hated them. I was in the AP/Honors track in high school, and in our particular school that meant that just about all we read were “the classics.” Now, don’t get me wrong, those dead white men can write. But some of those books were so dull and dusty that – even though I can see their value from an educational perspective – I wouldn’t mind banning them … because I hated them. Welcome to a very special edition of C+S Book Club, in which we become an anti-book club.
Heart Of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
In this book, we high school juniors learned about Africa from the perspective that really matters — this one white guy who is dead (see what I mean?). I couldn’t even get through the Wikipedia entry on this to refresh my memory, because even that was too boring. But the point is, a bunch of European dudes went through the Congo River on a boat getting obsessed with each other. There were definitely heads on sticks and some kind of a “native” rebellion and a melodramatic death scene. YAWN.
The Once And Future King by T.H. White
This was part of our summer reading before Freshman year of high school – and let me tell you, there’s no better way to stifle a lifelong love of reading than to assign seven books, including a 700-page Arthurian fantasy, to be read over the course of two months (read: the last two weeks before vacation ends), so that the kids don’t even have time to read of their own volition. But hey, high school is when you start to learn a lot about yourself — and this is when I learned that apparently, I hate Arthurian fantasy. The copy on the Barnes and Noble website says that this is a tale “of beasts who talk and men who fly, of wizardry and war.”
You know what else is that kind of tale of beasts who talk and men who fly, of wizardry and war? Harry Potter, which – fun fact! – did not ruin my fourteenth summer.
One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
It’s important for kids to understand that life in a Soviet gulag was tedious as hell, but even as a 15-year-old, I could have figured it out without having to read Ivan Denisovich’s boring day in prison develop in real time. When I discovered my study sheet from my AP English exam, I had subtitled this book something like “(more like 100 years in the life of me).”
I learned 1000% more about prison life by watching Orange Is The New Black, so maybe that can replace this 200-page snoozefest in the high school curriculum.
Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Unfair grudge? Maybe. I’m shooting for reading 50 books this year, and Gone With The Wind, with its 1000-page count and twerpy protagonist, singlehandedly threw off my timeline. I know of people who read this in high school, but we didn’t because a white guy didn’t write it* (Margaret Mitchell is a white lady). Still, I figured I should see what the fuss was about.
I still don’t get it. People are obsessed with this book. I usually am able to view books as a product of their time, but GWTW really tested my patience. Rhett and Scarlett and the gang being racist? Totally unsurprising, and it would be unrealistic if they weren’t. But Mitchell portrayed all of the Black characters as simplistic, childlike dumb-dumbs who, even after emancipation, truly needed the guidance and protection of the good white people. Guys. The “mammy” is literally called Mammy. Mind you, this was written in 1936, not during the Civil War era.
There’s also a truly cringey “no means yes” rape scene (it’s totally fine, they were married and Scarlett wanted it UGH).
Finally, the book is only so long because the author takes about 200 pages to describe scenarios like “Scarlett goes to a barbeque and learns that this guy is engaged.”
If schools want to teach a civil-war era novel that also has inspired a feature film (because you can fill like a week of class days watching the movie), let’s go with Solomon Northrup’s 12 Years A Slave. Please.
* We did read To Kill A Mockingbird and Black Boy, so there’s two. Oh! And Wuthering Heights.
Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger
Okay, I don’t really want this banned, and I didn’t hate it. But is there some way to short-list who gets to read it? I’m thinking about those earnest high school boys who think they’re deeper than everyone else, were born in the wrong era, and probably have Bob Dylan posters tacked up in their rooms. Give them one dose of Catcher and they become positively insufferable, because it reinforces their idea that they’re the only one who’s not a “phony” (except ol’ Phoebe, etc). Honestly, a great book, but teens who think they know everything don’t need more ammo. Let’s assign them Franny and Zooey instead, until they’re old enough to have a balanced perspective on the Holden Caulfield character.
F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, But Only For Some People
A few years ago I went on a huge Lost Generation reading kick, and I’m still so fascinated by the era they lived in, the style of writing, all of it. However, like Catcher In The Rye, some kids don’t have the perspective to read these critically. I don’t really want these on the banned list. These are exactly the kind of books I want kids reading, even if some kids don’t understand it at an adult level. It’s just that from my own high school and college days, I remember a lot of people reading these books and feeling so much admiration and awe for the very people who were being criticized in them. It’s like watching Mean Girls and coming away with the message “man, those Plastics really were the coolest kids out there, weren’t they?”
I guess I’m not saying that kids shouldn’t read Catcher In The Rye or books about high society written by the Lost Generation. I’m just saying we should teach them to read critically or, barring that, teach them to shut the heck up.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Story time: we read this book in Honors English my Freshman year. I enjoyed it, but sometimes didn’t do awesome at the pop reading quizzes we had because I was more into binge reading on weekends than reading two chapters a night or whatever. When it got time to write the essay at the end of the unit, I killed it. A friend’s computer was broken, so I offered to type hers up too – not fixing the little mistakes I found because that would be dishonest and I was almost compulsively honorable at that stage of life.
When we got the graded papers back, I was ready to see the big fat A at the top of my page – and saw a 65%. WHAT. THE. HELL. 65% was a grade I’d only heard about before, from other people, unfortunate people whose lives weren’t like mine. My friend, whose paper I knew wasn’t as good, had like a 97%. All throughout my paper the teacher had scribbled snide little comments like “your words??” (next to the word “enamored” which is not even a weird word for a 14-year-old to know). So I went to the teacher to see what was up, and she scheduled a meeting with my parents and a vice principal because she thought it was plagiarized. The school was on a plagiarism witch hunt because some kids had been kicked out for it the year before. She claims she marked my paper down 30 points but that can’t even be right, because it was still 2 points less than my friend’s error-ridden paper. She obviously just failed it because she didn’t think I was smart enough to turn in something so good.
Anyway. I got the grade restored, in part because the vice principal vouched that she’d see me pour over Dickens when I was a third grader stuck at my brothers’ basketball games, and in part because my partial rough draft was still in my notebook, complete with crossouts and doodles. Only by the grace of God had I not written something embarrassing like “Mrs. Pacey Witter” or “Jack Dawson 4 lyfe” in the margins.
Point is: I liked this book initially, but thanks to that teacher (Mrs. Hammerton, Honors English, Aquinas Institute 2000, what’s up?) – well, if you can just have books banned willy-nilly because they give you uncomfy feelings, then I’d like to do that here, please.
I enjoyed just about everything I had to read in school: from Greek drama to ancient myths to Shakespeare to 19th century romanticism. But there were still those books that I just could not get into. How about you all – any books you wouldn’t lose sleep over the banning of, because you hated them so much?