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You're Not Allowed to Read These Books

2003-09-22 - 12:43 p.m.

Okay, before I begin, remind me that I need to get back to that whole Hispanic Heritage Month thing, because there's still Antonio Banderas to deal with.

While you're at it, remind me that I need to tell you guys about Austin City Limits and a little lady named Ruthie Foster, and another little lady named Patty Griffin, and most of all an anything-but-little band going by the name of The Polyphonic Spree, a band capable of turning the most jaded rocksnobs into a bunch of five-year-olds on a cocoa krispies high, dancing around to the Sesame Street Song.

For that matter, remind me that I need to tell you guys about how upset I am that TWOP isn't recapping Trading Spaces anymore, and about why I want to go to England, and about stealing words from friends, and Texas in September, and your mom, and all the other things that I want to write about but then forget about.

Because this week is Banned Books Week.

This week is a celebration of our ever-dwindling freedom to read whatever we damn well please in this country. It looks all the censors directly in the eye and uses its middle finger to push up its reading glasses.

I think that, in a time when what you and I read is being closely monitored by our paranoid government, in memory of all the burning books that presaged burning bodies in Germany and around the world, and out of the sheer enjoyment of reading about magic, sex, the past, the future, and all the other things that someone else thinks you shouldn't be reading about, I would like to share with you some of my favorite books that made the American Library Association's 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books from 1990-2000. Just so you know, a "challenged" book is any book that someone has tried to ban.

Coming in at #7 is The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling. Honestly, I find the attempts to ban this book to be nothing more than comical. Watching a handful of "Christian" fundamentalists (I put the quotation marks on as a deference to my Christian friends who loath such people) trying to get these books off the shelves is like watching someone try to stop a glacier with a hair-dryer, particularly since J.K. Rowling now has more money than God. What gets to me is that the wizards and witches in these books CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS. If anyone should try to ban these books, it's PAGAN fundamentalists. Fortunately, pagans have a good sense of humor.

For those nine people in America who have yet to get into the books, now would be a great week to get into one of the most charming, moving, and well-rendered children's series of all time. For those Harry fans without a lot of time to read, look over any of the books again and enjoy the illicit thrill of reading something that other people don't want you to read.

Few books have gotten more negative press than #13, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. After all, there's a whole play about how much this book has influenced serial killers. I really don't think the reputation is deserved. I think Holden Caulfield is damaged, but I think he has a lot of heart. I think the book is far more poignant than shocking. It's another short book if you need to read something fast, and I think it's one of those works that's seminal to the experience of growing up American.

I can't recommend #18, Alice Walker's The Color Purple, enough. The year after I and a number of other kids in English III-Honors read the book for extra credit, Mrs. Johnson made it a requirement for the next class. Only one person in our very conservative, Republican school reacted negatively to the lesbian relationship in the book, one of the main reasons it gets challenged. Now, I can understand not wanting to have young kids read about sexual abuse, but this book is a masterpiece that should be read by everyone old enough to handle the harsh reality it depicts. It made the epistolary novel a vital form again. And DON'T see the movie instead--Spielberg's bombastic style, while great for Schindler's List or Empire of the Sun, doesn't do Alice Walker's gentle prose a lick of justice.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle is #22, and I haven't an idea of why that is. I guess it's the same "magic=satanism" thing. Or maybe fundamentalists parents want their children to be joyless drones, and don't want a book like this to let kids know that they should fight conformity whenever they find it.

Making even less sense to me is the banning of The Witches by Roald Dahl, #27. The boy in question is FIGHTING THE WITCHES! Shouldn't that be something that religious parents ENCOURAGE their kids to do? Also by Dahl is #56, James and the Giant Peach, which is presumably banned because the Peach kills James' evil aunties.

Roald Dahl was one of my favorite authors as a kid. These two books were seminal to my growing up. Yes, sometimes I had nightmares about witches. It was more than worth it to read these books, and Matilda, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Dahl knew that kids love justice, and I'm talking about a telekinetically kicking the prinicipal's ass, Veruca Salt down the garbage chute, witches turned into mice, aunties crushed beneath a fruit kind of justice. Dahl taught you that bad people would eventually get what's coming to them, and that gets kids through abusive teachers, schoolyard bullies, and a hell of a lot more.

The New Joy of Gay Sex clocks in at #28. I knew it; I write a book and it gets banned.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood is one of the most important books in America right now, so I expect it to get a lot higher than #37 in the next few years. It's a dystopian novel about an America controlled by the religious right, where women are nothing more than baby-producers and aren't even allowed to read. I have thought about this book ever since reading articles about the "Christian" groups that operate behind the scenes of government. Every woman should read this book. No, every person should.

Speaking of "every person should read," Toni Morrison has two books on the list that I've read: The Bluest Eye (#39) and Beloved (#42). There's also Song of Solomon, (#85), which I haven't. She's our last Nobel Laureate, and she's challenged. She writes in a way that I will never write in my wildest delusions of grandeur, and she's challenged. There are passages of Beloved that sound like the word of God herself, and she's banned.

As soon as I'm done here, I've gotta go kick some ass. In the meantime, read her books. They are incomparable.

There are few books as beloved or as all-American as #41, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It was one of maybe three books I was forced to read in middle school that I enjoyed. The fact that it is challenged horrifies me.

Shel Silverstein's "A Light in the Attic" is #51. Why? Seriously, why? Everyone who reads this needs to write me with their favorite Silverstein poem. I think mine might be "Old Man Simon" who planted a diamond. Either that, or the one about the peanut butter sandwich. Or Lazy Jane. Or Ridiculous Rose. Or Eighteen Flavors. I could go on for days . . .

Once you've read The Handmaid's Tale, read Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, #52. I don't know whether the powers that be are more afraid of the sex, or of the ways that Huxley describes a population controlled through pleasure. I remember how I used to have lunchroom discussions with my fellow nerds about which was more accurate, BNW or 1984, which didn't make the list. We could never agree, but perhaps the fact that BNW made the list might be a good indication of the winner.

Oooooh, you can celebrate Banned Books Week AND Hispanic Heritage Month with Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits, #67. It's a slightly fictionalized account of her family's struggle through, among other things, the US sponsored coup of Chile by General Pinochet, an infamously ruthless dictator. Wonder why it's been challenged . . .

I hope that #69, Slaughterhouse-5 by Kurt Vonnegut, needs no introduction. Although I will say that I am sick of how Kurt Vonnegut is used to identify teenagers as being "smart but cool." This has happened in everything from Footloose to Can't Hardly Wait. I mean, I love Kurt as much as the next nerd, but ain't there no love for a sistah like Toni Morrison? Anyways, this is another must.

We come now to #88.

The 88th most challenged book in the nation is . . . Where's Waldo. I shit you not.

I wonder if there's some racial slur hidden somewhere, or a nude character in the throngs of people in which you are meant to Waldo. I hope there is, because if there isn't, then the people who challenge these books need to be taken aside and brought to mental institutions, because I figure they just must have gotten mad that they couldn't find him, or something.

I heartily recommend any or all of these books. I myself will be reading one I haven't read. I can choose from the aforementioned Song of Solomon, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (#3, for fuck's sake), Of Mice and Men (#6), Native Son (#71), Bless Me Ultima (#75, and another great HHMonth crossover), and Stephen King's Carrie (#77). All of those are great books that I've heard great things about.

Let's hope I keep hearing about them, because if people are burning Dixie Chicks CDs, books may not be far behind.

And so it goes.

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