Banning books an exercise in fear and folly

In 1994, I purchased a copy of “The Wild Party” after hearing an interview with Art Spiegelman about his illustrated version of the Gatsby-esque poem by Joseph Moncure March. 

It’s a dark little book, written a year before the Great Depression, in which a gin-soaked party spins out, well, wildly and ends very badly for most of the attendees.  

Last fall in a piece in the New York Times Magazine, Mark Harris wondered if March knew the world was on the cusp of change when he wrote his poem, considering “there are few things more glamorous than the belief that we are living through the end of an era — and there are even fewer times in recent history when we haven’t believed it.”   

Certainly COVID has made everyone feel like we are living at the end of something, which may be contributing to the current increase in book banning. If the school board in Tennessee that recently nixed Spiegelman’s anti-Nazi graphic novel “Maus” ever saw “The Wild Party,” it might try eradicating the author’s entire canon. 

In his recent article, “My Young Mind Was Disturbed by a Book. It Changed My Life,” author Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote: 

“Those who seek to ban books are wrong no matter how dangerous books can be. Books are inseparable from ideas, and this is really what is at stake: the struggle over what a child, a reader and a society are allowed to think, to know and to question.” 

Like Nguyen, I own some well-written books, published in prior decades, that contain representations of people we recognize today as inappropriate, if not downright racist. These include several of Dr. Seuss’s books as well as the entire collection of Tintin comic books, all of which my children loved reading. 

Yes, there are portrayals of people in those books that are completely unacceptable —my children know this because we’ve discussed it. As a result, I trust their intelligence and compassion to recognize negative stereotypes anywhere and question why they are allowed. 

I’ve never understood why some parents, in something of a cyclical manner, want to ban books. New York Times parenting columnist Jessica Grose believes it’s about the illusion of parental control, though “delusion”  may be more appropriate. 

A 2019 survey reported that “more than half of American children owned a smartphone by the age of 11.” On that little screen, children can see many things they should not. Tell me you have parental controls on your child’s smartphone or, better yet, refuse to give them one? Great, but what about their friends?  

There is no shortage of books on how to talk to kids about pornography, and sex in general so children won’t turn to online porn as a form of sex education. And for good reason. In 2008, when smartphones were still novel, 90% of boys and 66% of girls had viewed online pornography before they were 18.  

Before the internet existed, children clandestinely read and shared books low on literary value and high on prurience. I was delighted that Grose, who’s easily 15 years my junior, revealed passing around “Flowers in the Attic” with her friends as a child. 

V.C. Andrews’ “classic” was equally popular when I was a girl. An actively evil grandmother locks her grandchildren in the attic while the passively evil mother seeks a new husband after the death of the children’s father, indicating that children are a deal breaker in snagging a man (so much misogyny to unpack there, whew). The story then devolves into a penny arcade of various horrors, including incest. 

The books being banned today, however, are not pulpy paperbacks. Many are literary classics dealing with difficult subjects, such as the Holocaust and slavery. Should works on violent, dehumanizing events in history be sanitized? 

I’d counter that teens, who live in the real world in which atrocities are reported daily, safely learn to deal with the complexity of life when they read about bad things happening to good people in books. 

Enslaving another human being has no upside for the enslaved and there were no “good masters” in the United States or elsewhere. When Toni Morrison wrote visceral accounts of the abuses committed by enslavers in her book “Beloved,” she drove home why parents would go to extremes to prevent their children from being enslaved.  

Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus,” in which Nazis are cats and Jews mice, is not a work of fiction. It’s a postmodern rendering of Spiegelman’s father’s experiences as a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust.  

While some books are banned for violent content, others are banned for telling the stories of people who are not white, or not heterosexual, or not Christian. 

Nonwhite, nonheterosexual and non-Christian children are inundated with books about people who are not like them. Why wouldn’t they want to read good books about people with whom they can identify?  

As for children who are white, heterosexual and Christian, how are they harmed when learning that not everyone experiences the world and life as they do? Good books about people from nondominant parts of society are additive, not subtractive. 

The only risk in reading something written from the perspective of someone who is, in some way, different than the reader, is that of cultivating empathy. In my book, that’s something to embrace, not fear. 

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, February 20, 2022.

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