Monday, April 21, 2008

The Best Books Ever Banned

After reading a novel, I usually tend to read the corresponding Wikipedia article for a more general background and then Spark Notes to hone in on some of the more specific features of the text I wanted to examine. When I finished "To Kill a Mockingbird" and underwent this procedure, I was surprised to learn about the varied reactions to the book. It turns out that while Harper Lee's classic was typically well received by white audiences, black audiences were much more critical. On the face of it, this would seem to be quite strange, considering that one of the main aims of the novel is to condemn racism and intolerance. However, once one begins to examine the substance of the complaints against the novel, one becomes more sympathetic. Some of the criticisms levelled at the novel include the depiction of black people as uneducated and as victims, as well as suggestions that Calpurnia plays the role of the "contented slave". It is also noted that the racial epithet "nigger" is used some 48 times in the novel. Most of the time, this is used in a derogatory fashion by white people, although at other times the used of the term is neutral. In particular, there is a scene in the novel where Atticus, the hero, chastises his children for using the term, who apparently use the term without any real understanding of its cultural baggage.

My enquiries into "To Kill a Mockingbird" sent me onto a tangent in which I looked at some of the most challenged and banned books in American classrooms. The American Library Foundation has published a list of some of the most famous novels to face the axe and the reason for which it was proposed that they should be banned from the High School curriculum. Having read quite a few of those novels, it would appear that many of the criticisms levelled at these works are hardly justified, although I can understand the concern with exposing one's children to such content. It is certainly possible that if one is not old enough to understand some of the underlying irony behind a certain novel, it is quite possible that they may get the wrong idea about what the novel is trying to convey. At the same time, the novels have the capacity to encourage students to reflect upon important issues in a new way.

Personally, I'd like any children I may have in the future to be avid readers. In particular, I'd want them to be exposed to some of the great texts that I have been had the good fortune to read. When in their childhood such novels would be appropriate for them I would only be able to assess at the time, but I think that sometimes we give children much less credit than we ought to when it comes to understanding some fairly adult issues. By preventing them from being exposed to things that are potentially unpleasant, I believe we infantilise them and prevent their emotional and spiritual development. At the same time, perhaps it would be appropriate to oversee this reading process in order to help my future children understand these issues in their proper context.

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