There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarian, Irish/Italian/ Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib/Republican, Mattachine/FourSquareGospel, feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.
Fire-Captain Beatty, in my novel Fahrenheit 451, described how the books were burned first by the minorities, each ripping a page or a paragraph from the book, then that, until the day came when the books were empty and the minds shut and the library closed forever.
from the 1979 Coda appended by Ray Bradbury to his Fahrenheit 451, originally published in 1953
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One of the main subjects of Banned Books Week is censorship, and the right to read books uncensored, particularly in schools and libraries. The American Library Association (ALA) on its Banned Book Week website has a link to What You Can Do to Fight Censorship and Keep Books Available in Your Libraries, and another website refers to the week as “an annual anti-censorship campaign”. So I liked what I read at Chicago’s Loyola University libraries’ website:
The message of Banned Books Week is more than the freedom to choose, the freedom to express one’s opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular. The essential message of Banned Books Week is the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them.
So why do we cry censorship when a mother objects to a book with wizards and pentagrams in the school library or a school board yanks Shakespeare for sexual content, but not when publishers, authors, and sometimes illustrators get involved to give the title character a makeover and a new name, as in the case of The Story of Little Black Sambo*; or when some of the characters and dialogue are changed, as in the case of The Story of Doctor Dolittle**; or when titles are silently dropped from publishing lists? It’s enough to make Thomas Bowdler proud.
Little more than a year ago, Britain’s Commission for Racial Equality urged that Tintin in the Congo be removed from bookstore shelves: “It beggars belief that in this day and age Borders would think it acceptable to sell and display Tintin in the Congo. High street shops, and indeed any shops, ought to think very carefully about whether they ought to be selling and displaying it.” In response to which Borders in the UK and in the US agreed to move the title away from children’s delicate eyes to the adult graphic novels section. Finally, last October, publisher Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, which had been planning to publish Tintin in the Congo “quietly pulled” the title from its fall list, as Publishers Weekly reported, and said it would not include the book in a forthcoming box set of all 24 books in the Tintin series. The response to the news was fairly quiet, too. We have, of course, only recently revisited the condemnation of Babar, friend to many (generally children) but foe to others (generally adults).
And what of the “updated and sanitised” Enid Blyton? Blyton’s biographer, Barbara Stoney, wrote a very funny but bang-on article two years ago, “Row faster, George! The PC meddlers are chasing us!”:
New editions of the Famous Five have been tampered with. The publishers are apparently planning to relaunch the Malory Towers, St Clare’s and Secret Seven series next year and are talking, ominously, about ‘slight alterations’. ..
Meanwhile, in the Faraway Tree stories, Fanny and Dick have been bowdlerised into Frannie and Rick presumably because their original names might provoke covert sniggers in school playgrounds. …
Even the semantics of Blyton’s stories are being picked over, word by word. ‘Queer’ has become ‘odd’ and ‘gay’ is translated as ‘happy’, while ‘biscuits’ have been usurped by ‘cookies’ in an unsuccessful attempt to appeal to an American audience.
How utterly ridiculous it all is. Blyton wrote the bulk of her fiction in the Forties and Fifties. The settings and the characters’ names and attitudes reflect the time in which they were written.
How absurdly anachronistic, then, to have a contemporary Pippa and Zoe munching ‘cookies’ in a post-war kitchen where a maid bustles around filling a picnic hamper. If we start to tinker with the text and characters, we must also alter the settings.
Where will it all end? The whole Blyton oeuvre will have to be rewritten to appease the muddled thinking of a politically-correct minority who believe children cannot make an imaginative leap into the past. …
Her current critics have not allowed for the books being written within the context of her time. She wrote about the childhood she knew, which was dependably middle-class, and she peopled her fiction with characters that belonged to the era in which she lived.
In The Adventurous Four, she wrote about a 15-year-old boy called Andy who worked with his father full-time, as a fisherman.
It has evidently been decided that Andy should, in fact, be in full-time education, so the story now ensures that he is not guilty of reprehensible truancy. Now he is at his school desk all day and only helps Dad at weekends.
What patent absurdity! Next we’ll be expurgating Dickens to take out all references to child labour. We’ll have Oliver Twist pursuing a full-time education until the age of 16, before leaving to take up a ‘work experience’ post with Mr Sowerberry the undertaker. ..
The Famous Five are famously intrepid explorers. One adventure takes them into the dank recesses of a series of caves. Surely they shouldn’t be permitted to take such unwarranted risks? What of the danger of falling rocks, hypothermia or, worse, predatory pederasts?
These days, no self-respecting mother would allow four preadolescent youngsters and their dog to wander through subterranean caverns without responsible adult supervision, safety hats and satellite phones.
Surely the errant Five should be safely at home, experiencing their adventures vicariously through their computer screens?
Well, of course they shouldn’t. Children, by and large, want to be thrilled and excited by stories that move ineluctably towards a happy ending. Even Blyton’s sternest critics concede that her talent is to engross the most recalcitrant or tentative young reader in tales that do just that: in Blyton, the good reliably triumph and the bad are punished. …
Blyton is not, of course, universally revered by all young readers. But almost 40 years after her death, she still enjoys a huge following.
There’s even a new Famous Five book, inspired by The Dangerous Book for Boys, sort of an Enid Blyton meets “Survivor”; BBC’s News Magazine recently pondered “the mystery of Enid Blyton’s survival” despite “an author whose writing has long been accused of being too simple or even poor in style, bossy and sexist”.
Intriguing that most of the books selected for facelifts seem to be children’s books. In her own article on Babar and the surrounding controversy, in The New York Review of Books in 2004, writer Alison Lurie pointed out that, “Like many would-be censors, [Herbert] Kohl has a low opinion of children’s ability to think and judge for themselves as he once did”; she was referring to what Kohl had written in Should We Burn Babar? Essays on Children’s Literature and the Power of Stories, that though he had found the elephant king “charming and wonderful” as a child, he nevertheless as an adult believes that “uncritical reading of the book is so potentially damaging that it should be withheld from children when possible.”
I’ve found in the five years we’ve been home schooling that a number of the older books, from novels such as the Little House series to H.E. Marshall’s Our Island Story, from my own childhood and which that my children now enjoy, cherish, or find useful are often dismissed on the more secular home educating lists as Eurocentric, sexist, racist, ethnocentrist, or just generally politically incorrect and oppressive. If I were letting the children swallow whole the outdated opinions that we know now to be wrong and incorrect, that would be one thing. But how better to understand the thoughts and opinions of the time, compared to our own times and sensibilities, and how better for children to learn the power of words and ideas, and the power of freedom? I don’t think we do our children any favors by feeding them expurgated pap (and I’m not talking about good quality abridged editions here), or even worse, banning the books outright, and glossing over the honest details of other eras.
The book is also great in the sense that it shines a light into the nature of the times in which it was written. Anyone thinking of giving it to their children might also think about explaining to the child the fact that it was published in a different age. The fact is that attitudes towards people have changed
Similarly, writing about the school/text book business in The Language Police, Diane Ravitch concluded,
The goal of the language police is not just to stop us from using objectionable words but to stop us from having objectionable thoughts. The language police believe that reality follows language usage. If they can stop people from ever seeing offensive words and ideas, they can prevent them from having the thought or committing the act that the words signify. … If children read and hear only language that has been cleaned of any mean or hurtful words, they will never have a mean or hurtful thought. …
It [censorship] should be abhorrent to those who care about freedom of thought, to those who believe that minds grow sharper by contending with challenging ideas. How boring for students to be restricted only to stories that flatter their self-esteem or that purge complexity and unpleasant reality from history and current events. How weird for them to see television programs and movies that present life in all its confusing and sometimes unpleasant fullness, then to read textbooks in which language, ideas, and behavior have been scrubbed of anything that might give offense. How utterly vapid to expect that adolescents want to see themselves in everything they read, as if they have no capacity to imagine worlds that extend beyond their own limited experience, as if they will be emotionally undone by learning about the world as it is.
At a time when an industry has grown up around the idea of teaching children to think critically, one of the worst things we can do is to discount children’s abilities and remove the need for them to develop reasoned thought and careful judgment. Or to teach children that the way to deal with disagreeable thoughts is to censor them. Much better to teach them to debate those thoughts and strengthen their arguments.
* Little Black Sambo, written and illustrated by Helen Bannerman, unexpurgated edition
** The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting, unexpurgated edition, at Project Gutenberg; audiobook versions at LibriVox and Project Gutenberg
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