As you read the reviews on Bookshop Talk, you'll notice that every review is positive. No, we're not a bunch of literary
pushovers who love everything we pick up; we just see no point in telling you about a book if we didn't like it.

September 26, 2011


It's BANNED BOOK WEEK, my friends, so let's celebrate by NOT burning books!

In lieu of a bonfire social, we're reposting one of our Gab Bag topics, on Censorship.

In addition, we'll soon be posting reviews of a dearly beloved banned book (THE GIVER by Lois Lowry), as well as THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak, which takes us back to Hitler's Germany to tell us the story of Liesel Meminger, a young girl who risks her life day after day, just to get her hands on books!

But first, one of our guest bloggers and regular reviewers is going to get us all fired up on the topic:

Laura Madsen, mom, veterinarian and writer

Think book-burning died with Hitler? Unfortunately not. We may be into the second decade of the third millennium, but censorship is alive and well, rearing its ugly head in the banning of a title from a school library, the prohibition of a controversial author from school visits, and occasionally even in the burning of books.

The American Library Association maintains a list of the top 100 challenged books (here), which reads like a list of the best novels ever. ALA also tracks the top ten challenged books by year. In the past decade there have been challenges against some very popular middle grade and young adult series, including the TWILIGHT series by Stephenie Meyer, the HARRY POTTER series by J.K. Rowling and the HIS DARK MATERIALS series by Philip Pullman.

Censorship also presents itself in the altering of classic literature to fit our modern interpretation of political correctness. It was recently announced that NewSouth Publishing is releasing a “sanitized” version of Mark Twain’s immortal HUCKLEBERRY FINN. In the new version, the “N” word has been replaced with “slave.” Auburn University professor Alan Gribben is the man behind the change. In an interview with Publisher’s Weekly (here) he explained that he is not trying to erase race from the book, but to save the novel from those who would pull it from library shelves because of the presence of the “N” word.

I admire Professor Gribben’s intent, but to me, it seems like trying to revise history. One of my writing group friends said, “Next they’ll be rewriting ROOTS into the story of an African boy on a pleasure cruise to America.” Yes, reading the “N” word gives one a squirmy, uncomfortable feeling, but it also prompts a righteous indignation—and a conversation that we must fight oppression.

To Kill a Mockingbird: 50th Anniversary EditionIf we cover up the pain of our country’s racial history, how will our children understand? I think the vast majority of modern Americans would agree that slavery is morally wrong, but how many of us came to that conclusion through reading books? Reading books like HUCKLEBERRY FINN, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, THE COLOR PURPLE or BELOVED—and feeling the overwhelming despair, misery and pain—will teach our children about our country’s history.

How should we—parents, readers, writers, and supporters of freedom of speech—respond to censorship? I once worked with a guy who would read a novel with a black Sharpie marker in hand. If he came across a word he felt was offensive, he would cross it out with his Sharpie. If there was a longer passage that offended him, he would rip out the page. I thought his habit was quirky, but it worked for him and didn’t prevent others from reading the book (well, except for that particular copy). If you don’t approve of a book, just don’t read it. But to ban a book, preventing everyone else from reading it, is a threat to our society’s freedoms.

Is rating books like movies and video games the answer? If you’re a regular reader of Bookshop Talk, you’ll have noted the market notes after each review, explaining language, violence or sensuality that some might find offensive. That’s a great start.

What are your thoughts on censorship? Is Professor Gribben saving HUCKLEBERRY FINN or is Mark Twain rolling over in his grave?

P.S. Don't forget to enter the drawing for a chance to win up to TEN FREE BOOKS of your choice! Click here to read all about it!


Charlie Pulsipher said...

Huck Finn was one of my favorite characters growing up. I loved his adventures and cried over his mishaps. Mark Twain was a master of language and he used the dialect of the time to carry his ideals into the hearts of the common reader. He spoke out against racism and promoted education while channeling a spirit of adventure and discovery. I think it is a diservice to his legacy and to the history of our nation to touch his work. Painting over the ugliness of our historically haphazard use of the word does not remove our past sins. It just makes them easier to forget, which would be a sin as well.

Kim said...

Laura, this is an incredible post! I'd heard of the new happenings with HUCKLEBERRY FINN, and I agree with you and with Charlie (see above comment). Thank you so much for having the courage to talk about censorship in general!

Katie L. said...

Mark Twain is rolling.

Life is vulgar, painful, and obscene. People are bigoted, violent, and angry. It is because of this that beautiful things like redemption and transcendence can exist. Great literature is great because it is challenging.

Now, sometimes to get to the great stuff you have to weed through work that is indulgent and shocking just for the sake of being so. That's too bad, I guess, but part of the reality of living in a free society -- and a price I'll gladly pay for the Huckleberry Finns and To Kill a Mockingbirds of the world.

Amy Finnegan {} said...

Laura, this is such a WELL DONE blog post! Thank you! I'm becoming more and more passionate about this debate, and while I think there is some absolute cheap trash on the shelves (much of it in the children's sections), censorship is plain wrong.

As readers, as parents, as whoever, it is our own responsibility to decide what we will read for ourselves, and to help our children make good decisions, too.

I completely agree with you about the revising of Huck Finn - it is truly trying to revise history, and how will our children ever learn how wrong things have been in the past without being given opportunites to question what they see on the pages of classics - JUST as they were written.

But as you said, Professor Gribben has good intentions by trying to make sure that every child (and adult) can have the opporunity to read this book at all.

It's just . . . I don't know. History - sad and horrible as it may be. I wonder how the African American literary specialists are reacting to this. I'm tempted to say that I'll side with whatever opinon they have, because they were the people origianlly wronged. I hope this isn't "wronging" them all over again.

MKHutchins said...

Not a fan of censorship, but I don't want to read everything, either. That's one reason I love Bookshop Talk; it gives me the information I need to chose books that I'm going to enjoy.

Valette M. said...

Obviously in schools, there should be some censorship: Erotica and horror shouldn't grace the shelves of and Elementary School.
But I think it's a fine line to walk. And I don't think classics should be censored.
"I want to win a book."

Angela - Bookaunt said...

I do not agree with censorship of books. I feel as if you do not like a book then don't read it but do not prevent someone else from reading it just because you do not like what it has to say. We do not all like the same books and there should be something out there for everyone to read. - I want to win a book

Jaina said...

Hmm, Interesting topic! I agree with you that there are alternatives to making a fuss about removing a book from public consumption. My freshman year of high school I had to read OF MICE AND MEN. My mother bought my copy literally so she could go through and cross out the worst of the language before I read it. We didn't bother anyone else in the class, and I don't think my teacher ever even noticed, but it made us feel more comfortable. I don't agree with censorship of old books, because as you said, part of our history are the racist and sexist mindsets. You can't whitewash the past.

I want to win a book.