Wednesday, May 5, 2010

"The Right to Never Be Offended by Anything"

In which I get a little rant-y. Again.

Last week a kind, elderly woman came up to me to check out more audio books. She often does this, preferring to listen to a narrator rather than to read the book herself. I usually end up laughing with her, chatting about the weather and what book she'd just finished, and then she goes off with her new picks and I go back to shelving things and telling children to stop playing in the bathroom.

But last week was a little different. The woman had brought back two audio books, both from our YA collection. One was an innocent sort of book with the major theme of wildlife protection. In it, two young people attempt to protect a certain species of owl from the epically evil corporation that wants to drain their habitat and build some kind of shopping center. They flee from corporate goons (and sometimes from local law enforcement) to get their job done. It's called Hoot, and it won tons of awards--then was made into a movie, which is likely how you've heard of it. The other book was a National Book Award Winner, but I forget the name.

I've read both of them (I remember thinking that when I accepted the CD cases from her), and they were both good. In fact, Hoot isn't even really a YA book--it would be good from ages eleven and up, I would think. The age of the protagonists fits. Also, that's the age when you start defining what you believe in, getting involved in clubs and the get the picture. Innocent book with a good message, in my opinion.

But, as she normally does, this woman told me what she thought of the books in question. Gesturing to Hoot, she said, "I really was getting into this book, until they started swearing."

I get that. Not everyone likes to hear language that might be questionable. But she continued.

"I know you try to keep things like that off the shelves," she said. "So I thought you should know."


We do...what?

Excuse me?

I turned over the books, and pointed out that they were YA--upstairs--and therefore weren't considered children's books. A more mature audience would be reading/listening to them. Also, I said, the books had both won the most prestigious awards for their particular age range, which means they're amazing books for young adults, according to, for example, the American Library Association--not to mention all the other groups of literary amazing-ness that read scores of books as they come out and condescend to award those considered worthy.

The woman then, considering me (as I'm certain she did) to be a high school student like the young woman standing next to me, informed me that she didn't get that art stuff, and if a book had naughty words, it wasn't art. I held my tongue, but what I was thinking was this:

No. Sorry. Nice try. Sometimes, and I know this blows your mind so bear with me, a book has naughty words in it because it makes sense for the character to, at that time, be angry, hurt, alienated, withdrawn--you name it. Sometimes a book has sex in it to show us that this person, whoever they are, associates connecting with his fellow man as a sex act, and through the remainder of the book, he learns that sex isn't the way you connect with people. You can have friends, too.

One of the best books I've read during the year I've worked at the library was Sherman Alexie's novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. The second chapter of this book is all about masturbation. The narrator, Junior, talks about how he thinks that people are born with thumbs for that purpose alone. He continues talking about the merits of self pleasure for several pages, then he moves off that subject and talks about the members of his family and his friends from childhood.

Alexie didn't write that chapter to stand alone as The Masturbation-ists Manifesto. In fact, he wanted to show how Junior, Junior's friends, and Junior's family all cope with the huge struggles they deal with every day in different ways--primarily through either avoidance/escapism or through violence. His sister moves from her room into the basement and never leaves the house, following her eighteenth birthday. His mother and father drink excessively. His closest friend takes out his anger physically, fighting anyone who is foolish enough to confront him. Junior then talks about his expulsion from school following an outburst--he discovers how old his geometry book is, after having looked forward to studying geometry for years--then throws the book as hard as he can. The book hits his geometry teacher in the face.

The remainder of the novel shows us how Junior pulls himself out of the destructive cycle so many people living on the reservation are caught in.

You could argue that the masturbation chapter, or at least the pages in which it is featured prominently, are unnecessary. However, the chapter shocks us a little, and makes us think: Why does Junior love this so much? What could lead him to feel this way?

That's when we read about the other members of Junior's family and discover our answer. I would argue that the most controversial section of the book--judging from the incidence of challenges involving The Absolutely True Dairy of a Part-Time Indian--is also the most integral. It sets the stage for the rest of the book.

What tends to frustrate me is that so many people decide to be offended by something in the first few pages, when in many novels, the protagonist is at his or her worst in that first chapter, before they're able to move on from what's hurt them or cope with the terrible situation they're caught in. Take Ink Exchange, a paranormal fantasy popular with many of our readers--reading the first few chapters could lead you to believe (if you're so inclined) that the novel is advocating an under aged person getting a tattoo. Maybe you find fault with that.

But read on, and you discover that the protagonist comes from a broken home. She lives with her alcoholic father and her older brother who invites his friends over often. On one such occasion, one of her drug-addict brother's friends came into the girl's room and raped her. She wants the tattoo so that she can reclaim her body--she's taking control of her life.

We talk a great deal (literature geeks, I mean) about the way one reads a book. The majority of us read for pleasure. We pick up a book, Jennifer the edges of the pages by crinkling them constantly (it's better than a bookmark!), we sit by the pool or in a waiting room and read that 20th James Patterson novel just because we can. Others of us have a pencil or a highlighter and we read a novel so we can pick it apart, noting all the symbolism and what-not we can so we'll get a good grade on our essay. One book I read--Reading Literature Like a Professor--advocated reading a book three times. Once for plot (what happens to who and when), Once as we mark whatever we think looks interesting or what we don't understand, and a final time to analyze using the information we've gathered.

That will never happen. I'll tell you why.

The human brain is built to look for connections everywhere. We see coincidences, like H.H. Holmes taking inspiration from Jack the Ripper as he murdered women in Chicago in the years following the Whitechapel murders, or that Walter Sickert lived and worked near the sites of the Whitechapel killings, he drew women who appeared to be dead (though alive) that he wrote on paper with the same watermark as the Ripper letters, and therefore Sickert must have been Jack the Ripper. Circumstantial evidence, no matter how unreliable, still is powerful enough to convince us that a dead man who cannot defend himself was one of the most well known serial killers on record.

What does that have to do with books? When we read, our brains pick up bits and pieces of information and connect them without conscious effort. When we train ourselves to read analytically, we analyze automatically. So not even literature professors read like "literature professors"--how could they? They would be bored out of their minds.

Tangent over.

I would argue that some readers pick up books intended for their children and read them not to analyze, not for entertainment, but in order to discover anything and everything that can offend them.

They read to discover every bad word, every sex scene, every homosexual friend or male neighbor who wears dresses, every racist comment (even in a work of historical fiction intended to deter racism by informing readers who didn't live through it), every bit of slang or "inappropriate" humor, every paragraph that might mean that this book was too mature for a reader who wasn't old enough to drink, even if they are old enough to be sent abroad to die for no reason. Then they bring the book in, shake it (I'd imagine) and proclaim that no one should read that particular book because they don't want their child reading it.

The funniest instance of this is also the saddest--a children's series of books titled, "Let's go to ___" that included Vamos a Cuba! The book was, according to the complainant, not an accurate portrayal of life in Cuba (I must add, this took place in Florida). Why? The little boy showing off his homeland to other children was too happy to actually be Cuban. No, he ought to have been suffering, just a little. The book was ruled to have a political slant and it was removed from the library in question. Then the decision was upheld in the district courts. It's still being fought.

I read an article today by a popular children's writer Dan Gutman, and you should read it too. I think it just about sums my life (and the lives of many librarians) up.

I particularly like the quote from one of my favorite writers, Bruce Coville (Go Nina Tanleven!): "Somehow the idea seems to have gotten loose in the country that in addition to the rights of speech, religion, and the press we now have a new constitutional right: the right to never be offended by anything."

Go Forth and Read!


  1. I have often thought that, but could never put it into words--so true!!

  2. Bruce Coville is a genuis. Plain and simple.