In Lodi—my home town—the public library was split into two clearly marked sections. There was a children’s room and, beyond an imposing wooden door, there lay the adult section.
But even in grade school I was an incorrigible bookworm, and soon enough I sneaked over that threshold and began checking out “adult” material on the sly.
At first, I was just feeding a restive Agatha Christie addiction. The Hardy Boys and Sherlock Holmes just didn’t cut it anymore; I needed the likes of Poirot and Marple.
But my reading appetites hardly stopped there. Soon I was checking out books by other authors deemed inappropriate for younger readers—John Dickson Carr, Raymond Chandler, even James Michener.
It was only a matter of time until I got caught. It turned out that one of the librarians had been on my trail for a while. Once, when I was heading out with my latest stash, she stopped me in my tracks and read me, politely but firmly, a riot act of sorts.
My craving for the “adult” stuff persisted, though—and fortunately my older sister came to my rescue. Soon we developed a routine. I’d go to the adult stacks with her, collect the books that I wanted and hand them all over to her. She’d use her library card to check out everything for me.
All very tidy and legal, of course.
Given my own fascination with books, it’s not surprising that I later got a B.A. in English and an M.A. in comparative literature. In the mid-1980s, I landed a full-time job teaching, among other things, English.
And then something unexpected happened during my first year in the Fresno Unified School District (FUSD).
After picking up a class set of Hamlet paperbacks from the school library, I was surprised to see that they were censored. Hamlet’s familiar “To be or not to be” was still in there, but someone had determined that other lines were definitely not going “to be.” They’d all been eliminated.
In Act 3, for example, Hamlet lets Ophelia know “That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.” Apparently, his remark—that sex can be pleasurable—was deemed too hot for high school English classes to handle, and it had been removed, along with other “controversial” lines.
A few years later, though, as our Honors and Advanced Placement offerings expanded, my colleagues and I could offer our students the real Shakespearean deal—unexpurgated Folger editions, maids’ legs and all.
Throughout the decades that I taught Shakespeare, no students or parents ever raised concerns about these lines—nor about Porter’s speech in Macbeth, nor about some bawdy passages in Measure for Measure.
Not all of my colleagues lived such charmed lives, though. One decided to teach all of the stories in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles—including “Way in the Middle of the Air,” which features a few appearances of the N-word in its opening pages. Even though the district’s English guidelines allowed for the book to be taught, parent outrage came down hard on him.
That criticism always seemed misplaced to me. Bradbury’s story takes many of its white characters to task for their livid racism, a worthwhile topic if there ever was one. The ruckus about the N-word—something Bradbury used to show the ugliness of prejudice—seemed to overlook the story’s overall message.
News reports about moves to ban books and restrict schools’ curricula have caught my eye again and again in recent months, not least because some of the books under scrutiny (such as Huckleberry Finn) were staples in FUSD’s English reading lists.
It’s a tough problem, of course. Clearly, not all material is appropriate for use in elementary schools, or middle or high schools—either for classroom use or for inclusion in school libraries. A line has to be drawn somehow and somewhere.
On the other hand, restricting or banning books—or merely “cleansing” their contents—can come at a high cost.
In The Language Police, originally published in 2003, Diane Ravitch traces the mind-boggling rise of “beneficent censorship.”
Early on, she recounts how the bias and sensitivity reviewers at one company, Riverside Publishing, rejected various texts that had been suggested for inclusion in a nationwide exam. One passage, which portrayed a blind man who had scaled Mount McKinley, was rejected because of its putative regional bias. Some students, the reviewers felt, wouldn’t be personally familiar with mountains and would thus be at a disadvantage should they come across a text like this one in an exam.
In general, the Riverside guidelines called for controversial topics to be avoided—topics such as politics, religion and death.
As Ravitch puts it, these reviewers acted on “assumptions that have the inevitable effect of stripping away everything that is potentially thought-provoking and colorful from the texts that children encounter.”
Literary material in anthologies has often been bowdlerized, she notes. Swear words have been removed as well as references to God and religion—changes that severely weaken the message and meaning of works by such writers as Elie Wiesel.
The urge to restrict the scope of reading materials, even if well intentioned, can become an endless juggernaut, one that seeks to eliminate all aspects of texts that might be discomforting for some. Once unleashed, the appetite to restrict and censor can become insatiable.
Recently, the Bob Graham Education Center in Miami Lakes, Fla., opted to place Amanda Gorman’s The Hill We Climb on a shelf reserved for middle school readers only. Given the fact that a single parent complaint precipitated this decision, the incident suggests that no written work is safe from restrictions these days.
Could it be, however, that exposing students to potentially uncomfortable materials can be beneficial—in fact, highly beneficial? My experience in the classroom suggests that it can.
For many years, Hermann Hesse’s Demian had a place on FUSD’s recommended reading list for the 12th grade, and I taught it several times before my retirement. The book appeared in the wake of World War I, and in it several characters question their society’s institutions and mainstream beliefs—including Christianity.
Over the years, many students have let me know that Demian was the most important novel that they read during high school. Especially striking is the number of Christian students who felt that way. They’d never encountered these perspectives before, and they felt that they’d gained a lot by reading about them and confronting them head-on in their written assignments.
In my experience, honoring parents’ concerns about their children’s reading doesn’t have to be difficult or acrimonious. Early on in my career, when I taught in a private school in Stockton, the mother of one of my eighth graders visited me shortly before the start of the year.
She let me know that she and her daughter were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and she gave me a pamphlet that enumerated the topics—such as Halloween and Christmas—that she didn’t want her daughter exposed to. Given the pamphlet’s clarity, I could provide her daughter with the type of educational offerings that she favored. Her daughter received alternative material and assignments on occasion, and others in the class received the regular curriculum in its entirety.
Much of the news about school curricula and the content of school libraries has zeroed in on those seeking to restrict or ban material. Less discussed, however, is another demographic.
A few decades ago, I asked students to read a few books on their own each year and write reports about each one. They could choose works from a list that I provided or, if they had another title in mind, ask me if they could use that one.
Once an 11th grader wanted to know if she could read Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer for her next report. Given the novel’s history—it was banned in the United States for quite a while, then the subject of an obscenity trial in the early 1960s—I told her that I could only agree if she brought a note from her parents signaling that they’d allow this.
The next day she handed me a letter from her father, letting me know bluntly that “my daughter has the right to read everything that she wants.”
Secretly, I was heartened about how that situation got resolved. After all, I’d read both of Miller’s Tropic novels back when I was in high school.