A school board in Alaska has just made the decision, will little input from the community around it, to ban five books from its curriculum. The Mat-Su Borough School District decided in a vote of 5-2 to remove these books, each a renowned classic, from a list that teachers may use for instruction. The Mat-Su may want to rethink their decision, however, as these classic books that often elicit groans from students forced to read them are now cool again.
The books in question are Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.
Though they are no longer in Mat-Su school libraries, each of these books is now on backorder at local bookstores. Why? Because local interest in those books and their authors has been reinvigorated by the ban.
Mary Ann Cockle, who owns a little book store about a mile away from the school board's headquarters, said Fireside Books was running out of copies within an hour of the ban being made public. “We were getting five or six [calls] an hour,” she said.
This is the flip side of banning books. Banned books are appealing. About a year ago I stumbled upon reference to a banned publication called Answer Me!, a collection of stories and articles published in the early 90's that was the subject of an obscenity trial against the two booksellers who carried the magazine. I immediately ordered a copy. Once I received it, I quickly realized why it had been considered so controversial.
I bought it because someone didn't want me to read it. The book had been censored some 30 years ago, and its story of censorship still got my money, and I still got his message, offensive though it may have been. Controversy pays out in dividends.
If censorship and controversy can do that for an obscure collection of shocking magazines, what more can it do for books that has already stood the test of time?
The Mat-Su Borough School District is about to find out. Or maybe they've finally stumbled on the perfect plan to get kids to willingly read the classics. That's surely not their intention. Mat-Su Borough School District Jim Hart undoubtedly didn't intend to cause a run on bookstores by calling these books "controversial."
"If I were to read these in a corporate environment, in an office environment, I would be dragged into EO," which is an equal opportunity complaint proceeding, Hart said explaining his decision. "The question is why this is acceptable in one environment and not another."
One wonders why Hart would be reading fine 20th century literature to colleagues in a corporate setting at all. Does that ever really come up? Does he imagine an employee would pipe up and say "Sorry to interrupt Mr. Hart, but aren't we here to talk about the new bus routes?"
Additionally, does Hart really imagine that all environments where people gather to do one kind of work or another, whether it's planning bus routes or talking about books, should be identical in scope and expected behaviour?
According to the School District's website, Maya Angleou's I know Why The Caged Bird Sings was banned because of, "Sexually explicit material, such as the sexual abuse the author suffered as a child, and its ''antiwhite messaging."
Angelou's book was published in 1969 when racial tensions in America were at an all-time high, and the book is largely autobiographical. Her description of her own experiences and her perspective on culture and society were invaluable in helping to bring our society a little closer to equality.
"Language and sexual references" were the reasons for banning The Great Gatsby. I'm sure most people would love to try to read a book without language, and as for the sexual references, it was published in 1925, not exactly the height of the sexual revolution.
I can't say I remember what was so sexual about The Great Gatsby but I can't imagine its anything more salacious than the average Axe body spray commercial or any Superbowl halftime show, so I don't buy that for a minute.
The ban of the other three books The Things They Carried, Catch-22 and Invisible Man, involve things more along the lines of racial slurs and passages involving rape and incest. While this may seem more reasonable, these reasons still don't hold up.
It is doubtful that books which have been in multiple curriculums for decades now are all of sudden just too much for a 17-year-old to handle. A 17-year-old that also has access to the world wide web from their finger tips, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
Shocking writing like that found in Answer Me!, that which shocks for the sake of being shocking does exist, and can be easily found.
These great authors of the twentieth century, Angelou and Fitzgerald among them, didn't do that. They carefully wrote out these 'controversial' passages not once, but perhaps even dozens of times before they were published. These passages went through editors and confidants and endured many revisions before their final print. They were meaningful, powerful, and no, they were not intended for the corporate office, but for thinking feeling readers.
This is because these authors knew the severity of their subject matter and they took their work seriously. Generally, the end result is a refined approach to discussing serious issues and experiences that most of us would rather kept under the rug.
So where will the kids turn when that isn't available? To whatever is available and there is a good chance that whatever is found will have much less thought and consideration put into it. However at least for the time being, one can only hope to find them lurking around local libraries whispering to old ladies behind the counter for copies of books published almost a hundred years ago.
Way to go Mat-Su Borough School District, you just made classic literature cool again.