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Read Any Good Books Lately?

During my long career as a university English professor, I’ve witnessed a serious decline in reading among my students. They come from high school without a frame of reference because they haven’t read much of anything. I even give them the opportunity to salvage a little honor for their schools, if not themselves. “Was it assigned and you just didn’t read it?” Too often lately, the answer is that the book wasn’t even assigned. This was their mantra even before the pandemic disrupted learning in irremediable ways.

I’ve considered what has caused this serious decline in reading. Since funding and promotions are tied to standardized scores, everyone is busy ‘teaching to the test’, so there is very little class time left for actual reading. However, more insidious is the fact that many teachers never have the opportunity to teach particular books because they are banned.

For example, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been challenged since 1885, one year after it was published, and banned from high school reading lists around the country continually because Huck and Jim do not speak correct English, which, apparently, is a poor model for students.  Huck barely completes the third grade, and Jim is an escaped slave. Neither can be expected to speak the Queen’s English, but one would expect that an informed teacher can guide students through a critical analysis of Twain’s thematic use of language.  Then there’s the ‘n’ word,” which appears 219 times in the novel. Huckleberry Finn takes place in 1858. What, exactly, is Huck supposed to call Jim? Sir? Another social  critique by Twain.

Other books that have been challenged or banned because of the ‘n’ word include To Kill a Mockingbird, The Bluest Eye, Beloved, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Their Eyes Were Watching God. Surprised to see Mockingbird on the list? The Great American Novel of the 20th century? Atticus Finch immortalized by Gregory Peck?  Well, there’s a rape trial that offends some readers.  Atticus proves Tom Robinson didn’t do it. That offends other readers.  There’s Boo Radley. There’s the ‘n’ word.  It’s 1935 Alabama. Go figure. Beloved fictionalizes the true story of a mother who kills her child rather than have her grow up in slavery, a common practice among slave mothers. History books do not teach this, but it is important for students to know the unimaginable horrors that extended beyond the cotton fields.

The ‘n’ word is awful, but it is rooted in our culture and our history. Consequently, it is embedded in our language. What better setting to address its power and place in America than the classroom. The role of the teacher is to navigate language fraught with significance and signification, and no word is as powerful in America as the ‘n’ word.  In 1858. In 1935. In 2022. By the way, these are not just lessons in literary analysis. They are lessons in history as well. This cross-pollination of information is called ‘education’.

When I was in high school, everyone was reading The Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield was so cool, dropping ‘f’ bombs everywhere. Not anymore. The Color Purple is banned because of the ‘f’ word, too, though it is about much more than a four-letter word. The use of language by established authors is deliberate, thought-provoking, like the stories they are telling. Students should be able to distinguish between the inclusion of a particular word, even an expletive, to develop a novel’s theme, and the gratuitous use of a word because the writer lacks focus, talent, even a story.

Ironically, books about the Holocaust are challenged or banned, echoing the practice of the Nazis to control the message by erasing the messengers. Parents protested The Diary of Anne Frank because of her teenage sexual awakening. She argued with her mother. The book is “a downer.” The Holocaust is “a downer.” No book depicting its horrors is going to be witty nor should it sanitize the truth. Maus was unanimously banned by the McMinn County School Board because “[i]t shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids . . .” This is precisely what happened during the Holocaust. Like Beloved and other banned books that deal with difficult subjects, Maus provides a perspective that history books omit and shocks readers in its honesty. Parents who do not want to have these conversations now demand that no one can.

These books do not entertain. They educate. They make us uncomfortable. The awful truths of history should make us uncomfortable. At a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise, race-based crimes have increased, and violent rhetoric is the lingua franca of hate groups, the books that could inform us and, perhaps, transform us should be accessible instead of forbidden.

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