With the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week on everyone’s mind, I got to thinking about my reading habits in high school.
I don’t remember any overt incidents of book banning when I was in school. There were other morality battles, however, like whether my high school mascot promoted Satanism (we were the Demons). But I don’t remember the neighborhood fundamentalists who were so concerned about the dark lord’s influence over our football team demanding books be removed from our library.
I do remember reading lists, however. We could read anything by James Joyce… except Ulysses. Anything by Flaubert… except Madame Bovary. Anything by Heinlein… except Stranger in a Strange Land (The fact that Time Enough for Love was apparently acceptable shows that my Freshman English teacher never actually delved into Heinlein’s back catalog).
Naturally I had to read those books. Telling a 14-year-old no is the best way to make sure he does it. I could have cared less about James Joyce until I was told it was off-limits, then I had to find it.
I don’t remember if they were available in my school library, although I do remember discovering some banned Vonnegut. Stranger in a Strange Land was in the pile of old sci-fi paperbacks my dad had given me, and I vividly remember checking Ulysses out of the public library, along with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (another verboten title on the book report list) and The Naked Lunch. Loved the Thompson, couldn’t make heads or tails of Ulysses or Burroughs, but I kept re-investigating them through the years, finally conquering them in college.
And I remember finding other controversial books in our school library. Vonnegut, Heller, even crap like Piers Anthony’s more adult pulp sci-fi. And I read all of those, as well as controversial titles by Orwell and Huxley.
No, I had plenty of access to controversial literature. The censorship I encountered in high school was more subtle. I look back at my high school English education and while I read some amazing books that shaped my life, I am constantly shocked by what I didn’t study. We did read The Grapes of Wrath. My sophomore English teacher was a migrant Okie so we spent a semester immersed in Steinbeck. And that book still reverberates with me, 30 years later.
But Catcher in the Rye. The Great Gatsby. The Jungle. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Old Man and the Sea. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Didn’t read any of them. Multicultural books like The Color Purple? This was the suburban ’80s, nobody cared about teaching the African-American experience.
Those titles were on reading lists, so we had the option to read them for book reports, but we certainly weren’t encouraged to do so. And for someone like me, if I had the choice between Foundation or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I chose Asimov.
A curriculum that didn’t explore Fitzgerald, or Harper Lee, that is criminal. I don’t know if this was a sop to the religious right (our principal did attend one of the nearby megachurches) or cowardice on my teachers’ part. Rather than requiring students to challenge their thinking, my school made it optional. And my education was poorer because of it.
Even worse, I still haven’t gotten around to reading a couple of those titles.