Law and Conversation

September 26, 2011

Read this: a Banned Book

DailyLit, among many others, reminds me that it’s Banned Books Week here in the US.

Isn’t it paradoxical that the books someone’s periodically kicking up a fuss over and trying to ban, or succeeding in banning, from schools and libraries are frequently classics? Those that aren’t, it seems to me, end up as merely forgettable and forgotten, not influential. In either case, the fussing seems silly to me, as in last year’s case of the brouhaha over Laurie Halse Anderson’s YA novel, “Speak.”

DailyLit invites readers to post their personal favorite banned book; so far responses include Huckleberry Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird, Catcher In The Rye, and The Bible. The American Library Association has lists by year here.

Some banned books that have a special place in my own heart, though I don’t see them on the ALA’s or DailyLit’s lists, are comic books, which Frederic Wertham, a German-born psychiatrist who emigrated to the US in the 1920s, campaigned against in the mid-20th century. A recent novelization of that period is Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2001. More on Dr. Wertham, including a cartoon of him from an issue of MAD magazine, is here.

I’ll have more on comic books and books about them in my next post. (Redhead, are you still there? Thanks to you, I *finally* read Chabon’s book!) In the meantime, I hope readers will join me in commemorating Banned Books Week by reading a book from the ALA’s lists. DailyLit has “The Scarlet Letter” available for free!

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September 20, 2010

Read This: Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Speak”

I don’t know whether “Speak,” the YA novel by acclaimed and award-winning writer Laurie Halse Anderson that eloquently conveys a high school girl’s pain over a rape and the ensuing meanness and social ostracism from her peers, will become a classic.  But, just in time for Banned Books Week, someone’s trying to ban it from a school library, which puts “Speak” in the excellent company of  many acknowledged classics that are now required reading in many, if not most, schools.

I had to run out to the library yesterday to find a copy of “Speak” after I saw the outrage on the part of Halse Anderson, as well as many readers and writers whom I follow on Twitter, over a Missouri management professor’s screed condemning the book as containing “soft pornography” because it depicts–in far from graphic terms–the girl’s rape by a high school boy. 

The  term “pornography” doesn’t have a legal definition.  Some of my dictionaries define it as “writing about prostitutes,” “obscene or licentious writing,” or “obscene literature having little or no artistic merit.”  For courts, the term that counts is “obscenity,” which the courts have struggled to define over the years.  U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart achieved immortality with his attempt, “I know it when I see it,” in his concurrence in Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964).  Nine years later, in Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973), the court adopted a three-part test for finding that a work is obscene:  “(a) whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest, (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”

Many readers and writers who have tweeted and blogged about the professor’s article are having a hard time trying to figure out how any portion of “Speak” could possibly satisfy a dictionary definition of “pornography,” let alone any part of the court’s definition of obscenity.  Blog posts with more details about the book and the proposed ban are available here, here, and here, among many other places. 

Acknowledged classics that have been the subject of similar banning attempts include Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and “The Grapes of Wrath,” George Orwell’s “1984,” William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird.  Sherman Alexie’s terrific “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” which won the National Book Award for Young People’s Fiction in 2007, has also been the subject of banning attempts. You can follow Laurie Halse Anderson on Twitter here.

Have you read “Speak?”  What banned books do you like?

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