Context is Everything

This morning, I did my usual pre-work routine of coffee, more coffee and checking the headlines and other sites I keep an eye on. I’ll admit to smiling more than once to see some of the election results from across the nation. Nope, not going to get into those in this port. I shook my head to see how both sides of the debate about whether Pope Pious was “Hitler’s Pope” or not are scrambling to justify their positions ahead of a new bunch of books coming out. I had no surprise at all to read the Uvalde school police chief failed to appear at the latest city council meeting–and he is a member of said council, sworn in secretly privately last week. But one short post did catch my eye and had me chasing down the original tweet to see what was going on.

Here’s the tweet that started it all.

What the thumbnail doesn’t show is the sign above the books labeling them “banned books”. On the site where I first saw this, most of the comments poked fun at the OP for her caption and pointing out that the books can’t really be “banned” if she is able to buy them in the store. The comments on the actual Twitter thread are a bit more mixed. But it started me thinking about such displays, the whole “Banned Book Month” and the like.

As the title of this post says, context is everything. In this case, context goes beyond the OP’s caption and it even goes beyond the signage above the books. It goes, in this case, to why this particular B&N store has that particular display and what it really means.

It didn’t take more than a minute or two to get to the bottom of it. Once I realized the picture did look like it was taken inside a B&N store, I did a quick online search for “Barnes & Noble banned books”. That brought up a lot–and I do mean a lot–of hits. But the first couple went straight to the heart of the picture and the thesis of this particular post. BN does have a section on their website for “Banned & Challenged Books”. If you take a look at the first few rows of titles, you’ll recognize most, if not all, of them. You will also see they aren’t all new books–nor newly challenged or “banned”.

Okay, I’m starting to get the idea, but I dug a little deeper. In other words, I looked at the next entry on my search return.

A story out of Tampa explains exactly why some B&N stores now have this section in the stores and why there is such a section in the online store.

Some Barnes & Noble bookstores are now including “banned book” sections as school districts and public libraries remove select titles from their shelves. . . On its website, the book store giant explains that literary works are usually banned on “moral, religious or political grounds.”. . . “They were believed to be obscene or too controversial to be read by society,” Barnes & Noble explained. “Books that explore race, sexuality and new concepts and ideas are still often prohibited by certain communities, although they can easily be purchased in most bookstores.”

According to the story, B&N is not forcing every store to have such sections.

Looking at the banned and challenged books included in the photo tweeted above that got this all started, you have Lord of the Rings, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maus, Slaughterhouse Five, Harry Potter, and more. The books have been challenged by parents, community “leaders”, educators and others over everything from politics to sexual content/orientation to religious objections and more. Schools and publicly supported (as in taxpayer funded) libraries have on occasion given in to such challenges in order to keep parents from withdrawing students from the school or voting to decrease funding for the library. Often it is an overreaction to a loud minority because the majority sits back, rolls their eyes and figure nothing will come of the challenge because it is sooooo stupid.

This article lists just a few of the books that have been challenged or banned by decade, starting with The Wizard of Oz. One of the books banned in the 1950’s was The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn. But that’s not the only time poor Huck has been in the center of such controversy. More recently, someone had the “great” idea of rewriting parts of it so words that are objectionable today but were commonplace at the time it was written were changed to more socially acceptable words or phrases. Instead of using the reality of the time as a teaching moment, it was determined the better course was to simply sweep the uncomfortable under the rug and act as if it never happened.

In the 1960s, Catcher in the Rye was “banned” for “being obscene and featuring profane language.” It became the center of controversy later when Mark David Chapman was arrested for murdering John Lennon. When officers arrived on the scene, they found Chapman sitting there, thumbing through his copy of Catcher. All the old controversy surrounding the book resurfaced and TV shrink after TV shrink appeared onscreen to debate whether the book caused Chapman’s actions or not.

Slaughterhouse-Five was banned in the 1970s. A judge called it depraved and anti-Christian. In North Dakota, a school board burned copies of the book. From The Atlantic:

Since it was published, Slaughterhouse-Five has been banned or challenged on at least 18 occasions. And the rhetoric around each case appears to be, like Billy Pilgrim, “unstuck in time.” When the book was stricken from the public schools of Oakland County, Michigan in 1972, the circuit judge called it “depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar, and anti-Christian.” In 1973 the Drake Public School Board in North Dakota set 32 copies aflame in the high school’s coal burner. A few years later, the Island Trees school district of Levittown, New York—in an area once known as Jerusalem—removed Slaughterhouse-Five and 8 other books from its high school and junior high libraries. Board members called the books “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy.” In the 1982 Board of Education v. Pico trial, the U.S. Supreme court ruled 5-4 against the board’s restriction, citing a violation of the First Amendment. But even as that case was being decided, more districts continued to face challenges to the novel’s place in schools.

In the 1980s, a college in South Carolina challenged The Great Gatsby for “language and sexual references”.

Hell, in the 2000s, Captain Underpants was challenged for partial nudity and encouraging misbehavior.

Here’s the thing. Just about any book, even the frigging dictionary, can be challenged by someone who doesn’t like something that’s included in it. The question is who “bans” it and why. Do I have a problem with not making certain books available in schools–especially as recommended or required reading–that encourages behavior they are too young to truly understand and recognize the consequences of? No, especially not on the required reading list. Recommended? That’s a greyer area. Give parents a choice of alternative books.

I object to banning or rewriting to make a book socially acceptable just because the language in uncomfortable or objectionable today. Use those books as a teaching moment. I did that with my son, not just with Huck Finn and similar books but with books like The Canterbury Tales and even Shakespeare and others. Hell, I did it with newer books as well, including some that have been challenged or banned and are now on the “must read” list of the enlightened school districts.

Now, to get back to the original point of the post. The person who posted the tweet showing the display of “banned books” could have phrased her caption better. Or perhaps she misunderstood what the display really represented. What gets me is how so many responding both there and on other sites that linked to the Tweet didn’t take the minute or two to research the display and actually open a discussion on why books are challenged and/or banned.

Do I agree that every book on the list should be in a school library? There isn’t a yes or no answer to that because there area caveats. It depends on the level of the school. Is it an elementary school or a high school? Is it a recommended book or required book or just sitting there in the stacks?

I’ll be honest. I’ve found myself in the position as a parent of challenging a book, not because I thought the book shouldn’t be made available to kids but because it was required reading for kids that were too young to understand some of the very adult themes. Worse, it was summer required reading and, let’s face it, a lot of parents don’t have the time or they don’t have the inclination to read along with (or ahead of) their kids. They trust the school district and teachers to require books they will agree with philosophically, religiously, etc. I knew better. Hell, I wanted my son exposed to different ideas and to ask questions. But I did not agree to a 4th grader going into 5th grade being forced to read a book that was described as a fantasy being faced with a graphic rape scene. We discussed it at length. Then I went to the school and discussed it with the teacher.

And, yes, I formalized my objection to the book being required without there being a more detailed description of the book and there being alternatives parents could choose for their child to read.

In other words, it goes to context. What is the book? What age group was it written for? Is it required reading or recommended or just in the stacks? Are there alternates parents can choose from? Why is the book being challenged? How many people actually challenged it and are they part of the community or are they from outside, having chimed in just to stack the deck one way or the other? When was the book written? Can the objectionable material be used as a teaching moment or is it being removed because it is easier to do so than to discuss the discomfort the book might cause someone?

And why the hell don’t more people remember that if we don’t learn our history, we are doomed to repeat it?


Don’t forget that Jaguar Bound is out on Amazon and will be out on the other major outlets this week.

Twenty years ago, the world first learned of the existence of shapeshifters and other paranormals. It hasn’t always been easy but now Normals and Paras live in relative peace. Mackenzie Santos played a large role in making that happen. Mac has spent most of her adult life enforcing the law. Once she started turning furry, that law included Shifter law. Because of her and those like her, the world is a safer place.

Or is it?

A new threat appears on the horizon, one that puts both Paras and Normals in danger. Will Mac be able to meet and defeat this new challenge or will it turn into her greatest fear: war between Paras and Normals?

 

Featured Image by Prettysleepy from Pixabay

About the author

Writer, proud military mom and possessed by two crazy cats and one put-upon dog. Writes under the names of Amanda S. Green, Sam Schall and Ellie Ferguson.

Comments

  1. The fun-and-games is that some books aren’t “banned” but they are “called banned” because some parents don’t want their children FORCED TO READ THEM.

    For example, with the Harry Potter books, some parents didn’t like them as Required Books. The idiot teachers didn’t take the time to find out why the parents didn’t want their children Required To Read Them.

    I know the reason even if I disagree with the reason and don’t see Why The Hell We Should Force The Parents To Give IN.

    1. Our son is still not allowed to read Calvin and Hobbes by himself.

      Why?

      Because he thinks Calvin is really awesome and keeps copying him!

      He’s allowed to read it in moderation. But much beyond about ten minutes, and destruction starts up.

      1. The reason people had problem with Harry Potter was that (to them) attempting to use magic opens the “user” to evil forces. IE Magic involved invoking not-so-nice beings to do something.

        Even if the “magic” doesn’t work, by attempting it, you’re “inviting in” the not-so-nice beings.

        I believe that children who honestly see it as a game (not expecting anything to happen) are under G*d’s Protection so nothing harmful will be allowed to happen to them.

        Now, teens and adults who attempt magic with the idea of “wouldn’t it be cool if it works” could be in big trouble. 🙁

  2. And why the hell don’t more people remember that if we don’t learn our history, we are doomed to repeat it?

    Because most of these books get inappropriately added to required lists for kids exactly because they flatter some adult’s self-image, so it’s very easy for other adults to get a chunk of that self-flattery by defending having a 12 year old write a paper about graphic sex scenes.

    It doesn’t cost the “defenders” anything, and they feel good.

    So why bother with silly things like the facts of the matter? Or basic parental rights? Or that some of the challenges were “no, I don’t want us to spend the entire book budget to buy two hundred copies of this book for a single section of a single grade’s single subject class.”

  3. The reason people had problem with Harry Potter was that (to them) attempting to use magic opens the “user” to evil forces

    My grandmother had the same objection– which is why my dad didn’t even read fairy-stories as a kid.

    In her case, that started after she did tea leaf readings as a party game, and was repeatedly really accurate at it. When she was just fooling around with it, because she knew it was nonsense.

    1. This reminds me of something my mother told me.

      Back in the mid to late 70’s (I wanna think it was while we were at Castle AFB) Mom was at a friend’s house doing a “New Age” mini retreat, “girls” night thing. One of them brought out a Ouija board. You know, those things that are sold as games. Mom swore that she got an answer. From that day forward she refused to touch them.

      I will not touch them. Not because I think I’ll get a response, but on the basis that I think they can lead to trouble. (what gifts I may have do not lean towards conversing with the dead.)

      1. :Nods:

        That’s how it is, with people.

        A lot of the folks who want to be outraged… they ignore that the kids are people, too, and not little pawns to be used in preening.

  4. I remember in elementary school one of the books on Roman history got pulled from the school library. As kids, we said, “Ah, dang it.” and moved on. But I can totally see why parents were upset about that book. It had a bunch of pictures, mostly classical paintings, depicting various scenes, including several dedicated to the orgies. Depictions of naked people is titillating to the ten-to-twelve year old. The same book was in the library at the high school (might have been the same copy, IDK) and didn’t get hardly any attention.

  5. In one of Mercedes Lackey’s Urban Fantasy novels, her main character (a magic user) “warded” a Ouija board that some college-aged girls wanted to purchase. 😉

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