Thursday, September 30, 2010

I'm With the Banned

I grew up reading Maurice Sendak and Judy Blume, Doctor Seuss and Robert Louis Stevenson.  I read Mark Twain and John  Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway.  I read Vonnegut and Bradbury and Steven King. 

And all along the way, my path was peppered with people telling me to stop, that those books were a danger; they would be a corrupting influence on my growing mind.  If the books didn't do it, then Dungeons & Dragons was sure to have me dressed up in a black cloak and lighting candles around a pentagram in no time and if that didn't do me in, the rock bands were all trying to get me to commit suicide anyway.

It's a wonder any of us survived, really.

Nonetheless, I drank deeply at the font of knowledge, thought for myself, and often found things that changed my mind about one topic or another.  Judy Blume showed me an unblinking look at the world through a girl's eyes.  Vonnegut changed my mind about the glorification of war.  Anne Frank taught me the horrors amongst hope that even Vonnegut couldn't bear to relate.  Twain convinced me that my racist peers were idiots.  Hemingway was a fine role model for how not to relate to the opposite sex... the list is endless.

I grew up on Sesame Street and managed to maintain an attention span sufficient to read (and write) long-form fiction.  I pulled imaginary capers with The Mad Scientist Club without becoming a brainy hooligan and followed Harriet the Spy through the secret lives of her friends without becoming a snoop.  (Though I did major in journalism, so there might be something there...)  I read the Brothers Grimm without once encountering a witch trying to entice me into her oven and the poems of Shel Silverstien without becoming... well, whatever it was that the people who wanted to ban it were afraid I would become.  I honestly can't be bothered to care what they thought would happen.

And the dictionaries!  Oh my, the dictionaries!  Yes, Virginia, the dictionary is an insidious thing, full of pulchritude and words that will "infect your soul, curve your spine, and keep the country from winning the war."  I picked up many a dictionary containing all of Carlin's Seven Dirty Words and all I got for my trouble was a first-class vocabulary.

Too often I find myself faced with someone whose world is a frightening place, a Place That Is Out To Get You.  And apparently it was a world without personal responsibility, a world where we were hapless victims floating along, performing horrors at the whims of Muppets, dungeon masters, guitarists, and authors.

At times, it seems like my entire childhood was spent traipsing across a landscape of the banned and the forbidden. Jim Henson was destroying our attention span so that MTV could turn us into zombies or sex maniacs.  (Or worse yet, zombie sex maniacs!) 

Come to think of it, with all the "evil" I was exposed to, it's a wonder I didn't become a super villain.  I guess all those Marvel comics I read and bad 50's B movies I watched really didn't do me a lick of good. [edit: All I got out of it was a book deal].

Somehow my generation survived our exposure to the blandishments of the fiendish cathode ray tube, as well as Judy Blume, Shel Silverstein, Jim Henson, and Talking Heads.  Just as my parent's generation survived JD Salinger and To Kill a Mockingbird, Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles.  And just as each generation has persevered in spite of (or because of) those cultural influences their elders and betters were certain would destroy them all the way back into the dawn of time.

And I think that's what the book banner is afraid of most. Not that we'll be destroyed or seduced by what we read, but that we won't. That the fear lives only in their heads. That we'll read this Awful Thing That Should Not Be Tolerated and go on to live perfectly normal lives. We might discover that the bad guys don't always get their poetic comeuppance. And worst of all, we might discover that the ideas that they find foreign and threatening aren't that frightening after all.

- Scott

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post. I often wonder why we (contemporary North Americans) have become so fearful. Despite being as wealthy, safe, and long-lived as any people have ever been throughout history, our cultural themes and preoccupations reflect fear of just about everything: the outdoors; letting our children play without constant supervision; strangers; and of course the dangerous ideas in books. Here's to the freedom to think!


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).