In the third of our summer reading lists, John G. Nettles suggests that you pick up a few books that carry the highest recommendation of all -- certain people don't want you or your kids to read them.
With as much reading and critiquing as I do, I'm afraid I have a tendency to become overcritical and jaded about the work of the majority of authors out there. Writing is among the most noble and important of endeavors -- a holy chore, as Harlan Ellison puts it -- and those who do it and are able to make a living doing it have my undying respect, but that doesn't detract from the fact that most writers are mediocre at best. It's just Sturgeon's Law: ninety percent of everything is crap. But when one's job is to monitor the state of the field through representative sampling, it can get quite depressing at times. You start looking for that one author in a thousand who can revive your sense of wonder, who provides a read so pleasurable that as soon as you close the first book you're itching to lay your hands on the next one.
The last author who did that for me was J. K. Rowling, author of the freakishly successful Harry Potter series of children's books, about a young boy who discovers he has a gift for magic and attends a special school to learn how to use his powers responsibly. Now I don't have any hangups about children's fare, no stilted sense of self-importance just because I managed to achieve voting/drinking/porn-buying age. If it's good it doesn't matter who the target audience is. But I am habitually suspicious of any book or movie or TV show that is that popular -- The Bridges of Madison County, Titanic, Survivor, unrelenting crapfests every one. Not so the Potter books, which are engaging, legitimately interesting, frequently laugh-out-loud funny, and even thrilling. But I can safely say that my discovery of Harry Potter's adventures would probably never have happened if not for the most remarkable thing, the attempt by civic groups in Tennessee, Michigan, and Texas to ban Rowling's books.
Reading the arguments in favor of a ban on Harry Potter is an exercise in absurdist comedy -- go to the KidSPEAK site and check them out. Among the complaints leveled against Rowling are that she encourages children to devil-worship, which is patently untrue, and that she has fostered an interest in the occult since she was a child herself -- the Kjos Ministries website quotes from an interview where Rowling reminisces about pretending to be witches and fairies while playing with her friends as a young girl (I hope no one ever calls me on my apparent lifelong interest in piracy and shootouts in Dodge City -- I was also cursed by Satan with an imagination). But it's comedy at its blackest, because it comes with the imprimatur of apparent hordes of people who honestly live in fear that a book will have more sway over their children than a lifetime of parenting. They may be right -- if I were one of their children I too would be scrambling for a way out with every ounce of my being. The tyranny of the ignorant always begins at home.
I'm not going to go into the usual diatribe about how freedom of expression and unfettered access to information are the cornerstones of a free society. If you are a PopMatters reader, you are polysyllabic and able to feed yourself with minimal sloppage, so you already know this. All I have to add is my recommendation that you look into the books on the list below. All of them have been banned or challenged in one place or another in the past and continue to be fought over today, but this is not a call for you to read them in protest or out of spite. This is, rather, to reassert one of the truths of this world: anything that enrages so many people has just got to be good.
The 50 books most frequently banned or challenged in the United States, from Banned in the U.S.A. by Herbert N. Foerstel, Greenwood Press, 1994 (I've used this list for convenience; the American Library Association's list of challenged books, 1990-1999, is fundamentally identical -- visit their site):
1. Impressions, edited by Jack Booth, et al.
2. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
The adventures of two men simply looking to make their way in a world bound and determined to complicate their lives, Steinbeck's ability to evoke pathos is unsurpassed. I'm guessing this one offends rabbit-lovers.
3. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Okay, so this was many people's first exposure to the word "fuck" in print. Despite the continual hue and cry over the book, it's unlikely to prove really harmful unless your name is Mark David Chapman, in which case you were a thoroughgoing whack-job long before this classic got into your hands.
4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens)
The single greatest American novel. Ever. Detractors of Huckleberry Finn claim it's a racist book because the word "nigger" is used 318 times. My question is, how can one pay close enough attention to the book to arrive at that figure and not get the point of it? When Huck rips up the "Runaway Slave" handbill because he can't bring himself to betray his friend Jim, he is rejecting the racism of his culture. Get it?
5. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
6. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
7. Scary Stories in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz
8. More Scary Stories in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz
9. The Witches by Roald Dahl
This one is about a small boy who displays great courage in the face of overwhelming odds, thus perhaps inspiring other children to find courage in themselves. No, wait. It's about witches.
10. Daddy's Roommate by Michael Willhoite
11. Curses, Hexes, and Spells by Daniel Cohen
12. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
This one is about children who display great courage in the face of overwhelming odds through their faith in themselves and in God. No, wait. It also has witches in it.
13. How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell
14. Blubber by Judy Blume
15. Revolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl
16. Halloween ABC by Eve Merriam
I haven't read this one, but I've got a pretty good idea what "W" stands for.
17. A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Peck
18. Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman
19. Christine by Stephen King
Apparently there's been a rash of kids in demonic cars from Hell terrorizing the heartland since this book came out.
20. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
21. Fallen Angels by Walter Myers
22. The New Teenage Body Book by Kathy McCoy and Charles Wibbelsman
As opposed to the old version, from back in the days when teenagers had no sex organs and had to get paper routes to save up for them.
23. Little Red Riding Hood by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
In the Grimms' version, the wolf eats Red and Grandma and they don't come back. I'm wondering why the far more salacious original by Charles Perrault didn't make the list.
24. The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Snyder
25. Night Chills by Dean Koontz
26. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
27. A Separate Peace by John Knowles
These last two aren't being banned by religious or parenting groups but rather by all of us who had to slog through the damn things in high school. Silas Marner, you're next.
28. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
I wrote a paper on this one my junior year of high school, precisely because my teacher had never heard of it. My guess is that the powers-that-be are worried about kids skipping school to firebomb Dresden.
29. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
30. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
There are three Dahl books on this list and not one of them is My Uncle Oswald, which actually is filthy.
31. The Learning Tree by Gordon Parks
32. The Witches of Worm by Zilpha Snyder
33. My Brother Sam Is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier
34. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Because we all know what caused the Great Depression -- witches and homosexuals.
35. Cujo by Stephen King
Witches and homosexuals are also responsible for rabies. It's all part of their agenda.
36. The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
37. The Figure in the Shadows by John Bellairs
38. On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer
39. In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak
40. Grendel by John Gardner
You don't want your precious little angels sneaking into your neighbors' mead-hall to devour their houseguests and losing an arm, do you?
41. I Have to Go by Robert Munsch
42. Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden
43. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
I'm guessing this has something to do with Tom not wanting to go to church, or with Tom kissing Becky Thatcher. Tom's just a freak, I suppose.
44. The Pigman by Paul Zindel
45. My House by Nikki Giovanni
46. Then Again, Maybe I Won't by Judy Blume
47. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
A dystopian novel, set in the near future, where America has become an environmental wasteland run by an oppressive government composed of wealthy white men who base their edicts on the Bible and exert utter control over women's bodies, especially in matters of reproduction. Banned by the Committee to Re-elect George W. Bush in 2004.
48. Witches, Pumpkins, and Grinning Ghosts: The Story of the Halloween Symbols by Edna Barth
Much like sex, if we don't tell kids about it, they'll never take part in it, right? Right?
49. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Same thinking as in #48, only insert the word "literature."
50. Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones by Alvin Schwartz
Why the first two books are at numbers 7 and 8 and this one is at 50 is anyone's guess, but it makes about as much sense as anything else on the list.