“I didn’t find any literary value.” So said one member of the Randolf County’s (North Carolina) Board of Education about Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece, when the board handed down their decision to ban the book. This is the end of the official Banned Books Week, but every week books are challenged, suppressed, censored, bowdlerized, banned, and yes, still burned.
No literary value. It’s one of the more common arguments put forth when some person or group wants to challenge a book. That got me to wondering as I perused the list of the most challenged and banned books, because there are so many works of clearly great literary value that have earned a permanent spot on this list.* Here’s just a few of my personal favorites:
- Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
- Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
- To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
- Brave New World, by Aldus Huxley
- Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
- The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien
- Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
- The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
- A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L’Engle
- and everything Toni Morrison’s ever written as far as I can tell
I believe the “no literary value” offensive works on a couple levels. First, it’s a convenient cover for the real complaint, which has to do with the theme or topic of the book. Taken as a whole, any list of banned books is a short course in the flashpoints that we struggle with as a society. Regardless of the literary value of the books on the list there’s no arguing the evergreen topics: race, religion, sexuality and sexual preference, gender, and class. Second, there is a popular perception that establishing a work of art’s value is impossible. The idea that beauty is solely in the eye of the beholder is a tautology that serves to scuttle any reasoned argument. True, there is no mathematical formula, yet we have always recognized creative genius, e.g. Beethoven, Milton, da Vinci. There are giants in every field, and by their examples we set the bar, by critical agreement, and by the test of time.
All art is subversive and therefore vulnerable to censure. Good art strips away our preconceived notions, and pursues the truth, no matter how painful or damning. Good art also reveals the transcendent beauty all around us. But it just might be the narrative arts that are the most subversive of all. A recent study about about reading fiction confirms that it influences our ability to empathize. It also found that that the higher the reader’s “transportation” into the story, the greater our empathy. One of the joys of reading a great book is the feeling that the world around us has fallen away, and we have been truly transported into the world of the story. We see that world through the eyes of the protagonist and empathize with his or her point of view.
I believe that seeing the world through new eyes, irrevocably changes the way we see our own world once we put the book down. A book can change your mind. It can change your heart. Is there anything more dangerous than something that can change your heart?
We need these books for the same reason we need free speech, because we simply cannot be trusted to limit it fairly. The opening lines of Invisible Man express perfectly why it is one of the most ironic books to ban.
“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
But maybe there’s hope yet. ** So, go forth and be daring, be subversive. Read a banned book.
|Artwork courtesy of the ALA|
* Don’t even get me started on the kids books on this list. That’ll have to wait for another post.