Holy smokes, have I just endorsed book censorship? Yes– and no!
Steve Himmer, in his lovely essay “Making Room for Readers” on the fab TheMillions, advocates aggressively encouraging children to read, and removing any barriers that can be seen as “rarifying” the book.
I disagree. Huh???
OK. I agree with the first part: a book-encouraging environment is necessary to raise readers—but I’m not so sure I buy the negative interpretation of the obstacles Mr. Himmer found in his way.
Because I’m all for obstacles in book publishing and constraints on reading—if those obstacles and constraints reinforce the essential value… of books in our children’s lives and in our lives.
I’m big on publishing gatekeepers—from literary agents to publishing companies to editorial boards to higher-than-99cents-ebook prices–and I’m also big on keeping abreast of the books my kids read. I’m even OK on libraries setting age requirements on kids’ library cards.
I say all this as a dues-paying member of the ACLU.
Mr. Himmer shared two events that concerned him (and please read his essay; it’s terrific): his local library refused to bend its policy of granting library cards only to kids over five or could write their names, and a young teen girl’s aunts(?) were hesitant about allowing her to buy his (unfamiliar) book. The adults said, “books are so…books are tricky. That’s something your mother needs to decide.” He saw these as examples of a greater problem: the rarifying of books. I saw these as examples of just the opposite—evidence of valuing books and their power—and found them encouraging. (From the other comments I saw on his essay, I’m in the minority.)
I’m strongly reminded of the controversial Wall Street Journal article Darkness Too Visible by Meghan Cox Gurdon where again I’m the contrarian. This article—asserting current YA fiction as a whole is darker, more violent and more disturbing than in years past, and that is a bad thing—set off a maelstrom of angry responses from young readers and from some authors as well.
Dare I say I was sort of on Gurdon’s side? Not on the side of book-banning—but on the side of parental awareness. (My then fifteen year-old read The Kite Runner and A Long Way Gone in his general literature class in public school last year. I am a huge fan of both books, but still it gave me a little pause, knowing this was the first time my son had been exposed so graphically to child rape and horrific violence. Am I glad he read them? Yes, absolutely. Would I have preferred he had read them a little later in his life? Perhaps. What mattered to me: that he read other books as well, and that the books were discussed in a larger context.) Do I worry, as apparently does Ms. Gurdon, about the cumulative desensitizing impact of our popular culture on my children, and other kids? Sure, I do. It’s neither brain surgery nor cynical to be aware of the psychological truism of desensitization (whether to violence or e-rudeness, to name just a couple of my constant concerns). Do I think Ms. Gurdon painted with an overly broad brush? Yes, again.
But I digress, a bit.
These arguments increase my optimism. You may believe, like me, that “rarifying” books commercially enhances their value and promotes the longevity of the medium, and that exposure to some issues in any form may be inappropriate for your kids at certain ages. You may believe on the other hand that such limitations constitute censorship at worst, or at least are counterproductive to the promotion of letters.
For me, reading this article and loving it while still disagreeing with some points, and watching the fallout from the Gurdon piece brings me to a surprising realization: Hey!
A whole bunch of us compassionate book limiters and dogged book “unlimiters” are coming from the same place–a love of the written word and its power, and a deep desire to protect the medium. That’s a very good thing.
No argument there, right?