Social Issues

the books I didn’t read

It’s Banned Books Week, and surprisingly it’s made me feel things. I’ve been to the library and Politics & Prose, and both have had huge displays of banned books, encouraging patrons to take one of these books home. Growing up as a homeschooler, conversations surrounding things like banning books from public school libraries didn’t really concern me. I wasn’t exactly happy about that form of censorship, but it felt like it wasn’t my concern– and I also probably agreed with the people who didn’t want their children having access to Harry Potter.

I didn’t think any of it affected me.

But it did.

Because my family was eyeballs deep in cultish fundamentalism when I was old enough to read books more challenging than Nancy Drew and Little House on the Prairie, I wasn’t able to experience a lot of the common touchstones for people my age. As much as my partner hates Catcher in the Rye, at least he read it. When I think about the literature I read in high school, I want to cry.

For ninth grade I read several Charles Dickens and Jane Austen novels (Mansfield Park, Oliver Twist, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and A Christmas Carol) and a family friend gave me a set of Reader’s Digest Condensed. For tenth grade we used BJUPress’ Elements of Literature and I read The Scarlet Letter and Moby Dick that year. Eleventh grade gave me Call of the Wild and Sea Wolf as well as A Beka’s American Literature. Twelfth was English Literature and more Jane Austen. I didn’t read anything written after 1904 all the way through high school, and my mother was apprehensive about me reading something by Jack London, who she knew was an atheist and socialist.

Through college it was more of the same, even in my “British Novel” class which should have included Virginia Woolf and Aldous Huxley, but didn’t. It wasn’t until I’d graduated until I’d read a significant piece of literature written more recently than WWI.

I was so clueless about what I’d missed that it took me going through an entire graduate program in literature for me to really get it, and it wasn’t until I’d taken classes in post-modern and utopian/dystopian literature that I’d start to understand. Up until that point– up until my last semester– I’d focused on Enlightenment and Romantic-era literature, primarily British, although I made an exception for Poe. I had a number of conversations with several different professors in which I professed that “new stuff” (which, in context, meant post-1900) just “wasn’t for me.” I just didn’t enjoy modern literature the way I really wanted to dig into Shakespeare and Tennyson and Mary Shelley.

At the time, I couldn’t see how I was still being affected by the culture I was raised in. I had a perception of what I thought modern and post-modern literature was, but that perception had been given to me by conspiratorial self-righteous Christians. I thought I didn’t want to read modern literature because I thought it was all hopeless and dead and cynical and dark and full of doomsday rhetoric. Granted, some of it is, but I had no idea that I’d read Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and feel so deeply altered and enriched and challenged and uplifted.

It took me until graduate school to have the experience that most Americans have in high school– sitting in a room, talking together about the questions and challenges posed by an important work of modern literature. Everything I’d grown up reading was usually two hundred, three hundred years old– and that sort of distance made it easy to feel wholly removed from anything the book might have been trying to ask me. It was easy to read Pride and Prejudice and walk away from it comfortable and content in how I’d be able to marry for love– and completely miss any criticism about classism or sexism that Austen might have been trying to make.

I was reading old books, reading them with the thought that they did not speak to my life, and I was reading them alone. Simply saying “I’ve read the collected works of Jane Austen” was enough to impress people, but neither of us understood how profound my ignorance was.

If I’d read Farenheit 451 or 1984 or Lord of the Flies or To Kill a Mockingbird or Things Fall Apart I might have been able to see and understand some things about my life. I don’t think I could have walked away from Scout’s story and see what the racist leaders of my community wanted me to see. I don’t think I could have read 1984 and not realized how my church was using its own version of Newspeak. Lord of the Flies would have challenged the way I saw my community. Things Fall Apart would have upended everything I thought I knew about missionaries and nationalism.

Instead, I read a lot of Lori Wick and Love Inspired. I read the books that the adults in my life were comfortable with me reading– books that wouldn’t challenge any of their (or my own) ideas, books that didn’t ask any hard questions they might not have been able to answer. Safe books. Easy books. Antiquated and archaic and adorable and aristocratic books– only books that enforced the perceptions we already had.

Photo by Mike
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  • I had more freedom than you did, but until my last few years of high school, I wasn’t allowed to read most books written after 1970. My mother thought that the worldviews in the US had shifted from “acceptable” to “unacceptable” around that time. However, fantasy books that included magic were forbidden — Narnia, LOTR, Harry Potter — all forbidden. Science fiction was typically acceptable (since it’s not magic), so I devoured that. Interestingly enough, Narnia is no longer forbidden in my mother’s house, since it has heavily Christian themes. Harry Potter is still not allowed, but my mother cannot provide any satisfactory reasons for that.

    • Courtney

      I’ve always been perplexed by Christians who will allow the Narnia or LOTR books, but not Harry Potter. The former two have supernatural elements like Harry Potter (including wizards in LOTR), and all three series were written by self-professed Christians. J.K Rowling has even explicitly stated that her religious beliefs influenced her writing, and you can see Christian themes reflected in the books. What is it, specifically, about Harry Potter that gets everyone so up in arms?

      • MyOwnPerson

        I think because they were so popular. The culture wars were still pretty hot and they made an easy target for some “us vs. them” strutting.

        • Chris

          LOTR was insanely popular for many generations before Harry Potter. Popularity can’t be a distinction then. I think fundamentalist adults were not so freaked out about children reading about magic in the 80s. All of the children’s cartoons and audio cassettes contained them at the time. Later, cartoons became less about magical creatures – ponies, bears, little witches – and more about historical figures (Robin Hood) or competition (sports teams, detectives solving riddles etc). I remember my parents started freaking about magic in books when I was in junior high. And I had loved books, cartoons and audio cassettes about dragons and witches for all my life I could remember. Also, traditional fairy tales (Hansel& Gretel, Cinderella, sleeping beauty etc) contain a fair amount of magic, and no one was against that in my upbringing.
          Christians in my impression started getting organized about this relatively late, maybe in the 1990s. “Cultural wars” might have come from the US to Europe, with its immense backlash against the Democrats and “leftist ” ideas with the political success of the Clintons. Before that, the world was safely and soundly conservative in the Reagan/Thatcher/Kohl era and its anti-communism. Who knows, the fight against wicca may have filled a void when communism declined! 🙂

      • Crystal

        Please tell me, Courtney, where your sources are to say that she had Christian themes rather than occultic ones in the writings of Harry Potter? I’m itching to hear!!!!

          • Crystal

            Thank you, Samantha! You are kind to me. If you like, I could share more insights on why some fundamentalist Christians don’t like it. For some I know, it was definitely the magic, and the fact that they believed it was promoting an occultic worldview because of the potions and spells. They based their theses on actual quotes from the book plus other books written by Christians such as Richard Abarnas and fundamentalists like David Cloud so they could have a major premise for rejecting the books and movies.

          • Crystal

            Also, if I may add, because Harry is a wizard, at a school of wizardry, and wizardry is supposed to look like a big evil bogeyman in their opinion. See the OT and the book of Revelation for further references on this very controversial topic.

      • Abby Normal

        My mom’s beef with them was not only the witchcraft, but how the “magical” people were portrayed as more interesting, caring, noble, and all-around better than the “regular” people–the whole wizard vs. muggle dichotomy. She felt like it was ripping on Christianity and glorifying the occult in that sense. Mind you, this was before most of the sequels came out.

        • Crystal

          How well I understand!

        • Crystal

          I mean, I understand what you went through, and strongly sympathise for you. Was it very hard for you?

        • Crystal

          I sympathise on the censorship level more than anything else.

  • MyOwnPerson

    I know exactly how you feel. The first challenging book I read was in college and I got nothing out of it at the time. I wasn’t accustomed at all to thinking critically about books and having them change and grow me. Homeschoolers are always doted on for reading so much, but I was like you, I read alone and unchallenged. But now, there’s nothing I love more than a book that changes my life.

  • Marciepooh

    Your ‘exception’ for Poe made me smile. I read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Profrock” in 3 different undergraduate classes – 2nd semester freshmen comp., American Lit, and World Lit. Needless to say I learned a lot about what other people think that poem is about. (An aside to my World Lit. instructor, of 15 yrs ago – English-speakers weren’t the only romantic poets.)

  • I am so grateful that my parents encouraged me to read all kinds of stuff – and read me some pretty controversial (for conservative circles at least) books. We read through The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn, and To Kill A Mockingbird when I was young, and my mom got me to read The Octopus and Animal Farm, which were both enlightening.

    We didn’t do as many 20th Century books as would have been nice, but I think that was more due to what my mom knew well, and her high school education (at a public school) was less than adequate, leaving her to learn much of literature on her own. I am still catching up a bit, but at least I felt that we grappled with some of the questions, even when I was young.

  • Alyson

    I grew up fundie, and I wasn’t allowed to read, watch, or listen to anything that had romance in the plot, even if it was G-rated and not the main focus (although Disney was okay for some reason). Some Christian romances were allowed. I understand romance in media often has problematic messages, but “It’s wrong to want a date or a partner” is also a bad message to send. And my parents did it out of “purity.”

    Other things that were not allowed:
    *All fantasy except Narnia and Disney
    *Rebellious protagonists
    *Anything that questioned or poked fun at religion. Or taught things like evolution.
    *The majority of violence even if it wasn’t graphic.
    *Any swear words. My parents even used a marker to cover up words like “gosh” in my Mickey Mouse picture books. *rolls eyes*

    Basically, it was a very short list. I often had to choose books for younger kids to find something that was allowed, even though I liked to read books for 12 year olds when I was 7.

    Fortunately, I learned all kinds of tricks for sneaking books past the parental radar, so I got to read many books anyway.
    I never read most of the things other kids read though.

    I did not read much literature because my home-school English was mostly about grammar. I did get to read some good books for school though like “The Good Earth” (yes, my parents knew nothing about the plot, lol) and “The Endless Steppe”

  • I also read “alone”. I also got the message of “don’t read Harry Potter”, but C.S. Lewis, Tolkein, were alright. I think Mom had the policy of “If I don’t like it, you can’t bring it home, but you can read anything in the library.”
    Andrew Lang’s Fairy books led me to the classics bookshelf for adults and then I branched out. And I now have >14,000 books to read on my Goodread’s To Read list. Yes, Harry, and many other books that I either wasn’t allowed or didn’t have time for in school are on there.

  • Rivikah

    I appreciate the feeling that you missed something in not reading some of the more contemporary books that others may have been studying. — I have some similar feeling about pop music from my teen years.

    But (as someone who experienced a public school education) I think you might be over estimating the level of engagement in an average highschool English class.

    • If you read a book and then answered questions about it in class, asked by a teacher who has a teaching degree, then no, I’m really not.

      • My public high school English teachers were awesome. What I read in those classes shaped how I viewed the world more than anything else. The critical thinking skills that I learned in those classes is with me today. Granted, I was in AP classes.

      • Rivikah

        I guess what I’m saying is, my experience in English class (yes, lead by trained and qualified teachers) was more focused on basic meaning than anything else.

        It was always more “Identify how this author uses metaphor.” than “talking together about the questions and challenges posed by an important work of modern literature.” Much less any connection of the things we were reading to our own lives.

        Basically, whatever love of literature I might have today is more in spite of my highschool experience than because of it.

  • The only books I remember my parents ever telling me not to read were the Babysitter Club books. I was about 8 and had been having nightmares ever since I had started reading them, and my parents wanted to see if that was the problem. I wasn’t happy about it. Once in a while I sneaked Babysitter Club books. A few years later they lifted the ban and told me that they trusted my judgement about what I read and I could read whatever I felt like.

    My mother wasn’t too excited about Harry Potter, but her reaction was to pull out Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy (it was still a trilogy back then) and read it to me and my brother, because she felt that was a better picture of magic and wizardry. I still love Harry Potter, but I have to admit that Rowling’s magical system isn’t terribly well-organized and that’s a flaw in the stories.

    I’ve read more widely as I’ve gotten older–I wasn’t brave enough to check some books out as a teenager, and others just weren’t on my radar or on my mum’s bookshelves, so there are quite a few pieces of modern literature that I just haven’t gotten around to yet. 1984, yes, Catcher in the Rye, no. My parents encouraged reading and we had books all over the house from lots of different genres. I still find my in-laws’ book selection a little weird because so much of it is skewed towards conservative Christian stuff. I have to bring books with me when we go visit them, just because they don’t usually have things I want to read.

    • Tim

      I think my parents were more like yours with regard to books. They expressed some disapproval about a phase I went through with Marvel comics in middle-school. I got in some trouble at the conservative Christian school I went to in 7th grade for bringing in Dr. Strange (magic!) and Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (psychic Jedi powers!), but they never actually forbade me reading anything.

      Ursula LeGuin is awesome, isn’t she? My first exposure to any thought that questioned gender essentialism was Left Hand of Darkness. And my first real exposure to socialism was The Dispossessed. But the Earthsea trilogy is just very nicely done.

      I was left to root for my own books. On Sunday afternoons when my parents were in choir practice prior to the evening service, I was left in the church library which had a lot of conservative christian children and YA books. And, when I was seven, I found tucked in the middle of them, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I don’t know if my parents then even knew who CS Lewis was, and I don’t know who slipped something with “Witch” in the title into that church library. I remember being entranced. When I came to the end of the book, I cried and was melancholy for days with the despair of never being able to read another book like that. And then, the next year at a school library I made the amazing discovery that there were actually more books set in that world! I found Heinlein juvenile SF when I was nine, and that led me to Andre Norton and all the YA SF in my local library. I found L’Engle when I was eleven. That was also the year when, at an alumni gathering at my parents’ conservative Bible college, I deliberately wandered off into the library there, which was dreadfully dull, and discovered The Fellowship of the Ring. And Famous Science Fiction Stories: Adventures in Time and Space which was a 1000-page hardbound collection of 35 short stories or novellas from the Golden Age of SF, which I stole (I still have it to this day, I’m sorry to say) and which introduced me to all the adult SF, Asimov, Van Vogt, Bester. And that part of the library led me to Le Guin.

      The Lord of the Flies and 1984 both scared me a bit when I first read them. Heavy stuff for a 10 or 11 year old. A middle school teacher had me read Animal Farm, and I gave it to my own 10-year-old last year, and I think that worked ok at that age.

      I also let my 10-year-old read Harry Potter, and I feel ambivalent about that. He had been begging for it since he was nine, and I wanted to hold off because although the first three books are pretty light adventure, the last four seem just a bit heavy to me for that age. So when he was ten I gave him the first book. Well it wasn’t too long before he got the rest of them from me, and seemed to like them all ok. No nightmares. Now he’s read through the entire series five or six times, and I can’t get him to move on. Some other stuff that I think he would like is, by comparison, hard for him to get into. And that made me re-think Rowling a bit; a lot of the books sales when the series was being written was driven by hype, but there is something enduring about the ease of the narrative, the endless inventiveness of the world, the pacing of the adventures, the strength of the characters. There’s something to her work, even though her magical system is pretty random, really, and I agree it’s a flaw.

      My mom disputed whether I should expose my kids to Harry Potter. She hadn’t read the books, but had heard on christian radio they were bad. Trust me mom, I said, they’re well within the mainstream of YA fantasy. It’s not a sign of the apocalypse. The best anti-dote for “bad” books, it seems to me, is a whole lot of books. A multitude of thoughts puts individual thoughts, good or bad, into some kind of perspective.

      I did finally pry him away from Rowling long enough to read some Neal Gaiman recently. Who was influenced by Le Guin.

      • Percy Jackson is really great for kids. I read them all a few years ago and loved them.

        • Tim

          Thanks!

    • Monica

      I spent a good portion of my childhood devouring the Babysitter’s Club books…can’t imagine how they could give somebody nightmares, unless you count one or two that dealt with Dawn’s maybe-haunted house.

  • Gram Pol

    The only things I was not supposed to read were horror books, including Stephen King, which I honored until ehhhhhh, sophomore or junior year?

    What I did instead was walk into the adult fiction section, start at the first “A” book and if it looked remotely interesting, I checked it out and read it. That is, until I utterly daunted by the time I hit the Ds and gave up.

    Thus I read a LOT of Margaret Atwood and essentially NO Thomas Wolff.

  • Jackie

    I was public schooled but even though we read many on your banned list, we didn’t sit around discussing them. Few wanted to – most kids took them for granted and just wanted to spit out the right answers. I loved Mila 18 by Leon Uris so much I asked my 10th grade English teacher if I could borrow it again. She was so excited, she took me into the book room, handed me a copy and told me to keep it (still have it 33 years later). AP English was better but not much. Maybe we just took so much for granted or were so buried in our white privilege world that nothing touched it.
    As a homeschool mom, we had no banned books. Many of the books you named are in my personal library anyway so what was I going to do? No way I’d get rid of old friends. Only one of my 4 though ever got as excited as you (or as I do) and really wanted to talk about the books. But maybe the exposure expanded their worlds anyway.

  • I had perhaps a little bit more freedom than it sounds like you had (my parents enthusiastically read Harry Potter and were somewhat scornful of people who were so legalistic as to write off works of fantasy), so much of what you are saying resonates with me. Most of the books that my friends read in high school, or even younger, I didn’t read till I was in my 20’s. I wasn’t given a chance to grapple with things and when something occasionally slipped through I was on my own.

    My experience of reading The Giver by Lois Lowry when I was in 5th grade was profoundly isolating and frightening to me. I was confused and had a lot of feelings that I had no way to process. It would never have occurred to me to go to my parents. Then my mother read an article about people banning the book and asked me if I had been bothered by it. I grudgingly nodded and looked away. She never asked, just took the book and we never talked about it again.

    I don’t know if all of those books would have changed my mind. I know I had a lot of reasons to hold onto my fundamentalism, not least because part of letting go of it meant letting go of my relationship with my parents. I did read To Kill a Mockingbird growing up and not once did it occur to me that it might have any modern day application. Those things were over. We had killed institutional racism, hooray for us! The truth is that the brainwashing was pretty complete for me and just reading any of those books by myself probably would have resulted in my writing them off as liberal propaganda, as I had been taught to do. But I still wish I had.

    I particularly resonated with growing up believing that so much of this literature was dark and bleak and cruel and so it shouldn’t be read. My mom often told the story of how she once started reading through modern literature and just had to stop because it was so depressing, who would want to read that?

    I’m 30 years old. Almost every piece of modern literature I have read I sought out on my own and I have found things that have changed my life, things I’ve fallen in love with, things I’ve hated. Astonishingly I’ve found there’s nothing I love more than reading and watching the things that challenge me the most. Who knew?

    B

  • aquilamaris

    Were you aloud to read Jane Eyre growing up? It is one of my favorite books, and my edition has one of the newspaper (I think) reviews from another women. In the review, the lady decries the Bronte’s masterpiece as anti-christian and Jane Eyre as rebellious, irreligious, unwomanly, and dangerous to read. I guess the reviewer was the Beverly LaHaye or Staci Eldridge of her generation.

  • EV

    Of course there was no truly modern literature at Bob Jones Academy. However, worse than that was the creative editing of the “high literature” we read. I was in London and went to see A Mid Summer’s Night’s Dream – wow! did I not get Shakespeare in high school and not just because my brain couldn’t comprehend some of the themes but because entire sections were deleted – same with MacBeth – the PBS version scandalized me.

  • Thomas Bowdler is alive and well even today.
    Growing up I had to read to survive, we watched TV, but there was lots of quiet time with the only thing to do was read. My parents instilled in us the ability to think for ourselves and the only way to do that was to look at all sides of an issue.
    We belonged to the book of the month club, mystery book club, science fiction book club and a few others. If you want your children to read they have to see you reading and make sure they have plenty of things to read.
    A sociology teacher at our high school made students read The Passover Plot. My brother, purposely took the class to be in on the discussion.
    I’ve read most of the books on the list and for some you don’t have a proper education if you haven’t read them, but a lot of the books on that list I’ve tried to read and wondered what the fuss was about. Some are pure garbage and if they weren’t banned would have been long forgotten.
    My mother is still reading a book or more a week on her kindle and is proud of what I’ve written. She’s my best salesperson trying to get everyone she meets to buy my books.

  • jamesbradfordpate

    Reblogged this on James’ Ramblings.

  • At my high school we have a Literature of Conflict class, wherein we read and discussed The Lord of the Flies, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Catcher in the Rye, and The Great Gatsby. I love reading books, but never thought about the value of reading books in community. I almost always want to discuss the books I’ve just read and most people in my life haven’t read them, which is when I turn to the good ol’ blog or the Goodreads review section. Anyway, it’s never too late to learn from a book!

  • In my community, even C. S. Lewis was out, and I didn’t even know who Tolkien was until high school – when the movies were coming out.

    • Tim

      I am so, so sorry for you. That seems so awful to me.

      • Don’t feel so sorry, really. My family started coming out of the fundamentalist culture in my early teens, so I got to read Call of the Wild in 8th grade and Catch-22, The Sun Also Rises, Lord of the Flies, Their Eyes Were Watching God and As I Lay Dying in high school. I majored in literature in college and picked up a few other modern books (The Bluest Eye and Typical American). I read the Narnia tales while studying abroad and instantly saw, when I got to the end, why my fundamentalist community didn’t want me reading it. It wasn’t the magic, it was the inclusivist theology. 🙂

        I did miss out on several vital classics: Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Catcher in the Rye, etc. They’ve been on my “to-read” list for years. I’ll get around to them someday. But, overall, I feel like I’ve made up a lot of lost ground. The Handmaid’s Tale remains one of my top 5 favorite books to this day.

  • I never really grasped that I didn’t read anything newer than the 1900s in school until a couple years ago. Some classics made an impression. The Count of Monte Cristo was one of my most influential books that started me on the road to freedom. But when I read 1984 voluntarily, I felt like I was reading about my experiences at BJU and in my church. I’ve been trying to increase my reading of “new classics” (books between 1900 and 1990), but I’m also trying to read alot of new books. I feel like I need to reread alot of classics as well because I feel I would get more from them now than I did before.

  • sunnysidemeg

    Have you read Lori Wick as an adult? Going back to a book I remember liking, I was really disturbed by how women were treated. I can’t remember particulars because it’s been a few years but the big takeaway was “THIS is where I learned some of the things that I’ve had to unlearn to have a healthy, safe relationship”

  • I feel like I could have written this. Nothing later than the nineteenth century (unless it was Rod& Staff or something about a missionary or by Josh Harris or Elisabeth Eliot) was allowed. Even most books from the earlier times weren’t allowed, anything by Mark Twain or Charles Dickens was strictly off-limits. Shakespeare and poetry were frowned upon, too. I feel like I’ve missed so much and have so much time to make up for. 🙁

  • Crystal

    I hope no one will think I’m dominating the conversation here, but I wanted to add that a really good novel for someone coming out of fundamentalism is The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak. It is a novel set in World War II and it deals with the power of words and how they can set a person free to think and create versus the dictatorial government of Nazi Germany, which dominated and dictated words to the Germans and Jews and others living in Germany at the time.
    Exceptional novel and movie. Highly recommend. Here are the articles about it – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Book_Thief for the book and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Book_Thief_film for the movie.
    By the way, what was the criteria for disliking Dickens, gallandria? Some people dislike it because of the violence, ghost stories, Unitarianism, etc. but why did your family dislike him? I can’t understand people’s minds sometimes. Living without my beloved Dickens would have killed me.

    • It was disallowed because it wasn’t “Christian enough.” All the books we read had to be overly Christian. It really limited my choices 🙁

      • Crystal

        I’m sorry, gallandria. Try making up for lost time as much as poss.

        Oh, and, by the way, Dickens – that’s a silly reason not to like Dickens. The principles in the books were very Christian. Was it the same with Shakespeare?

  • I also feel like I’ve missed out on books. Many of the ones you mentioned were also banned for me. I only in the past few months (after being in college for three years) read The Giver. I did get to read To Kill a Mockingbird, which was a privilege I gained due to my writing tutorial, for which I’ll be ever grateful.
    It’s funny, because I considered myself an avid reader. I did read a lot…but mostly historical fiction with a hearty helping of Elsie Dinsmore (highly racist, fundamental, patriarchal…it almost makes me gag to think about them now) and other moral tales. I read all the time, but it was all about escaping. I created a world in my head and it was awesome, but reading was all about getting there, not learning or broadening my horizons.
    Lately, I’ve been wondering what this has done to my long term appreciation for literature. I have really gotten into young adult dystopian series lately, along with Harry Potter…and how I love those. But they aren’t what I would really probably consider quality literature, and I have tried to read other authors like Huxley or Woolf or Crane or others. And I can’t dig into them, like I wish I could. Is it a taste that can be cultivated?

    • It could be a “cultivated taste” thing for some. On a personal level I can appreciate the worthiness of a lot of literature, but won’t necessarily “get into it.” I did eventually find “canonical” literature I really, really enjoyed– theater of the absurd, post modern plays, speculative fiction (dystopias, mostly), magical realism … and then I really liked Amy Tam and Barbara Kingsolver and Sylvia Plath.

      Not everyone is going to JUST ADORE Ulysses, and it’s ok if you don’t. It’s nothing to be ashamed of If you just really dig YA lit for the rest of your life. A lot of classical literature was written or translated for children (like Jules Verne) and people forget that.

  • KP

    My parents didn’t do a whole lot of censoring books when I was growing up (they frowned on my brother reading Stephen King, so he, and then I, occasionally read him in secret), though they did attempt to be a bit more controlling on the musical front (e.g., no MTV). So I’ve lived with at least a tiny bit of censorship in my life. But even when I went to library school, I couldn’t get all that excited for Banned Books week. Part of the reason is that the list of books that have been banned *somewhere* is so voluminous so as to be rendered much less interesting. Part of it is that a book being banned has very little to do with it’s literary merit (hence, the “read a banned book today” encouragements always seemed odd; why read a “banned book” when I can read a good one, whether it was banned or not). But the biggest reason is that book banners are always poor readers and are usually very inconsistent in what they ban. There’s always stuff that they “miss” (by their own criteria), always books that can encourage the readers to question what the censors want you to accept without thinking.
    My years in English grad school (almost got a PhD) showed me how much you can find of “dangerous” content in any literature from any time period (Shakespeare, for example, is full of sex, violence, and skepticism about religion and authority figures). Alas, my years teaching while in English grad school also showed me that most students just coming out of high schools aren’t looking to ask themselves the kinds of big societal questions you were asking when you first started grad school. It was often pulling teeth to get most students to realize that the authors were wrestling with important questions instead of just writing an interesting story (or making an entertaining movie). (Perhaps I was just a bad teacher, in which case it’s a good thing I’m not doing that any more.) Samantha, you mention how there’s actually some pretty pointed social commentary going on in Austen that you missed on your first read; that was also true for me when I read Catcher in the Rye as a freshman in high school. While it is true that some texts make certain questions easier to ask (or harder to ignore) than others, it’s also true that you can be a pretty subversive reader of older texts and a very quiescent and passive reader of modern books, if you have a mind to. I tend to think that what’s more important is not as much access to any particular set of books, but a modeling of reading with those sorts of questions in mind.