Saturday, March 5, 2011

Banned Books, Ancient Style

For the last year or so, my 11yo son has participated in our local library's banned books club. Students in middle school and high school get together monthly to read books such as Lord of the Flies, The Great Gatsby, and To Kill a Mockingbird.  Although our library's terrific children's librarian always attends the meetings and helps facilitate the discussion, she encourages the students to take full authority when deciding what the group will read next.

Lady Chatterley's LoverTheir selection this month is Lady Chatterley's Lover.

I'm not sure my son is ready to read this book.  Actually, I'm sure he's not ready to read it.

I'm absolutely not going to go banging on the door of the library to tell other kids not to read it.  I'm not even going to forbid my son to check it out.  But I'm hoping I can convince him to hold off for a few years.  It will be so much more meaningful to him if he waits at least until he goes through puberty.  So much of the book will make more sense then, and perhaps it will make even more sense if he waits another decade or two after that when the meaning of relationships begins to gel.

Are my instincts all that different from the many parents who approach classroom teachers asking for books not to be taught to their children?  I'm not so sure.  What an uncomfortable feeling this is.

As I think about these issues of banning books, including asking forcing children to delay reading books until they are older, I have been rereading the inspiring posts over at Roof Beam Reader's blog. I'm joining his Saturday discussions this week--perhaps as a bit of penance.

*  *  *

The OdysseyOne of the earliest books ever banned was The Odyssey.  And one of the people who wanted to restrict its reading was none other than Plato.  At the core of his objection was the fact that the hero of the poem, Odysseus, was a man of deceit.  Homer means for us to sympathize--even to identify--with what Plato believed was an immoral man.

Plato was concerned that stories and literature in general taught people to have uncontrolled emotions based on poor imitations of truth.  He believed that virtuous citizens should be taught only through real, personal experience.  Literature was the complete opposite of the truth: each story an utter falsehood, a lie.  Plato believed that people were very likely to be unable to judge what was false from what was True.

Plato did of course believe in abstract non-literal subjects (such as philosophy)--but he argued that the emotional appeal of poetry seduced readers and listeners to respond from a non-rational point of view and have their ability to see the underlying truth clouded over.

Homer's portrayal of Greek gods as deceitful and vengeful added to Plato's resistance to The Odyssey--not because the childish gods of the epic offended the philosopher's religious beliefs but because they would provide bad models of behavior and thought to readers.

Plato's desire to ban Homer, then, was rooted in a distaste for fictional literature broadly.  He believed that literature could transform us in a profoundly negative way--leaving us neither virtuous nor happy.

At the root of my lifetime reading project, and perhaps almost all reading by most readers, is faith in a belief almost the opposite of Plato's: that is, that literature can transform us in a positive way.  We believe that fiction can open our eyes to other perspectives, help us let go of our prejudices and develop tools of empathy, and allow us to define humanity in a broader way.


  1. Plato was the biggest hypocrite of the classical world. In his REPUBLIC the philosopher-kings (that phrase makes me gag, and I'm a philosopher) rule by deception, feeding myths to their subjects to keep them in line. Ugh. I cannot too highly recommend a book I finally found that presents Plato as he always seemed to me, THE TRIAL OF SOCRATES, by I. F. Stone.

    The business with your son and D. H. Lawrence is a tough one. I'll be interested to see if your son decides to wait or if he wants to read it now--and if now, what he makes of it.

  2. This is always a tough call when it comes to very bright children. Is the material that they are intellectually able to handle also what they are emotionally ready to handle? On one hand, I myself was allowed to wander free through whatever books struck my fancy as a child but I also did not fully understand everything I read. A fuller understanding would come years later with a re-read. I do not think anything had a really detrimental effect upon me but I also think I have missed out on a few things that led me permanently away from some great literature. On the other hand, not every child is as happily oblivious. I commend you for letting him make his own decision though.

  3. Your instincts may not be different than other parents, but your actions are, and that's what matters. There is a big difference between counseling your child what to read and counseling a teacher what to teach.

    I'm eternally grateful that my parents thought their job was mostly to give me the information I needed to make smart decisions and get out of the way. Seemed to work for the most part. (Although I wish someone had prevented me from reading certain books before I was ready, not for any "banned" reason, but just because they were utterly boring and meaningless for a teenager.)

  4. Plato was the biggest hypocrite of the classical world.

    Or greatest ironist.

    Frances - why permanently? Life is long.

  5. My parents let me read freely and widely, and I can only remember my mom asking me to wait to read one book, Bridge to Teribithia. I wanted to read it in first or second grade, and she explained to me that she thought it might be a little too sad and scary for me and she didn't want me to worry about something like that happening in real life (I was a real worry-wart). She didn't tell me I couldn't read it, but I respected her explanation and waited.

    I think it's a natural impulse to want to protect your son, and if you can have an honest conversation with him about why you think he should wait to read Lady Chatterly's Lover, he will at least understand your reasoning while still being able to make his own decision.

    Hope that encourages you!

  6. PJ: Thanks for the Plato suggestion. I'll put that on my hold shelf! I'm pretty sure my son took me up on the suggestion to hold off on this book--but I am eager to hear how the other kids (and their parents) respond.

    It is both amazing and scary sometimes to watch him growing up. Sometimes it seems like the books he brings home in his library tote show me more about his emotional development than anything else does.

    Frances: You've put your finger on it: children who can easily read books at a level above those they can respond to emotionally are in a tight spot. When my son was younger, he read an enormous amount of 1900-1940s English lit (like the Swallows and Amazons series and E Nesbit books) because they seemed both intellectually and emotionally appropriate. Recently he's discovered Horatio Hornblower.

    Funny that so much new "young adult" fiction is both above his emotional level and below his reading level!

    Sylvie: I so agree with your statement that counseling a youngster about what to read and counseling a librarian to take off the shelves is vastly different. Our job as parents and teachers definitely includes helping our children learn to negotiate through the bookshelves to find what they will appreciate.

    I spend a lot of my life thinking about what books to put in my son's path--but this is I think the first time I've really had to think about suggesting that a book he had in his path might need to be pushed aside for a while.

  7. AR: Ooh. Interesting thought. Any evidence that Plato was trying to be ironic?

    When I was a teen, I read Will Durant's Story of Philosophy. I adored the poetry of Plato and couldn't stand Aristotle's mysogynist lack of imagination. Although I suspect I may have a very different take on things when I read them now, I would love to be able to come to Plato's defense!

    Read the Book: I was absolutely stunned when I read your comment. Just moments before, I had been remembering that when one of my son's friends was reading that book (right after the movie came out?), I decided to refrain quite deliberately from putting it in his path. (He never picked it up so I didn't have to talk him into waiting.)

    The book was so meaningful to me as a child. I identified with the characters' outsiderness and envied them the imaginative world they created where they fit in. When that relationship and world changed, I was deeply heartbroken.

    His friend thought the book was "cute"--which suggested to me that the friend might have been too young to really understand what happened. Instead of trying to protect my son from the sad parts of the story, I wanted to make sure he was mature enough and emotionally able to experience that pain and be transformed by it. Does that make any sense?!

    Being READY for something make all the difference, doesn't it? Ready to be shocked, ready to be disturbed, ready to be hurt, ready to be changed. When we are not, the books often just seem boring.

  8. Evidence - yes! Plato delivers his ideas via a long-dead gadfly who routinely speaks in parables. A bit slippery, no?

    A bit of the ol' Googling suggests that Kierkegaard, Gadamer, L. Strauss, and A. Bloom agree with me, and many, many, many more brilliant people do not.

    Still. With a truly great writer, my question always is, is there evidence he is not being ironic?

  9. To Amateur Reader, (laughing), life is long but my childhood experiences with Russian lit put me off enough that I can't ever seem to get past those early impressions. Like remembering a traumatic injury every time I pick up certain volumes. :)

  10. You can do it, Frances! Your new book blog friends can coach you through those childhood impressions. You can do it.

  11. Plato did not trust creators of literary fiction, considering them liars, but one of the bulwarks of his own imaginary REPUBLIC is that the people will be fed lies, heroic myths, by the philosopher-kings, this for the people's own "good." If this was intended ironically, one might expect other areas of his utopia to be be similarly repulsive, but on the equality of men and women he is perfectly straightforward, so I see no evidence that he was being ironical in proposing to lead a country with lies. It's only a question of who should be permitted to lie. Poets, no; philosophers, no. Question government, no; glorify it, yes.

    Yes, Aristotle is weak and wrong when it comes to the questions of women and slaves, but offered a chance to sit down with either Plato or Aristotle, I'd have no trouble making the decision. Aristotle was interested in everything, Plato only in the life of the city. I suspect Aristotle, because of his curiosity, would be the better listener. And DE ANIMA--love it!

    My son, because I was a theatre major at the time, read both Greek tragedy and Ionesco at the age of six, along with his father's textbooks on psychology. I must not have been "ready" for Lewis Carroll when I first read those books, because it was several years before I twigged to Wonderland as a chessboard. "You didn't know that?" my mother asked in astonishment, but I was just full of happiness and pride that I'd figured it out all by myself.

    In general, I'm with Frances. One's understanding grows with re-reading over a lifetime.

  12. Lifetime Reader and Amateur Reader: If Plato was an ironist, maybe he didn't believe in the equality of women at all but thought it was a big joke. Now if he really didn't believe in his goofy formless Forms, that's a different matter. A big problem with irony is missing it entirely, but I guess if I'm going to miss it I'd rather reject the ironically posed horror than embrace it in the belief that a celebrated author holds it dear.

  13. I'm definitely in your camp and not Plato's when it comes to the power of literature to transform. So many negative depressing books uplift me with hope.

  14. Isuppose I am the only one who is going to say this, but I would tell my 11 yr old daughter a resounding no. Just as I would tell her no if it was question of an inappropriate movie. My job is to make decisions on what is best for her and my opinion is that Lawrence is well beyond the emotional scope of a prepubescent child. I would tell her to wait a couple of yrs. There are thousands of classics she could read until then.

  15. PJ and Amateur: I'm eager to see where Plato leads me this time around. I find your debate a fascinating one and hope you'll both come back to reengage with the questions when I get to Greek philosophers.

    Jennifer: I agree absolutely that it is a parent's job to help a child understand what books and movies (etc.) will be appropriate. Different parents and different children may act on that responsibility in a variety of ways. My son tends to react with great maturity and thoughtfulness to discussion and reasoning, but he responds with knee-jerk defensiveness and rebellion when adults make the decisions for him. If he didn't usually respect my advice on issues like this, I might feel I needed to try things another way. Although we haven't confronted that yet, we may be getting to it as my son reaches the teen years!

  16. I agree with your reasoning on this one, actually - this is a book meant for adults, and not because it is overly-racy or could do mental damage to young readers, or promotes promiscuity or whatever else. It's just not going to connect well with young readers who haven't experienced this aspect of life, yet. I don't know, necessarily, that you shouldn't let him read it - but I agree that he'll probably get much more out of it in ten or twenty years. That doesn't mean, of course, that he can't read it twice. :)

    I'm very impressed by the list of books these youngsters are even attempting, by the way. I'm sure if our local library did something similar, these are not the types of books which would be chosen.

    Thanks so much for linking back to my blog and for getting involved - I always love a good Ancient Classics history lesson in the morning.

  17. After you re-read Plato, please give Aristotle another chance:


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