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.
Their 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.
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One 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.