library · opinions

Still Banning Books

On Monday, the American Library Association released their “State of American Libraries 2019” report. Among other things that are mostly interesting to librarians, the report included the top 11 most banned/challenged books in 2018. The report lists all 11 titles with the reasons people gave for wanting these books removed from library and school shelves.

If you’ve looked at past lists, as I have (because they make great collection development lists), it’s impossible not to notice trends. Most of the time, I get a kick out of the reasons given for book challenges (requests to remove books) and bans (actually removing the books). On old lists, I’ve seen the usual suspects: swearing, sexuality, the occult (why Harry Potter gets challenged), and so on. The reasons can usually be put under the heading, “these books will teach kids to be subversive to the status quo,” and I am all in favor of that. The list for 2018, however, made me profoundly sad. The reason given for many of the titles on this year’s list relates to LGBTQ+ topics. Here’s the list for 2018:

  1. George, by Alex Gino, “for including a transgender character”
  2. A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, by Jill Twiss and illustrated by E.G. Keller, “for LGBTQIA+ content, political and religious viewpoints
    1. Fun fact, I bought a copy of this for my niece for her last birthday.
  3. The Captain Underpants series, by Dav Pilkey, “for including a same-sex couple, perceived as encouraging disruptive behavior.”
  4. The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, “for profanity, drug use, sexual references, deemed ‘anti-cop'”
  5. Drama, by Raina Telgemeier, “for LGBTQIA+ characters and themes”
  6. Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher, “for addressing teen suicide”
  7. This One Summer, by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki, “for profanity, sexual references, certain illustrations”
  8. The Skippyjon Jones series, by Judy Schachner, “or depicting cultural stereotypes”
  9. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, “for profanity, sexual references, religious viewpoint”
  10. This Day in June, by Gayle E. Pitman and illustrated by Kristyna Litten, “for LGBTQIA+ content”
  11. Two Boys Kissing, by David Levithan, “for LGBTQIA+ content”

I am so saddened by this list because it shows just how under siege our LGBTQ+ population is in the United States, especially our teenagers. If they can’t find acceptance anywhere else, I would have hoped that they would be free to find solace in books that show them that life can get better, that they won’t always be stuck where they are, and that there is nothing wrong with them.

The other reaction I had when I saw the list was surprise at seeing Skippyjon Jones. I recall having a great time with more than one of my nieces and nephews at the antics of Skippjon the Cat, though there were places where I raised my eyebrows. I can absolutely see why Latinx and Hispanx people would be upset by the way the books perpetuate stereotypes. But even though I agree that the books are racist (even a little bit racist is still racist), I don’t want these books to be pulled from shelves either. What I wish is that, if a parent wants to read one of the Skippyjon books, they immediately follow it up with something that is more realistic. It’s not an ideal solution, but my answer to problems like this is always more book not less.

Removing books from library and school shelves doesn’t make these topics go away. It just makes it less likely that children with questions about them will not talk to their parents or teachers. And the topics on this and previous years’ lists definitely need to be talked about. If we can’t read freely and honestly express our questions or ideas, we will never have the kind of progress we need to ensure that our teens know that being LGBTQ+ is not shameful or wrong; that it’s not anti-cop to expect that police won’t kill you for the color of your skin; or that our society needs to do a better job of helping teens with depression, abuse, addition and other things that are hard to talk about.

As a librarian and a reader, I hope that I will always have books around me that might make a difference if I hand them to a reader in need at the right time. America, leave the books on the shelves.


Intertextual Time Travel

Last week, I wrote a two parter about The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri, and “The Overcoat,” by Nikolai Gogol. Reading Gogol’s short story was, I felt, absolutely necessary to understanding the novel. Since then, I’ve been thinking about the idea of books in dialogue with each other even though they were published more than 100 years apart. Thinking chronologically, it’s impossible for it to be a dialogue. The Namesake can respond to “The Overcoat,” but “The Overcoat” can’t talk back to The Namesake.

Frank Weston Benson

Or can it?

Apparently this dialogue could take place in my head. (It’s a weird place.) Reading “The Overcoat” really did help certain parts of The Namesake, which remained more than a little opaque to me after I finished it. If I had gone back and reread The Namesake, I’m sure that I would have ended up with new thoughts about “The Overcoat.” If I hadn’t read these books together, I would have ended up with a book I didn’t fully understand and a very bleak story that made me chuckle before it punched me in the gut. The books would have been silent when they could have been talking to each other.

My little epiphany about the way that my brain turned into a literary time machine reminded me of one of my firm beliefs about books: they’re not alive unless they’re being read. Without a reader to host the characters and the ideas presented in stories, a book is just ink, wood pulp, and a bit of cardboard—or just pixels on a screen, if you prefer ereaders. Bouncing stories off of each other to see the sparks is another amazing thing we can do in our bookish brains.

If you’re interested in more bookish dialogues, see my Bookish Sommelier posts. They don’t travel as far in time as Lahiri and Gogol do, but they have very interesting things to say if you get them in the room together.

In praise of... · opinions · reading life

In Praise of…Footnotes

I can’t remember when I first read Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman*, but I can remember that one of the things that made me fall deeply in love with the book was the comedic use of footnotes. I didn’t know such a thing was possible. Before Good Omens, my only encounters with footnotes were brief glimpses of academic texts with tiny print at the bottom of the page that I treated as entirely optional**. Later on, I discovered the joys of the footnoter phone in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series and in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. I even found a book written entirely in footnotes that I absolutely adored: Ibid, by Mark Dunn.

I know that it can get irritating to have to constantly move your eyes up and down the page and remember where you were. It’s even worse on an ereader***. You have to hold two lines of text in your head to make sense of them. And, of course, there are times when what’s in the footnote doesn’t really add anything and/or goes on so long that you completely lose track of what you were reading.

But in spite of all of this, I love footnotes. I have to work hard not to read them before the main text. So, what is it about footnotes that I enjoy so much? I think Good Omens and my realization that footnotes could be funny had a lot to do with it. I love the way that a well-chosen footnote can puncture pomposity or add a hilarious aside to the main text. My love of metafiction also plays a role. Unlike other readers, who like to sink into a book to escape**** or who just don’t like being reminded that we are staring at dead, pulped trees with ink scribbles all over them, I revel in books with layers that make me think about how a story is constructed and what the narrative is trying to achieve*****. I love getting more than one story between a given set of book covers.

Endnotes, however, and this is my considered opinion, just suck. Who can be bothered to flip to the end of the book to get that extra, juicy bit of text?

Readers, what are your thoughts about footnotes and endnotes? Do you like them in fiction? Should they only be used in nonfiction and then only judiciously?

This footnote, from Nicolas Berdyaev’s The Divine and the Human, may be the greatest academic footnote ever written.

* Or, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.
** Which means I didn’t read it.
*** Oh god, it’s awful. Get on this, publishers!
**** I do this sometimes, too, but not as much as I used to before I graduated with a degree in English literature. It is hard to turn off the analysis, even 10 years later.
***** Similar to my love of unreliable narrators.

I take issue · opinions

I Take Issue…With Bad Copycat Publishing

I understand. I really do. Publishers want to make money and, traditionally, the best way to do that is to keep producing something like a guaranteed winner. After The Da Vinci Code became a hit, the bookish world was treated to a flood of books about historical mysteries that would change everything we ever knew about the world. Publishers are still trying to find books like the Harry Potter series, Gone Girl, and others. I don’t have a problem with any of that.

Getting lightning to strike twice, as it were, is hard work. One has to learn about the exact conditions that caused the lightning and how to reproduce those conditions. What was it about Harry Potter that made readers fall in love? Why on earth was Twilight so popular? It’s like having to psychoanalyze without being able to actually talk to anyone. One can only make decisions based on impressions and it’s no wonder that publishers sometimes get it wrong and produce books based on incorrect deductions.

Alexei Harlamoff

So far, I’m good. What I do have a problem with, is when publishers try to copy the wrong parts of the books people liked and go too far, only to produce one note books that are just not what we wanted. For example: The Wolf and the Watchman, by Niklas Natt och Dag. I don’t blame Natt och Dag for what that book ended up becoming. I blame whoever edited and published it. Reading it felt like someone told an author, people like really dark, awful things set in Scandinavia. Nothing about the society. Nothing about the detectives, really—just violence on top of violence. I can’t believe that almost the entire population of Stockholm circa 1793 were sadists.

Scandinavian noir has been big in the English language market since The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo broke out in 2008. Since that book made it big, we’ve seen dozens of books set in the freezing north: the Inspector Erlendur novels, the Kurt Wallander books, the Harry Hole series, and so on. They tend to feature moody, troubled detectives uncovering awful secrets hidden behind the seemingly egalitarian and calm façades of Nordic life. The grumpy detectives are nothing new. We’ve had those since Sherlock Holmes. The setting is new and who doesn’t love lifting up rocks to see what’s hiding underneath? The best books in this sub genre are deeply appealing for their psychological depth. Unfortunately for me, The Wolf and the Watchman had none of the good things about Scandinoir.

Pity the poor readers who end up on the receiving end of terrible books like the Fifty Shades series (which began as fan fiction of Twilight) or all the books about teenagers required to kill each other after The Hunger Games came out. I might be more inclined to forgive if I hadn’t just finished a copycat book that got it wrong. What about you, gentle readers? Have you ever read a terrible book that seemed like to come straight from a focus group?


Reading Out of Time; Or, Blowing the Bloody Doors Off of Authorial Intent

Over a year ago, I read Shirley Jackson’s delightfully creepy The Haunting of Hill House. Being a reader in the year of the deity of your choice 2017, I interpreted Jackson’s references to a character’s roommate as hints that the character might be a lesbian with a partner—even though the book was originally published in 1959. Since I’m not a very big believer in analyzing literature solely in terms of what the author intended, this interpretation wasn’t really a problem for me. I haven’t been a follower of authorial intent for a long time. Not since I learned that Ray Bradbury declared that everyone was misinterpreting Fahrenheit 451.

Cover of the 1952 first edition

All that said, sometimes I will read something that makes me wonder if my circa 2019 eyes make me see things that don’t exist. Two days ago, as I worked my way through John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, one of the episodes in the book made me sit up sharply and shout a short expletive. Was it possible that Steinbeck had written a transgender character in Chapter 23? Here I am, on page 277 of my edition*, and a young child asks their uncle, “Uncle Tom, how do you get to be a boy?” Then, they continue, “I don’t want to be a girl, Uncle Tom. I want to be a boy.” A little later in the chapter, this character’s story is closed with the brief line, “she never really trusted [Uncle Tom] until after she was glad she was a girl” (p. 297). This line would seem to put paid to my theory. My response is a) the other characters are very dismissive of this child, b) the narrator is too busy relating two massive family sagas to pay much attention to his sibling’s psychology, and c) this book is about whether nature or nurture is more important, so why not include a character who doesn’t feel right with their body?

But how could Steinbeck have written a transgender character in 1952? It’s only recently that the term transgender has become the preferred term for individuals who identify with a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. Also, judging by the frequent, casual misogyny in East of Eden (so many women’ descriptions include the size of their breasts) and the repressive attitudes of the 1950s, I doubt that Steinbeck intended the scene with the young child and their uncle as anything other than a comic interlude.

The lovely and incredibly brave Christine Jorgensen (Image via Wikicommons)

Even though my knowledge of the time and of Steinbeck argues against this reading, I can’t help but read the scene as a brief and very unexpected appearance of a child who may be transgender. Social attitudes notwithstanding, there were transgender people in the 1950s. Christine Jorgensen began her gender confirmation surgeries in 1951. Common sense argues that there have always been transgender people, whether they were out or not.

It’s also absolutely possible for an author to put something in a book that is interpreted differently by readers than they planned. Ask Ray Bradbury. To use Fahrenheit 451 as a case in point, it’s entirely possible for readers to come up with an interpretation that is more useful and feels more “correct” than what the author intended. I much prefer to give this young character the dignity of listening to their question, instead of brushing it aside and making a joke as their relatives do in the scene. I prefer to think of this character as another example of how change can be a matter of will, that we are not stuck with how we are born if we feel the need to change.

Readers, what do you think about chucking out authorial intent? Have you run across “anachronisms” like this in your reading?

Paperback centennial edition from Penguin Books.


A hoard of thoughts about KonMari

Since it’s currently impossible to avoid reading about—and therefore thinking about—Marie Kondo and readers’ reactions to getting rid of books, I’m weighing in. But I’m going to do it in unranked bullet points because my thoughts about this are definitely not tidy.

  • Noooo! My books!
  • Only 30 books! Are you serious?!?
  • …Everyone’s number is clearly different. People who don’t read that often don’t need that many books in their home.
  • …Also, there are libraries. You can totally get away with not buying books.
  • But authors definitely need to be paid more.
  • Also, don’t just dump your KonMari’ed books off at the library. We probably can’t use them either. There are other options.
  • Getting rid of books is curiously hard. I’m not sure what it is. It might be our cultural aversion to book burning and we don’t want to be seen as destroying books by discarding them. Who knows, but a lot of us share a deep dislike of throwing away a book.
  • Book hoarding is totally a thing, though. If you have piles of books around the house and can only make your way around your house via goat trails, it’s a hoard.
  • But I plan going to read all of those!
  • …but there are some I probably won’t read because my reading tastes have changed. There are days when I review my to-read list and ask myself what the hell I was thinking when I put some book on it. Looking at a list of books I ambitiously decided to read does occasionally spark guilt or weariness rather than excitement or joy.
  • At least my books are on shelves and in alphabetical order. It doesn’t look like a hoard. Also I weed.
  • I accidentally rebought a book I already owned, so maybe I’m not as tidy as I thought. Oops.
  • My books! I curate my collection. It’s full of books that mean a lot to me. Even the “trashy books.”
  • A lot of readers get antsy when we don’t have enough reading material around us. In desperation we (okay, I) will read shampoo labels.
  • People need to stop giving Marie Kondo a hard time. All of the criticism I’ve seen of her is based on either misinterpreting her recommendations or over attachment to things.
  • People who advocate ignoring recommendations to declutter and get rid of books that we’re not going to read/use/etc. are also off target. Like I mentioned above, reading tastes change.
  • Why hang on to a books we aren’t going to read or didn’t like when it’s taking up the place of another books we might love?

What thoughts do you have about Marie Kondo and your books?


To Hell with FOMO; Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Best of the Year Book Lists

It wasn’t so long ago that I received the flurry of best of the year book lists that appeared every December with a sense of panic. List after list would leave me wondering if I had wasted the previous year reading weird books no one else wanted to read. (This also happens when someone wins a book award and I’ve never heard of them before.) But, after a few years of being a librarian and seeing just how many hundreds (thousands) of books are published ever year, I realized that something had to give.

Alexander Mann

I still think there’s value in having common reading experiences. And I definitely believe that we need to challenge ourselves to read widely and deeply. But any reader has to learn that it’s just not possible to read everything that everyone else is reading. There’s too much and we have jobs, families, significant others, exercise regimes, pets, friends, that pesky need to get our heads on a pillow regularly, etc., etc. At times, a best of year list can seem like an assigned reading list. Pushing ourselves to read books we don’t like (no matter how many critics adore them) or just have no interested in (oh my god, enough with the pseudo-science alternative medicine already!).

For any reader who sees the best of year lists and panics, I say: step back, take a breath, and think about the books you enjoyed during the previous twelve months. If there’s overlap, cheer yourself on for having great taste! If not, cheer yourself on anyway because you are blazing new trails and reading books that need a wider audience. Most importantly, if you’re not reading what everyone else is reading and you’re having fun with what you’re reading, remember that you are doing this reading thing right. Reading is supposed to be something we enjoy, not a chore.

And if anyone asks if you’ve read this year’s books and you haven’t, well, just say: “No, but I did read X and I loved it!” Instead of falling prey to FOMO, give yourself the gift of swapping recommendations with another reader.