So, should we ban books?

BBC News – Why are parents banning school books?. US parents have been waging war on books they don’t want their teenage children to read, it emerges. This is partly a difference in the way the US operates — in a nation where even police chiefs are elected, it’s no surprise that a parental petition can put a book on the banned list — and partly in what US parents expect. Although we would deny it for ever, there is much more of a culture here of ‘school knows’ best, and much more a culture there of ‘parents know best’. If you’re inclined to deny this (and, seriously, who would want to admit it?) look at the proportions of home-schooled children in the two countries. Or, if you don’t have time to check the figures, just say the words “home schooled kids” and “home schooled children”. Which rolls off the tongue more easily? The American version.

I relocated a copy of Joan Aiken’s The Way to Write for Children on Amazon the other day, and I’ve just been rereading it. I have to say that I do agree with a lot of what she says, particularly the difference between books for children, and books about children. During my teenage years I was introduced to a number of books at school which are considered by teachers to be ‘classics’ and — according to my conversations with teenagers since then — seem to be pretty much de rigeur for a proper education. Stan Barstow’s Joby, Lord of the Flies, The Catcher in the Rye and Oliver Twist are all books which I hope I will never have to read again. They are all books about children, but not really for children. The really depressing thing is that I loved reading William Golding at university. The Spire, The Inheritors, Pincher Martin (which I think I’ve referred to elsewhere as Prester John — I’ll have to track that down and correct it, since Prester John is a book by John Buchan), and Darkness Visible are all dark but hugely enjoyable. I just don’t want to read Lord of the Flies again. Nothing about Joby, which, in the hindsight of a more educated adulthood appears to be a kind of Sons and Lovers for teenagers, would ever persuade me to read another Stan Barstow book. Ditto The Catcher in the Rye. Dickens I love, but would read almost anything by him in preference to Oliver Twist which is forever spoiled for me by having read it at school. I am fortunate that I was only exposed to passages from Great Expectations, and so was able to enjoy the entire book (which wasn’t at all what I thought it was going to be like) when I was old enough to make sense of it.

On the other hand, The 39 Steps, Twelfth Night, the poetry of Wilfred Owen, and most of the other books written for adults which I read at school before I was sixteen have stayed with me. I knew I was entering an adult world when I read them, and was happy to read about adults doing adult things. Reading about children catapulted into a tawdry and unpleasant adult world — in other worlds, books about children deprived of their childhood — merely left me miserable.

This is all to the point because The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird are both on the top ten list of books which American parents have tried to ban. As with most of these things, I feel the arguments for and against (at least the ones in the BBC article referenced above) rather miss the point. It’s not the sexual explicitness of The Catcher in the Rye which makes me never want to read it again, but rather the general miserableness.

According to Joan Aiken (op cit), children will typically read 600 books in childhood. Her salutary warning to any budding children’s author is that all 600 have probably already been written, so you need to have a pretty good reason for bringing another one into the world.

I don’t propose the banning of anything that isn’t actually illegal, and I wouldn’t support it if someone else proposed it. I was privy to some extraordinarily unsuitable books as a child, and I don’t think they particularly did me any harm. But books which are on the curriculum are quite different from books which are in the school library. On the curriculum, every child in the class has to struggle through it. I’ve read some appallingly negative Amazon reviews of A Wizard of Earthsea, one of my favourite books, by children who were forced to read it. I love that book, but I can see why being made to work through it would suck the life out of it for anyone.

If I were called in to give a view, I would suggest keeping two kinds of books off the curriculum. First, I would (along with American parents) exclude books which made extensive use of ‘bad language’. I accept the argument that children know all the words already. If they’re reading The Catcher in the Rye they may be surprised at the quaint terms of  ’goddam’ etc, which no-one says now. But putting them in a book on the school curriculum robs them of their counter-culture value, and it also normalises and formalises the use of abusive language. I’m not suggesting that children shouldn’t read The Catcher in the Rye. But any thrill they might get out of reading a ‘rude’ book will be destroyed by reading it in class. It isn’t the book I object to (though I’m still not going to read it again) but the making official.

Secondly, I would pull all the books off the curriculum which are essentially about childhood being taken away from children, especially the ones written to improve humanity in some unspecified way. I know I sound like a Daily Telegraph reader in putting this, but those books made me miserable, and I wouldn’t wish them on anyone else. Do I really need to know about the abuse poured out on Oliver Twist or David Copperfield? As literature, as a novel written for adults and read by adults, fine. The Catcher in the Rye rose to popularity not because of its teenage audience, but because of adults who loved its counter-culture evocation of teenage rebellion, and decided that teenagers ought to read it.

Children’s books from the very earliest age are filled with the world of moral choices. The broken promise, the lie that comes back to haunt, the misguided attempt to test someone’s loyalty are all tropes that every child comes to recognise from children’s television if not from books. The books I didn’t like removed any sense of moral choice, replacing it, if with anything, only with a sense of shame or confusion.

The pre-eminent example of this tendency is Lord of the Flies. Lord of the Flies, of course, is William Golding’s answer to the Victorian classic The Coral Island. In The Coral Island, the shipwrecked boys organise their own lives on Victorian principles, navigate by dead reckoning, and minister to dying pirates. Golding — as he explains in his book of essays The Hot Gates — reasoned that this is not really what would have happened. What would really have happened is, without the civilising effect of a social contract mediated by adults, teenage boys would immediately revert to a neo-pagan barbarism, brutalising the weak and establishing a tribal hierarchy where the chief holds the power of life or death over his enemies.

But is this really what would have happened? Thanks to twenty-four hour worldwide news, we now have many reports of children who have become isolated and had to fend for themselves. There are communities of street children in many cities, and there are places where the average age of population is around 15. I can’t claim to have made any kind of a study of the many articles I’ve read over the last ten years which relate in some way to groups of children forced — for a while, or longer — to fend for themselves, but I’ve never read an account of children reverting to savagery, whereas I have seen quite a few which are touching or even heroic.

I recommended to my nephew that he read The Coral Island to prepare for writing about Lord of the Flies. The funny thing is, he enjoyed The Coral Island much more. Lord of the Flies was perhaps important in the development of modernist thought, and it reflected the ideas of its age. But it does not reflect the ideas of our age, nor of anything which might objectively be described as ‘true’. And it suffers as a story from having a beginning and a middle, but more of a stop than an end. Running from the hunters, Ralph ends up on the beach where he encounters a naval officer from a rescuing ship. Suddenly the story is over. There is no reckoning up, no settling of scores, no resolution of tensions. Lord of the Flies may well be a great book (I would argue that it is — for adults), but it isn’t especially a well-constructed story.

Now that we have firmly left modernism behind, it is perhaps time to revalue the modernist canon of which books teenagers should be reading.

So that’ll be Harry Potter all round…

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