Let's Talk About Books, Baby

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I feel like the last sane person in the asylum some days, but occasionally, there are little glimpses of sanity that peek through the white noise of the internet outrage machine and there was nothing more heartening that the overwhelmingly negative reaction to the news that the works of Roald Dahl were edited to "make them more acceptable to modern readers." It's hard to be completely repulsed by the idea since the author's estate did sign off on the idea, but at the same time, as someone who writes and hopes (if I'm very lucky) to be a published author one day, the idea of someone changing my words decades after I'm dead is frankly gross.

Dahl wasn't opposed to editing his own works: the Oompa Loompas were originally from Africa and not orange (I'm sure you can guess what color they were) and if authors change their own work, I've got no problem with that. (J.K. Rowling sort of making Dumbledore gay apropos of more or less nothing was a little awkward, but entirely within her purview to do.) But if authors aren't doing it and the changes are occurring decades after the death of the author, I've got a problem with that.

First, as I said- blessings of the estate aside, it's gross. The fact that there's a Netflix connection in all this makes it seem like they're tweaking these works to keep milking their cash cow. I could write a whole post about cultural stagnation- hell you could write a whole book about it- and whether it's streaming/Hollywood being reluctant to take a chance on new properties or just wanting to milk their cash cows until they're desiccated, dried up hulks, I don't know-- but messing with the original source material to keep the money flowing is gross.

Second, the edits were fucking awful. Consider, The Witches-- here's the original quote:
"Don't be foolish," my grandmother said. "You can't go round pulling the hair of every lady you meet, even if she is wearing gloves. Just you try it and see what happens."
The new edition:
"Don't be foolish," my grandmother said. "Besides, there are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that."
To me, the point of the original quote is simple: you can't just violate the bodily autonomy of women by pulling their hair without permission. You're gonna get smacked. The 'edited' quote completely undermines the original intent of the quote. The message that you shouldn't pull people's hair without permission teaches an important notion of consent, respect for women, and generally not being a little shit and pulling hair. That's completely gone with an incoherent edit that just... destroys the original sentence.

There are others, of course-- my favorite is when they replace Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling with Jane Austen and John Steinbeck, but keep (famously progressive) Ernest Hemingway in the quote from Matilda. 

Do I think Dahl was a good person, generally? Eh. He seems like he was a bit of a bastard, to be honest, and that's fine. I think his books can be interpreted in a number of ways, but sanitizing kids against the notion that adults can be cruel, capricious, and generally unpleasant undermines the point of his books. Whether you think the overall lesson is that kids can triumph through challenging shitty adults by being 'a little bit naughty' or whether it's that kindness and being good always triumph over evil sanitizing these books into insensibility isn't the answer and I'm glad that they've backed off- at least with the print editions.

Wherever you stand on this issue, consumer choice matters. Phillip Pullman's take on this mess might be the one I agreed with the most: if the works are too far out of 'modern sensibilities', then let them go out of print- there are plenty of other authors of YA/Children's Lit that kids today can explore. At the very least- the barest of minimums here, be transparent about what you've done. H.P. Lovecraft was a notorious racist and his work is still out in the world- with annotations. You can tell people you're going to do it, like they did with the announcement they're going to update some of the works of Ian Fleming (also, I've heard, a bit of a bastard) and the reasoning behind that. (Apparently, you can also just do this and not tell the author at all, which is disturbing, though I haven't seen anything more than a Twitter interaction about this particular example.)

Be transparent, but also be careful. While in America, the Right has a whole set of issues with books at the moment, the Left always seems to come down on the side of sanitizing literature and by extension our history and culture along with it. There haven't been too many arguments about what should be considered 'canon' these days, but there have been in the past.

The canon argument is kind of a red herring. It's largely subjective and the product of academic navel-gazing more than anything else. If you are, for instance, teaching American Literature without including authors like Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Sandra Cisneros, or American poetry without including Langston Hughes or Maya Angelou you're doing it wrong. You can't lock yourself into dusty notions about 'what's expected to be read'- the canon has to evolve. But if you're reading any work of literature in English, there are some authors you just have to read, this quote is dead on:
"There's a real misunderstanding that you can come in and say, 'I want to read post-colonial texts- that's the thing I want to study- and I have no interest in studying the work of dead white men,' Menon said. 'My answer, in the big first lecture that I give is, If you want to understand Arundhati Roy, or Salman Rushdie, or Zadie Smith, you have to read Dickens. Because one of the tragedies of the British Empire'- she smiled- 'is that all those writers read all those books.'
Exactly this! If you are studying literature, you can't ignore Shakespeare or Dickens. Some people just matter if you're studying literature in English. It would be like not reading Dumas if you're studying French literature.

This is why I think you can't exclude books like 'To Kill A Mockingbird' or anything by Mark Twain from classrooms today. I've got a book of short stories by Flannery O'Connor and I have yet to finish it because it's hard to read. When you realize that she's writing from the point of view of 1920s Georgia and that's just how people spoke back then, it underlines the importance of these works. We have to remember how people spoke back then. It teaches us about history and shows us how far we've come and how far we've still got to go.

In general, I come down on the side of expanding the 'canon' as much as I dislike that term. Sanitizing and editing everything to avoid 'offending' people is not the answer from the left any more than banning all the books is the answer from the right. 

Moral panics are a long-standing and unfortunate American tradition and the right's current crusade against books generally feels like a moral panic they want to indulge in and it's definitely indulgent. For a start, it's beneficial for politicians-- they can posture for their base and throw all the red meat they want but much of this feels like sound and fury signifying nothing- except empty bookshelves in classrooms.

The irony of this should be quite clear: the right has demanded affirmative action for conservative college professors for years now and they want to build a 'safe space' for the children after openly mocking the left for their 'safe spaces' and 'padded rooms.' 

Some of this is the post-COVID backlash against school closures and lockdowns which I remain convinced is an underrated political phenomenon that Democrats are ignoring. Parents got a window into the classroom during the lockdown and many of them didn't like what they saw-- it's why Youngkin won in Virginia and it's why the Democrats came perilously close to losing the governor's race in New Jersey as well. How far the ramifications of the backlash will go, I don't know- but that was the spark and Republican politicians ran with it. You can disagree with school choice all you want, but there's a reason it's everywhere right now.

I am open to conversations about age-appropriate curricula and books, but I would desperately like Conservative parents (because it always seems to be Conservative parents) to actually parent their children as well. In the 90s, it was all about the v-chip and the content on television and video games, but parents seem curiously unable to use a remote control or just you know, not buy violent video games for their children. Now, it seems that parents are unable to monitor the content their kids are reading without government intervention.

As a parent, I realize that active parenting is fucking hard sometimes. In an age of a firehose of content coming from everywhere, it's damn difficult. But can we all agree that racism will exist, whether kids read about it in a book or not? I am loathed to speak for other communities, but I'm pretty sure the LGBTQ folks aren't asking for permission to exist nor do I expect that they will just quietly go away whether kids learn about them or not. These things that parents are 'virtuously' attempting to shield their children from are going to be there whether the parents like them or not.

If we can stop reading and believing insane shit on the internet, there may be a rational discussion to be had on these issues. Parents need to choose where they want their kids to find out about this stuff. In a classroom setting, they can at least have a say in how/what gets taught. But in an age of tech, parents need to recognize that you cannot stop the signal. Kids are going to find out either way and I know as a parent, I would prefer to take an active role in their content ingestion, so we can have conversations about difficult topics together, rather than them taking to the internet to find out by themselves. (Because yes: they will get to the internet. Parents need to stop deluding themselves about the efficacy of whatever shitty spyware tech they may or may not have on their kids' phones. Also, if your kids have phones and you think books are the problem? Please sit down.)

I drifted into the book-banning area of Tik-Tok and came across two videos:

First was a mom objecting to the presence of a book in an elementary school library. She picked a paragraph that was pretty explicit and read a bit of it and expressed her opinion that it didn't belong in an elementary school library. The book in question was Sold by Patricia McCormick and a quick Google search reveals that while the book is fiction, it's based on actual research the author conducted into the reality of human trafficking and child prostitution in places like India and Nepal. Does it belong in an elementary school library?

I don't know. For a 5th or 6th grader if a parent is reading it with them to have conversations about the content of the book, maybe. But that doesn't mean the book doesn't have some value-- it goes back to the less-than-convincing notion that if children aren't exposed to ideas then the ideas somehow won't exist. Children around the world can be treated with intolerable and incredible cruelty and books like Sold demonstrate the reality of it. To be completely up front: I haven't read it, so maybe this Mom is right and it's more prurient/obscene than attempting to capture the reality of human trafficking-- but that's immaterial: parents need to parent. Find out what your kid is reading.

The second video depicted a kid reading a (presumably cherry-picked paragraph) of a book at a school board meeting and expressing his horror that it was on a stand and on full display and the librarian asked him if he wanted the graphic novel version. (The horror, the horror!) Then, of course, Dad came up and added his own thoughts on the matter. He's entitled to his opinion, obviously- but the video felt like that kid was either coached to find those books and object to them or got caught with one of them and proved to be an adept tap dancer at avoiding trouble with his parents. If banning books ain't it, then attacking books for social media clout and using your kid as a prop ain't it either.

The existence of a singular book in a school library is nowhere near as corrosive as letting your kids get all their information from the internet. Banning books may seem like a solution, but it's not. No one seems to be that great at actually writing laws these days (the number of times I've been hearing Republican lawmakers on abortion and books and all kinds of things be like, "it wasn't meant to be interpreted that way" is becoming a pattern.) and if you leave this in the hands of bureaucrats- whether they're 'your' people or not, they're going to use a chainsaw where a scalpel would be better and you'll end up with ridiculous situations where books about Roberto Clemente are expelled from the classroom- because you know, who wants to learn about one of baseball's greatest players?

The tiny town from Footloose is not a policy model you should wish to emulate, but apparently, the Right skipped the part of the movie where they banned dancing, but the kids danced anyway. This won't work and the unintended consequences of it will be interesting to watch.

I know this post has been a lot already, but we would be remiss if we didn't ask the underlying question: do all these attacks on books and literature connect with the collapse of humanities education in America?

I think the answer to that might be maybe-- as the New Yorker article notes, humanities education tends to ebb and flow with the economy. In more prosperous times, people might be more inclined to pursue things that they view as having little practicality but are passionate about. In leaner times, degrees lead to a steady employment spike instead, and couple that phenomenon with an overall decline in state funding and it's a recipe for bad news for the humanities.

While I've got some issues with the article itself-- Harvard is a terrible frame of reference for anything in higher education as at this point, it's essentially a hedge fund with a college campus attached to it and it's more of an elite finishing school/networking shop than anything else. Arizona State is better to demonstrate the potential of what the humanities can be and how to revive it, but with a multiplicity of policy proposals in the article (this one + the top comment and then this one, both excerpts taken from Reddit), I think the underrated one is the rise of the internet and technology.

Do books matter?

I think they do, obviously- but it's a question we have to ask. You've got a generation heading through the school system that had the pandemic and was growing up with screens and social media and just the constant flow of content into their brains- how do you get a generation like that to connect with books? Grammar straight up isn't taught in schools anymore- I know some people have made hay over cursive dying in schools, but how about grammar? Can you really study the humanities without a good foundation in how language actually works? (The quote in the New Yorker article about how college kids can't handle The Scarlet Letter because they have trouble identifying the sentences as sentences, what the fuck? If you can't identify the subject and the verb of a sentence, you don't belong in college.)

We're editing books, we're banning books, and we're not actually stopping to ask if the kids are reading any of them. 

So far, the Eldest Spawn is our hard sell for reading. We've got to get him to sit down and read a book. The Middle Spawns are in love with Dog Man and could spend all day looking through those books if they want to so there's a spectrum of how kids connect with books and how much they like them. I expect there always has been, but all these books they're going after- the real question I have is how many times are they being checked out, to begin with?

I expect the answer is probably not much- and if that's the case, then what are we doing? With the banning and the editing and the sanitizing- what is the point? I think everything is cyclical and I think part of our cultural stagnation is due to the fact the Establishment is panicking and trying its best to hold onto everything the post-1945 consensus built, but it's all slipping away. They can repackage it and reframe it and try all the narratives they want to preserve, but it's a shell game. I expect the humanities will evolve. I think the Establishment will collapse or be replaced.

Books will still be there when it's all said and done.


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