By Lawrence “Mack in Texas” Hall (Rated PG)
‘He recoiled from the group-think of many of his fellow writers. “Don’t yell at me,” he said to his peers at one public meeting, where he was heckled for asserting that writers should not be given orders. “But if you must yell, at least don’t do it in unison.” -Pasternak, quoted by Finn and Couvee’ in The Zhivago Affair
I have never read anything by Dr. Seuss. The covers look stoopid (as in “stoopid,” not merely “stupid”). And, yes, I will judge a book by its stoopid cover. I don’t care if Horton Hears the World Health Organization or if the Grinch steals Arbor Day; the covers look stoopid. So there.
But then, I’ve always thought that the best reading lesson is predicated on a child, a fishing pole, a pond, and an old copy of Howard Pyle’s Robin Hood on a quiet summer afternoon before it’s time to get the cows up for the evening milking.
Still, a great many parents whom I know to be good, kind, loving, thoughtful, intelligent, and discerning read Dr. Seuss’ books to their children and the kidlets seem to enjoy the books and have not been persuaded to become ax murderers, arsonists, terrorists, or motivational speakers.
And yet the Miz Grundys of the world are becoming shriller in finding evil – perhaps they are only reacting to the evil within their own cold, shriveled hearts and ossified brains – in the most innocent and most needful of childhood joys, good books. From a casual perusal of the newspapers, the InterGossip, and television anyone could list his or her (not “their;” one man or woman cannot be “their”) own childhood books now faulted or even unavailable for not being comradely enough.
Technically this is not censorship, which is practiced by governments. Our national government, grounded in the First Amendment, has almost – almost – always protected our freedom to read the books we want.
When on an outing to Barnes & Noble a parent chooses a book for his (the pronoun is gender-neutral) children instead of another book, he is not censoring; he is making wise parental decisions as to what books will be appropriate for his children in their formative years.
If, however, any government entity were to forbid the publication of, say, Robin Hood, Little House on the Prairie, The Once and Future King, or Hank the Cowdog, or, more sneakily, bully the publishers into surreptitiously changing bits of the text, that would be censorship.
That would be illegal.
That would be uncivilized.
That would be un-American.
Alas for freedom, a functional censorship can be exercised by a mob, even by a mob of the purportedly educated. One infers that most of the censorious are not educated at all, but merely credentialed. There is a difference.
Publishers don’t appear to show much courage in the matter, so we will have to. No, no, don’t form mobs and yell at people and burn books – that’s what the credentialed do – simply make good books a part of your budget for your children, and do some comparisons to see if the writer’s original wording has been changed for recent editions.
As for those awkward or clumsy or maybe just plain wrong stereotypes or assumptions that date from the past, then this is when the parent enlightens the child with solid teaching about the fallibility of all people in all times.
Martin Luther King was not the first to remind us that the arc of history points toward the truth, but his witness enhances the lesson. We do not teach our children about the concepts of the good, the true, and the beautiful (attributed to Plato, but, again, he was not the first) by tossing books into the flames of the Orwellian Memory Hole.
Just think of what some future Miz Grundy will find wrong, bad, evil, and un-comradely in the book you’re writing for your children.
Finally, for the sake of your child’s proper upbringing, don’t forget the fishing pole, the pond, and the quiet summer afternoon.
Here is a brief list of easily available books about propaganda and censorship:
Fahrenheit 451, novel, Ray Bradbury
The Book Thief, novel, Markus Zusak
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, novel, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book, non-fiction, Peter Finn and Petra Couvée
Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War, non-fiction, Duncan White
The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature, non-fiction, Elizabeth Kantor
When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II, non-fiction, Molly Guptill Manning