Can We Tolerate Clean Reads?

I’ve been an active member of Goodreads for several years now. I find it helpful for tracking books and finding more books and talking books and meeting book reading book lovers. Recently as I indulged my love of book reviews (both there and on Amazon), I have begun to sense a trend which I hope gets swallowed up in some other better trend. Not a worse trend, oh dear heavens, we don’t need anymore of those! It’s as if these days some sort of Bulk Discount Bin of Worse Trends had been upended over the continental United States!

The scenario is this: a new book comes out, or people rediscover an older book. The author may be heavily involved promoting it. Readers are enjoying discussing it. Then someone asks, quite innocently, “Is the book clean?” The author herself, and several other people who suddenly revert to their Mr. Edward Hyde personas, jump all over the very idea. They make fun of the questioner’s ‘purity’, calling such questions sheer vanity, useless, censorship, outdated, outrageous, not worthy of a response, that entire family deserves horrible Medieval ends, and much, much worse.

What is the word for the overreaction of a system to an otherwise perfectly normal and harmless irritant? An allergy attack? Antihistamine overdrive? Anaphylactic shock? Aren’t we trying to cure that sort of thing?

Because the question, while vague, has its purposes. There are growing numbers of people who acknowledge that much of our mainstream culture is slithering happily into the sewers of the world, and they don’t want to go with it. They may want to shield children. They may have sensitive history that makes them want to avoid sexual assault scenes in their reading. They may want to read about real problem solving and hopeful perspectives rather than gratuitous violence and nihilism. And why not? If a history museum fan wants to read about history, why not? I could even argue, with a bad taste in my mouth, that if a reader of gore and mayhem wants that, they need to be able to make their choice. But I ask this: if the history fan starts talking history, that’s not nearly the issue of a gore fan wanting to talk gore. And believe me, they often do. It works into every conversation. Ever have someone who wouldn’t shut up about the ‘Saw’ movies while at a picnic? Yeah. So why interfere with someone who is looking for ‘clean reads’? What’s this about choice? What did you just say about tolerance? Ok then.

The term ‘clean reads’ is vague, yes. It means various levels of clean to various people. It might mean absolutely no reference to sexual scenes, or it may mean a fade-to-black kind of approach to sex scenes. It may allow for a few of the milder swear words, or it may not. It may want to avoid the everything-is-the-same-so-nothing-really-matters philosophy that infuses so much literature with a kind of pre-soviet psychological grooming that leads to State control of culture and thought. But is it so hard to just ask: “What do you mean by ‘clean’?”

Can we suspend rash judgement anymore? Can we ask for clarification? Can we discuss?

The defensive maneuvers of those who cry- or shriek- censorship reminds me of Shakespeare: “Methinks he doth protest too much”. Censorship? Where were the cries of censorship when the publishers demanded changes? Where were the cries of outdated when the book refers to older literature forms? Why this pretense at moral superiority while trying to skewer the morality of another? Hypocrite much?

Thankfully, when I see these attacks, I am also seeing more and more responses of other bystanders who step forward and defend the simple question. Most simply see clean choices as that- choices. We all must discriminate or we would be required by circumstances to read all books in the world. Really! Just think about it: you have no choice. You can not pick one book over another. You must read them ALL.

Or: you must read the ones we demand you read. You are especially not allowed to read those ones over there.

Both are pretty ridiculous. One has been attempted at various times throughout the history of the world. (Hint: it’s the second one)

Why does this mean anything to me? because I have my own set of standards (LIKE EVERY OTHER READER) and mine happen to lean towards ‘clean’. How I define it can shift as I change as a person, because no one is still reading the books they read in first grade, or college, and only those. We all change. Nevertheless, my tendency towards ‘clean’ has stayed roughly about the same. Why do I choose that? Here’s why:

  1. I’m so tired of the sex scenes. They feel like this: the author is getting off on their own writing, and making me a voyeur; the spread of pornography with its attendant addiction, abuse, and cultural decline means we should be preventing it, not spreading it like verbal plague; and after avearge sex scenes become inadequate for an author, their readers, or their publishers, just how far are we going to go into the mire for that next fleeting jaded arousal? Or is that just a repeat of the addiction argument?
  2. I’m tired of the gore. So much of it feels, well, canned. Like extra juicy spam. You open it, it slops out, and you say, “Oh, cool! Gimme more!” Like movies that have jettisoned story for CGI gimmicks, many books have lost story for the sake of look-at-my-anatomy-research. It falls in a camp very close to just plain look-at-my-anatomy.
  3. The despair and intensity have become comical. Intense story telling that grabs you with the first paragraph and then demands your attention is an insecure kind of verbal assault. Not only does it get far too manipulative, but it’s like the guy who grabs your shirt as you try to end a conversation and he gets so in your face that you feel his spit on your cheek. He’s like “You see?? You know what I mean? Anyone who thinks differently is an idiot!!” And you just want to go have a life with not-this-man in it. Or at least, let-him-keep-some-distance.
  4. I think we’ve lost something when we lose the setting and descriptive abilities of past generations of writers. Plot heavy is more an aesthetic taste, but it often comes entangled in gore and explicit scenes of all types because so many of our generation have grown up with TV…or less than TV…I’m looking at you, video games. What if I find your ability to describe a woman’s anatomy a misplaced description when I have vague ideas of your setting?

Admittedly, that last point is not so much a moral point but it is affected by the others. So while I avoid certain kinds of books, I know everyone else avoid other kinds. I know there are books I think everyone should read, but I’m not going to get their cooperation with social pressure that involves humiliation, threats, and grotesqueries of verbal outrage. That’s not how I operate, anyway.

When people yell “JUST READ THE %^&$ BOOK!!” I wonder if they would also scream at me to “Just eat the cowpie we pried up out of this farmyard tire rut!” Because not all reading is the same, not all books have the same value, and actually, yes, what I read really needs to be as clean as the food that goes into my body. It needs to be good and clean, as wholesome as possible, and something my mind can use to build good thinking skills, healthy mind sets, and a hopefully long life of happiness and appreciation of beauty.

That doesn’t mean we never use our writing skills to address dark issues within our human experience, no, of course not. We can write about anything and still retain our humanity. Otherwise we risk descending to the level of predators or pushers who demand government support for their attempts to groom others into their hideous world. No thanks.

Not all books are the same. I repeat that. We’re not talking binary data streams here, we are talking the thoughts that influence actions which shape the character that builds or destroys civilizations. Yeah, many of those thoughts come from books. Read a book and just try not to think about it. I dare ya!

Norton’s revisited

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I’ve been getting deeper into the Norton’s I mentioned in my past post. My daughter had already found a book by E. Nesbit in there and was happily reading it. I wandered into the discussion on Little Red Riding Hood.

It was fascinating, reading hundreds of years’ worth of interpretations on this story. But then it got bad. In the middle of an anthology on children’s lit I found a story, or excerpt, about a young woman dealing with a Jerry Springer kind of dysfunctional family. The story passage was loaded with nasty landmines: f-bombs, references to sexual assault of the child protagonist, and a clinging attitude of random and directed rage. Sure, rage goes with rape. But neither goes with kid’s lit. What is wrong with people?

I often make the comparison between nutrition and reading. I’m not the inflexible strident advocate of broccoli and nutritional yeast and nothing else. That really is a stereotype that serves only the wicked, anyway. I think good food and yummy food are great. I also know that sometimes medicinal teas taste lousy but work miniature miracles. I like potato chips and the occasional ho-ho treat. In books, I expect a certain standard, which means I usually end up reading the classics. I also like some graphic novels, and I like funny short stories like “You’re on Next Sunday” by John B. Keane, wherein two drunks play rugby with the ghosts of a graveyard and get away with cheating. This is a worthwhile comparison. Food for the belly, food for the soul.

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In our school curriculum, the kids like to keep a running tab of sorts comparing how many ways recycling gets worked into each and every course. It’s in Science class, it’s in Health class, it’s in Math and Language Arts and Social Studies and Educational Technology (computer) class. It was seriously discussed during speech therapy.

How often does honesty get discussed? The honor code is vaguely referred to once or twice a year in official statements. Other than that, honesty is not a theme or general characteristic of reading assignments. It is not mentioned as an attribute of health, in scientific readings, or studies of history. It just isn’t considered a pressing issue like recycling. And while cheating has become more of a problem, I can’t help but wonder if this is a very probable situation: that more cheaters recycle than recyclers cheat.

The nasty violence of our world is an adult issue. It is perpetrated against children- but only by criminally minded sociopaths and psychopaths. It’s our job to protect kids from this, and when some poor children have been subjected to such evils in real life, we help them recover from it and during whatever long term process that is, their goal should be to become the best person they can be. And I will even go so far as to say that reading about such evils may help a suffering child work through their own trauma. But it may just as well add to their trauma. For the child that has not experienced such things, it serves no one to hurt their spirits and minds with ideas of rape and hatred of children. Unless we are grooming them. Whether a victim of sex trafficking or a child of wholesome safe families, both deserve to work through their troubles and build upwards, build better, imagine better, grow healthier, and not linger over the evil in their lives. Every one of us can ask for better than that, we can reach for it, plan for it, and accomplish some form of better in our lives. The after effects of evil may still be with us, but that is not the focus of our lives. We are meant to be good, to choose good, and to do good.

The irony in the Norton’s? In an earlier section (“New Canadian Readers, pg. 139) the editors refer to previous editors of readers who chose readings that would interest children, which will “lead to a love of literature”. But then the Norton’s editor states this: “Today’s first reading books never mention “love of literature” in their prefaces.” Perhaps this is not academic after all. Perhaps Norton’s is a witness and testament of the abuse we heap upon our children, stripping them of childhood, innocence, love, wonder, and joy. May God have mercy on us.

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One last note: we have lost heroes in favor of protagonists, and many times in favor of antagonists and bad guys. We have lost interest in Good insofar as it is depicted as Boring. We have cultured a taste in Evil the way a criminal predator will groom his victims, proceeding from justifying talk about illicit unhealthy acts to showing it in words and pictures with the end goal being acts of evil, the consumption of the victim, the continuation of addiction and crime and damage for and to the perpetrator. This is not civilization, this is barely a society. It is wallowing in the muck and mocking those who will point it out as the filth it is. Let us be greater than this- greater than the sum of our parts, greater as in nobler, with dignity, true happiness, and a deep seated joy of life. That takes great effort of a very different sort. But is in entirely possible, it is never too late, and it reaps us rewards we cannot begin to imagine.

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Vive Le Norton’s Anthologies

First, let’s talk about libraries. My family went to the library recently and I discovered two things:
1- Books that showed on the library website as not available at the library were actually *right there* on the shelf, in front of me. I got two books from my list checked out that way.
2- I have revolving library strategies: first, look through the list I brought to the library. Find some of those to check out, if I can. Second, stroll about, wander, browse, and strum a few fingers over the spines to slow me down. My gaze landed on a series of books I hadn’t known were there: books about books, books about authors, and books about story telling. That was where I discovered the Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature: the translations in English.
Norton is to anthologies as Asian is to elephant. These books are big, thick, wide, and full of memory. This is a 2005 edition, and since I have a couple Nortons at home, I was pretty interested in this one. In fact, since it was about children’s lit, I think I’m more interested in this one than in, say, The Norton Guide to Literature or The Norton Anthology of English Literature. This particular one has some great chapters in it. There’s a chapter on alphabet books through history, a chapter on primers, and even a chapter on comics, which surprised me.

Something else surprised me: a fair amount of opinion. I find it a relief to read a human opinion, particularly ones I tend to agree with. So many books (or other information sources like the media, etc.) have grand delusions of objectivity, which they absolutely fail at. Instead, they call what they write objective, and then react strongly to someone else who simply responds to the opinion held within their writing. And yes, there is a lot out there to have opinions about. And a lot out there where opinions don’t carry much weight. Anyway, here is a quote from Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature: the translations in English. Page 85, at the bottom, has these sentences:

“Today as demands for accountability dominate discussions of education and standardized testing is advocated at every level, the factory models of the early nineteenth century appear to be returning and are threatening to circumscribe our understanding of literacy. Literacy is again being defined narrowly as a skill rather than more complexly as the ability to gain access to a long literary tradition and to engage with a text’s interpretive possibilities.”

Below that I read an interesting passage that taught me about an incident I had not been aware of before. In 2003 a group of ninety British authors signed a petition protesting rampant state testing and stating “children’s understanding, empathy, imagination and creativity are developed best by reading whole books, not by doing comprehensive exercises and short excerpts and not by ticking boxes or giving one- word answers.”

Our public school is a CEO-run cyber school. It has a business model and runs on contract with the state. We want business models, because business models often work very well. A Business can make money and succeed in society. But education is neither just a business model nor a government program. If it must be one of those, I would choose the first, because then, as a consumer, I at least have some chance of being heard where the voice of the people in government is so much more sadly lacking. But business models don’t always work when we are growing children. We are not, I must emphasize, not building children. We raise them, like cows. We grow them, like fetal cells that become walking talking human beings. We train them like puppies and we interact with them like the each other that we are. A certain amount of testing and accountability is necessary. Measuring has its uses. But beyond that, we have an entire world at our disposal of personalities, interests, strengths, and weaknesses. The Norton in question discusses how one can not talk about children’s literacy without discussing education, and this is often true. Our educational system determines much of the perception of how children learn, what will be taught them on a daily basis, and how they may end up perceiving the world around them, including books and the worlds therein. Our educational system is not doing this well. Neither is some of our publishing business world, either. In some areas of these massive organizations, reading is a skill to measure by word number, word length, basic reading comprehension, and so on. This requires experts who research children and draw up generalities that can then be pressed onto the individual child like a cookie dough cutter. The same happens to many books: they require set lists of vocabulary words be used rather than creative story telling of a rich and natural sort. Storytelling as a formula, only more processed, like Velveeta world building. You may even be able to microwave it. Creativity tends to be the first casualty in this model, and then children are the next. If I look back at the quote from the petition of those British authors, I see words like ‘empathy’, ‘imagination’, and ‘creativity’. These are far too human to fit in a processing plant of human conditioning. When stories are no more than training for a person to follow instructions, then we have lost access to essential aspects of being human. This is not done by accident. No expert who recognizes these things will say, “Oh, I wasn’t aware that every society that has done this in history did it to the detriment of the humans involved”. Or “They must have oppressed the human spirit by mistake”.

Unless we have no spirit. Would that make it ok to lose our heart?

I kept out of our house those books that tended to instruct children on how to prepare to follow instructions. It was a weird pattern I became aware of as I accepted books from friends, joined book clubs, or went to the library. Some books didn’t just use simple words because they were written for very young children learning their words; they used simplistic vocabulary and stories to dampen down the questioning young mind. Questions are part of what drives the human mind. Books and education can stimulate that questioning, or repress it. Our current society does a lot of suppressing these days in language and thought. Well, it encourages harsh language of one kind while oppressing honest opinions or questions of another kind. I mean, while we have become anxiously aware of how we refer to various other people or we worry about offensively expressing our deepest beliefs, we have also become a coarser nation using the worst swear words in more commonly traveled social circles than ever. In books, definitely. And more often in children’s lit than ever before.

Perhaps the business model is part of the problem. Our cyber school was bought by Pearson, a textbook publishing group. Yes, our school is now run by the corporation that prints our textbooks. That’s like pharmacies buying hospitals. It isn’t wrong for a company to buy another company, but it may be wrong for a company to buy certain other companies. No system is perfect, of course, but some things just seem like a really bad idea. I’ve been watching the beginning of the effects following this acquisition, and there has been one surprise, so far, at least. The lit books have actually gotten better. I’m waiting to see how this plays out in 10th and 11th grades, which in the past had particularly horrendous literature for fresh young minds to digest. I’ve got my eye on you, Pearson.

So in my ramble I’ve mentioned coarse society, literature texts, and suspicion of government and business together. And libraries. I can hope, can’t I, that the libraries will continue to serve the general populace? Banned Books Week aside, libraries tend to be about truth, not just information. Even if as a school assignment one has to go mine information at the library, the truth remains there for us to stumble upon, in the stacks, online, in conversation, in personal thought, in a fairy tale. This Norton’s is over 2,400 pages long. It is nearly an entire library unto itself. Can’t wait to step in and strum my fingers through the pages, pausing at a picture here, reading a story there. It gives me lots to think about.