Tuesday, February 15, 2005

BOOKS: Beep Beep! Here Comes the Thought Police!

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (#7)
I don't normally read a lot of non-fiction, but since this is a memoir about reading novels, which I do read a lot of, it intrigued me. The author, Azar Nafisi, is a former professor of English literature at the University of Tehran in Iran, and this book is about the secret book club Nafisi led with seven of her most committed female students every week for two years. They read classics banned by the fundamentalist Islamic government, by authors such as Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James and Vladimir Nabakov.

Notwithstanding the fact that Austen and Fitzgerald are two of my favourite novelists (I'm kind of meh about James and Nabakov, though now I wish I could feel as passionately about them as Nafisi and her students do), this book has served as a huge reminder of how lucky we are to have the freedom to read -- and think -- what we want without fear of beating, jail or execution.

And given the fact that Iran used to be an extremely progressive country before the fundamentalists took over, this book has reminded me that (duh) we all have to be constantly vigilant about maintaining our freedoms. You just can't assume that progress will last... especially in light of all the rather frightening accounts of book bannings that seem to be popping up in the North American media these days.

I've been thinking about book banning a lot recently, which is why it's taken me a few days to articulate my thoughts to myself clearly enough that I'm able to write about the subject. This has always seemed to me to be a self-evident truth: banning books is bad. But when I think about the fact that so many people seem to disagree with me, I'm challenged to think about why exactly I, personally, am affronted by the idea, and why other people clearly are not.

At the end of the day, my reason for being against the banning of books is almost entirely personal and self-serving: I am a secretive person. I could call myself a "private person", which has a nice Salinger-y ring to it, but I think "secretive" is the more honest word, and I think it hews closer to the bone of what exactly threatens and intimidates people who agree with outlawing books.

I like secrets. I like to have secrets. I like to think that other people have secrets. Many of the most interesting secrets -- mine and other people's -- are dark. They're unpleasant. They're ugly. Even if these secrets have never played out into action, and will never play out into action, the fact that they exist as mere thoughts frightens some people. But sometimes these secret thoughts do play out... in novels. And these novels -- and the secret thoughts they represent -- terrify some people. And these people think that by eliminating the outlets for these dark, secret thoughts, they're eliminating the thoughts themselves.

Given all that, this is what offends me about banning books: it's my soul-chilling belief that, if these people had their way, they wouldn't stop at just outlawing and destroying books. If they had the means, and if they thought they could get away with it, they would bore into my head and take my secrets away from me.

Here are just a few things you may are may not know about the current state of the thought wars in North America:

If you're just starting to bask in the warm toasty glow of your burning sense of outrage, and you want to crank up the heat, I recommend you check out Censoround, a newsblog about book challenges and other free speech issues, as well as Chris Zammarelli's monthly Banned Bookslut column over at Bookslut.

According to Zammarelli, "If I do my job right, I'll be creating a great reference guide of titles for kids to check out if they want to read something that will piss off their parents." Heh.

On that note, and in the childishly rebellious fuck-the-Man spirit that the Man should realize by now his book-burning ways engender, I've committed myself to revisiting some of my favourite contentious novels in the months to come. (Here's a list of titles to consider, if you'd like to join me. Note Where's Waldo? at number 88.) Starting with this next book...

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (#8)
Here's where I have to confess that I've never been a huge fan of Gatsby, old sport that he is. I think I've only read it twice before, the last time being about a decade ago, and as I'm discovering more and more often these days, age is making me soft.

When I was younger, I found the entire crew -- Gatsby, Daisy, Tom, Nick, Jordan -- incredibly tiresome. Now that I'm older than all of them (gulp), I find myself much more sympathetic. Who would have guessed that my own youthful arrogance and intolerance would have stood in the way of understanding and appreciating the youthful arrogance and intolerance of this sad, lost crew? Irony -- she's a snotty bitch, isn't she?

I'd forgotten what a tight, concise novel Gatsby is. It has exactly as many scenes -- no more, no less -- as it needs to propel the action forward to its inevitable conclusion. I think it's this unrelentingness that most impresses and intimidates me. (You'll understand why I say "intimidates" if you know that one of my absolute favourite novels is Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, a long, sprawling, heartbreaking mess of a story.) It's easy to read Gatsby in one fast, breakneck sitting (which is what I did this time), and it's one of the few books I've ever read that almost literally knocked the wind out of me at the end.

Much like this entry. And... I'm spent.

Edited later to add:

In the Comments section, Rebecca has brought to our attention that next week is Freedom to Read Week here in Canada. As their website states:

Freedom to read can never be taken for granted. Even in Canada, a free country by world standards, books and magazines are banned at the border. Books are removed from the shelves in Canadian libraries, schools and bookstores every day. Free speech on the Internet is under attack. Few of these stories make headlines, but they affect the right of Canadians to decide for themselves what they choose to read.


Rebecca said...

Did you know next week is Freedom to Read week? Also, go here for the American Library Association's press release on the most challenged books last year.

Tamara said...

Great post. I loved "Reading Lolita in Tehran" and the message is one that I think many people miss. Thanks for reiterating it.

Anonymous said...

tender is the night is one of my all time favorites, too.
and like you will read anything, piles and piles of anything. so thanks for the inspiration to pick up something more challenging.
excellent points about freedom, it really can't be taken for granted.
'before fundamentalists took over'... it can happen anywhere.

Anonymous said...

Actually, a picture of 2 guys fucking is porn, but it's still not going to teach kids to be gay. It's just showing them what one definition of gay looks like. :)

Jenn said...

Really nice post. I'm kind of all riled up now.

Tammy said...

Thanks, all. I had this moment when I was proofing this latest entry where I was like, "Hey, nice job stating the obvious there, Toots." But then I hit the "publish" button anyway.

Heh, anonymous. I should've been clearer and stated that a picture book with guys fucking *with how-to instructions* was teaching your kids to be (one kind of) gay. Maybe that's how the conservatives can keep kids away from the "bad" books: by telling them they're educational. Everyone knows kids hate to learn.

Tammy said...

Speak of the devil. I just found this link, via Bookslut, to the Citizens for Literary Standards in Schools:


According to their website,

"...we have discovered more and more books that contain an excessive use of profanity including many variations of the f-word, as well as graphic descriptions of rape, incest, pedophilia, oral sex, bestiality, and violence, on required reading lists. What do vulgar and sexually stimulating passages have to do with the educational goals of an English class?"

When did rape, incest, pedophilia and bestiality start being considered "sexually stimulating"?

Veronica said...

Seriously? What's wrong with Where's Waldo or How to Eat Fried Worms? Some of them I can understand, not that I believe in banning books either but I can imagine from where the argument would stem. Some of these, though, it's like grasping at straws. I guess people have nothing better to do.

I read Gatsby a few years ago and didn't like it either, but maybe I just need to let it sit for a while before going back. I think I was 20. I expected to like it and I think I just didn't get it. Maybe in ten years...