'Offensive' titles won't keep them awake

Banned books are as appealing to teens as broccoli

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Once again, you're starting to see your breath on your morning walk to take the kids to the bus stop or empty the dog. You know what this means, don't you? You have got to stop eating Slim Jims at bedtime.

We are picking up speed on that downhill slide into The Holidays; when the pumpkins come out, Santa Claus and the specter of a date for New Year's Eve can't be far enough behind. My transition into seasonal mayhem every year is "Off the Record," the satirical musical put on by Post-Gazette staffers and local actors. We start rehearsing right after Labor Day, and we take the stage at the Byham a month later to lampoon whoever needs a vigorous lampooning.

"Off the Record" is tonight.

And fittingly, this celebration of our right to come out and sing irreverent things about our elected officials and possibly demented neighbors comes during the American Library Association's Banned Books Week.

(Not to be confused with Band Books Week, which honors such titles as "Don't Feed the Drummer," "From Garage to Rehab," and "Fill Your Life with Sousaphones.")

I'm always fascinated by the list of books that have been banned or challenged over the years as too subversive, too dirty or, in some cases, too "negative" for impressionable youngsters or perhaps anyone else to read.

I read a fair amount of Hemingway in high school. If Papa had warped my young mind, I'm pretty sure I'd at least be a better writer.

I do understand the objections to some of the Mark Twain and other books that portray race relations in a way that makes us want to get up and leave the room. I also think that with sufficient maturity, it's possible to look past appalling verbiage, put it in context and see the bigger picture, which is usually a message condemning racism.

But Bigger Picture 110: Introduction to Forest vs. Trees is generally considered a college-level course. It's a lot to ask of adolescents.

My biggest question about what I read in middle and high school is not "Why was it so dirty and amoral?" It's "Why was it so tedious that I don't even remember reading it now?" Take "The Great Gatsby." It was challenged in the '80s by a Baptist college for "language and sexual references." I read "The Great Gatsby" in the '80s, Old Sport, and an episode of "The Carol Burnett Show" had more sexual references.

I'm not saying it's not a great classic novel. I have no wish to offend my avid Fitzgerald-fan friends, of which I have none. It's just not all that riveting if you're, say, 15.

These books that adults find so outrageous actually taste very often like overboiled broccoli to an adolescent palate. Even the stuff that is actually racy is often zippered and buckled in so much rarefied language (William Shakespeare, I'm looking at you) that kids are only vaguely aware of the petticoated and armor-plated sizzle.

Which harmed my schoolgirl self more: reading "Lord of the Flies" (pretty disturbing, I'll admit, but a warning well remembered throughout life), or having to memorize the first 14 lines of the General Prologue to Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" in Middle English?

All these years later, Sport, I still have bits of Chaucerian flotsam surfacing in my fevered brain. It might as well be Klingon. But do you think I can remember where I put my keys?

Sometimes it keeps me up nights. Or maybe it's the alleged japes of Shakespeare's clowns.

Or maybe it's the Slim Jims.


Samantha Bennett, freelance writer: sambennett412@gmail.com.


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