Are “bad books” good for young brains?

I put the poster from the movie in here because, unless I miss my guess, over half the kids assigned to read the book will have watched the DVD instead.

There is a big flap here in Michigan about whether or not high school students in advanced placement English in the Plymouth/Cantor School district should be allowed to read books like Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.”  Apparently some members of the local Tea Party in Plymouth have seized upon the issue as emblematic of “what is wrong with America” and want Morrison’s “Beloved” out of the schools.  “Beloved” apparently has some salty language and some racy scenes, including rape, incest, bestiality, etc., but it is apparently set in the time when Americans owned slaves so I would argue that it can’t all be rainbows and unicorns or “Gone with the Wind.”

The controversy got me thinking about some of the books I read in high school that really interested me and helped turn me into a life-long reader.  I was in an ‘advanced’ reading group in high school and many of the books I remember best were ones that challenged me in terms of the content.  I made a list of some of my favorites from high school that I am now promising myself I will pick up again.  I think if I still remember a book so many years after having read it, it is probably worth reading again.

Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess: This book blew my mind, not only due to all the sex and violence (of which there was plenty), but also because of the ‘Nadsat’ language (look it up).  Yes, there was rape, lots of drug use, lots and lots of violence, etc., but there was a point to all of that ‘bad’ content and even as a teenager I understood that Burgess wasn’t really encouraging us to want to be like Alex and his ‘droogies.’ I was told that when the movie version was released in 1971, it was given an X rating.

The Tenants by Bernard Malmud: Racism, violence, sex and mutually assured destruction follow when two very different writers (one, a liberal educated Jew, the other a militant and angry black nationalist) become friends after they discover that they are neighbors in this story. I remember that the level of hate that the two principle characters developed for the other was the most frightening thing of the book.  The two men are both sleeping with the same woman and there is lots of ‘hate speech,’ sex, bad language, drug use, drinking, etc.  It ends with one of the principles getting castrated and the other one getting killed.  I just found out that it was made into a film starring Snoop Dogg, but the film was only screened once.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: Yeah, I don’t think it should be controversial either, but there is (if I remember right) some sex and betrayal, drug use and suicide.  Plus the the main character in the book, eventually rejects everything that his society stands for and becomes a traitor and an outcast.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut: Sex, violence, insanity, more violence, more sex, sex while aliens are watching, masturbation, pornography, infidelity, a picture of a woman fucking a pony, lust, etc., are all in this book so I guess it belongs on the moral majority’s “this ought to be banned” list. It was one weird (and interesting) book — the film does not do it justice (but gets good marks for effort IMO). Definitely in my “Books you MUST read.”

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov: I still can’t believe we read this book in high school.  Yes, it is a book about a child molester that tells the story from his point of view (put it in the ‘disturbing but meant to be that way’ category).  The book has great literary merit and reading it will not turn you into a child molester. Goes on the ‘Must read’ list.

Johnny got his Gun by Dalton Trumbo: The main character is a deaf, dumb and blind quadruple amputee war veteran without a face who survived an exploding artillery shell and now lays in his hospital bed thinking about the events that led to his current condition.  When a nurse finally figures out that the amputee is attempting to communicate by tapping his head against his pillow, his communication with the world outside his own skull is briefly re-established.  The patient wants to be allowed to die, but when the doctors don’t allow that, he asks to be shown to the public so they can see the true horrors of war.  It was written between the two World Wars and is perhaps the most disturbing book of fiction I have ever read.

15 Comments on “Are “bad books” good for young brains?”

  1. mikemonaco says:

    Vonnegut saw me through high school … Cat’s cradle was my first and I read every he’d written, and followed him all through the 90s and 00s … I guess I stopped around Timequake. Didn’t he die about the same time as Gygax?

    I also read John Gardner’s Grendel in high school, great book despite graphic violence and sex. But I was already a reader by high school and had been reading all kings of adult stuff since probably 7th grade.

    It’s so asinine that anyone would try to ban a book…

  2. ClawCarver says:

    We didn’t read it for school, but in early 1980 (when I had just turned 12) my English teacher saw me reading The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy and said, “You like science fiction? Try these!” and lent me three books. Two of them were Asimov’s Foundation and Herbert’s Dune, neither of which really grabbed me. The third book was Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, which blew my tiny mind, partly by having a “hero” capable of rape, murder, torture, and just astonishingly sustained and ferocious rage, and also by being a literary kaleidoscope of amazing images and ideas. To this day, it seems frankly implausible that a book so wild and violent and pyrotechnic should have been published in 1956. If you haven’t read it, I heartily recommend it, and I raise my glass to Mr Roberts from Selkirk High School, wherever he is now, for not patronising me and for expanding my imaginative horizons.

  3. Geoffrey McKinney says:

    I’m in favor of any child reading anything he wants. Let the child decide whether or not he can handle it. When I was a child, reading about rape, massacres, torture, etc. didn’t bother me at all. What bothered me was ghost stories. I’d like awake at night in an agony of terrors after reading ghost stories.

  4. Von says:

    Maybe this is the teacher in me talking, but it seems like we have two choices.

    We can understand why Bad Things are Bad, exploring them through fictional representations, talking about them, dealing with them – or we can not do that.

    We can learn things, or we can be ignorant.

    We can exist in a state of ignorance, not having any way to understand and prevent the Bad Things that happen in the world.

    Wilful ignorance, and an inability to cope with the worst of the world as it is? Is that what people want to be ‘right with America’?

    • “wilful ignorance” – it worked for the “greatest generation”!

    • limpey says:

      Von: I think many of the more cynical just see this as an opportunity to kick a political football down the field and score some cheap points. “Those teachers who were hired by our political opponents are making innocent kids read about incest!” is a much more politically useful battle cry in the school board elections than, “We want to improve reading scores and get other people’s kids a better education but that costs money.”
      I assume you are not in the US? I don’t know how it is done where you live, but the school board elections here in the US is the ‘gateway drug’ for people who want to get their toe into local politics. Many of the ‘players’ involved have no real interest in education, they just want their guy or gal on the school board since that is often the political stepping stone to greater things.

  5. Anonannoyed says:

    Not seeing the Tea Party connection.

  6. limpey says:

    Not seeing the Tea Party connection.

    Two of the people who wanted “Waterland” and “Beloved” removed from the schools are members of the local Tea Party and have been trying to use the local Tea Party organization to encourage people to attend the school board meetings and express sympathy with their point of view.
    I have to admit that this is one of the things about the tea party that I do not understand. When I ask Tea partiers what the ‘Tea Party’ is all about, they usually reply that they want to embrace personal responsibility, promote liberty, have a smaller government, etc. But the Tea Party in my neck of the woods is usually also pretty active in wanting to get out the vote in the support of things like the ‘defense of marriage’ act or wanting to get more rules to tell teachers what books they cannot teach — which seems like asking for MORE government interference in the private lives of citizens.
    Parents with students in the advanced placement class had apparently been given a list of books that would be used in advanced reading months before and parents who objected to any of the books on the list would be allowed to have other books substituted. One of the parents who took her complaint to the local tea party said that it shouldn’t be ‘the parent’s’ job to review the books before their children read them, a position I find incompatible with the notion of ‘personal responsibility’ or ‘freedom.’ How can I convince myself that my child enjoys intellectual freedom if another parent can decide that she does not want my kid reading “Beloved’?

    • Alex J. says:

      I am not a tea party person, but I think their position here makes a bit more sense than you may realize. The implicit TP position here is that the book list is not some neutral thing, but is government speech aimed at shaping their children. The originators of the (alleged) indoctrination are from socially far away, which is how you get the “not the parents job” bit. They would like to choose a brand of education where this sort of thing is implied with the package. The logical implication of this is school-state separation, but that’s not in the cards for the local school board (and most TPers aren’t that radical, or as they used to say they aren’t that consequent in their thinking.) The best available thing at their level is to calibrate this kind of decision to the Plymouth Canton average, which, they argue, disapproves of “Beloved”. Since this decision is made politically (through the school board) they have to argue.

      Again, I’m not agreeing with them, I’d let my daughter read Toni Morrison if she wanted to, but it does make more sense then you might think at first glance. FWIW, I was reading John Norman books at age 12.

      • limpey says:

        The book list isn’t from some office in ‘big guvernment’ in Washinton or Lansing, it’s from the Canton/Plymouth school district — so the list was made by teachers who teach in that district and was approved by local school officials from that district. The idea that the Obama or Bush Administrations are telling kids in Plymouth what books they should read is false.
        I have no problem with someone saying, “I don’t want my child to read that book.” And in the district the teachers made accommodation for kids whose parents wanted them to read something else. One of the dissenting parents, however, argued that her child did not get as much time and attention because they hadn’t read ‘Beloved’ whereas everyone else in the class had read ‘Beloved’ and therefore her kid was “left out” of the group discussions. The dissenting parents are arguing that since they don’t want their child reading Beloved, no other kid should either.
        That seems inconsistent with Tea Party principles (as I understand them) and I do think the local Tea Party should be called on it since they seem to want smaller government when it comes to food stamps or taxes, but bigger government when it comes to what book a kid should read in school.
        My own ideal is that books should be chosen by the teacher and the student with possible input/veto power from the parent without interference from anyone in any political party. If a 15 year old boy wants to read “a bad book” and his parent’s don’t object and his teacher thinks reading such a book would fulfill an educational purpose, then I don’t think what that kid reads is any of MY business unless I am his parent or his teacher. I think education was, in this case, being used as a political talking point… so the flap over ‘Beloved’ really isn’t about “getting kids to read and learn.”

  7. Anonannoyed says:

    I guess you could buy the books your children would like to read, and not require public money to be spent on something others are vocally opposed to.

    I find the idea that one parent who doesn’t have the time to review a simple list but has time for grass-roots politics is a bit crazy. I agree with you there. There’s too much crossover between the fundies and evangelicals for my liking, but you can’t have a big tent organization and then put a padlock on your door.

    Sounds like the Tea Party is your personal bogey man. The article didn’t mention anything about the Tea Party, but I’ll take your word that the concerned parents are also “members” of the Tea Party.

    • Green Jeans says:

      (I have deep seated anxiety about being a worthless wad of shit so I lash out at others).

    • limpey says:

      Green Jeans: Thanks for taking time out of your busy weekend to comment. See yah later, bro!

      Anonayoyed: See link above from Tea Party website specifically asking members to come out in support of the dissenting parents who want ‘Beloved’ and ‘Waterland’ off the reading list. If that does not qualify as a tea party connection, then what does?

  8. Green Jeans says:

    (I like attacking people anonymously over the internet!).

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