Concerns over the age-appropriateness of books is nothing new. Efforts to ban books are perennial attempts of, assumedly, those worried about a book’s potential to negatively impact a reader too young to access its merit. At Melville House, Taylor Sperry discusses the recent attempt at banning Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men by parents of students at schools in North Carolina and Idaho, respectively.
As reported in The Citizen-Times, Reynolds High School in Asheville North Carolina has “temporarily suspended” Hosseini’s The Kite Runner from its classrooms. Former school board member and parent of a Reynolds High student Lisa Baldwin cited the fact that Reynolds High School had begun using The Kite Runner in its curriculum in place of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front in her frustrations. She says, “It’s not only the language in the book (The Kite Runner) and the adult themes . . . it’s the fact that they have removed a classic novel (All Quiet On the Western Front) from the curriculum without parents knowing about it.” The Kite Runner will not be taught until the request for its removal has been reviewed.
Mary Jo Finney, a parent of a Coeur D’Alene high school student, took issue with Steinbeck’s work being taught in the school. At The Spokesman-Review, she says, “’The story is neither a quality story nor a page turner.’” She cites the ostensibly gratuitous amount of profanity in the book as the real problem. Finney is calling for the book to be pulled from classroom instruction.
In the case of the Asheville situation, it is hard to set aside the fact that Remarque’s novel is brutal and stark and certainly contains “adult themes” (a phrase so vague it is stripped of power). The bottom line seems to be that great works contain great struggle, and that conflict can appear in ways the discomfort and unsettle us. The larger question is: When does this material affect us as readers in a way that is out of proportion with its merit and vision? The Kite Runner is a classic–hard-hitting, bestselling, and doing important work in portraying real struggle.
The problem as I see it with the call for the ban in Idaho is that books have no obligation to be objectively “quality stor[ies]” (a designation that strikes me as risibly subjective)–nor is Steinbeck’s book’s status as “not a page-turner” at all inherently problematic. As the Clean Reader app recently demonstrated, it seems we’ll do just about anything to micromanage the telling–and we’ll miss the point entirely.
Books succeed or fail with regards to the attention they pay to their vision, and language, like all elements of craft, should be constantly dedicated to this vision. When we tamper with that objective via censorship, we are forcing ourselves into relationships as collaborators on a story that is not only not ours to tell, but not ours to assume or appropriate. Stories are ours to experience as a writer intends. When we refuse a story for its language, for its essential components, we run the dangerous risk of eschewing valuable experience, of opening ourselves to the real learning gleaned from other time periods and cultures, from other people and places, from circumstances and conflicts both like and unlike ourselves.