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Archive for September, 2010

Censoring Books

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

Do you have any idea what Margaret Mitchell, Benjamin Franklin, J.K. Rowling, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Pat Conroy have in Common? Well, yes, they all wrote books that became bestsellers. But I was thinking of the fact that they also wrote books that people have tried to suppress in one way or another over the years. They’ve all been the object of censors.

Ben Franklin’s Autobiography was deemed by some to be too racy for kids and adults because Ol’ Ben rhapsodized on the lovemarking virtues of mature women and got his book banned beginning in 1789. Gone with the Wind had too many crude and sexy parts for some readers in the 1930s (although a lot more snapped it up and turned it into one of the world’s all-time bestselling novels. Rowling’s famously popular “Harry Potter” series has offended would-be censors because it supposedly panders to witchcraft, a charge leveled by the book-banners right here in Georgia not too long ago.

In many of these instances, the censors didn’t want to keep the materials from just the prying eyes of youngsters, they wanted to bar them from anyone’s experience, young or old. If something offended the censors, then it surely offended everyone. It’s that vision of the self-annointed, the righteous whose beliefs somehow transcend whatever anyone else thinks. 

I mention this because we’re into Banned Books Week, September 25 – October 2. It’s a good time to recall some of the efforts of censors over the decades, as we are reminded by the week’s sponsors, the American Library Association and the American Booksellers Association, along with a number of other organizations. Even a partial list of banned books reads like a compilation of the greatest works of  literature: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Slaughterhoouse-Five, The Origin of the Species, Ulysses, The Color Purple, To Kill a Mockingbirfd, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Farewell to Arms, 1984, The Diary of Anne Frank. And on and on.  

Censoring would be a joke, truly, if it weren’t so serious an offense. That said, I find myself still chuckling at the effort many years ago to ban Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove, a novel so dense and difficult that it’s impossible to believe the would-be banners ever got past page 6. (I got to page 11 once before quitting.) Of course, that’s part of the problem, too. A lot of censors have never read the material they seek to eradicate. while far too many others have read it and failed to understand it. An age when blatant censoring is increasingly accompanied by pariochial illiteracy makes for a very sad time. 

So go enjoy the week. Thumb your nose at the censors. Head over to your local library or bookstore and pick up a copy of The Prince of Tides, or The Grapes of Wrath, or maybe The Scarlet Letter.  And then read it; after all, that’s the ultimate rebuke to anyone who wants to keep you away from books.

Celebrating Dr. Johnson

Monday, September 13th, 2010

This month we celebrate the birth of one of western civilization’s literary “giants:” Dr. Johnson. Dr. Samuel Johnson, that is. The Dr. Johnson of uncountable maladies, infirmities, tics and depressive spirits, whose towering, distorted visage could and did scare small children. But also the Dr. Johnson whose generosity of spirit, whose brilliance of wit and conversation, whose literary accomplishments mark him among the most admired figures of culture and learning in history. The same Dr. Johnson immortalized in James Boswell’s magisterial biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D, first published 219 years ago.

Johnson was born in Litchfield, england, on September 18, 1709, and yes, England and many other countries joined in celebration of his tercentenary birthday observance last year. Thanks to Boswell’s own literary genius, we know Johnson today as the sage of the Enlightenment, a man whose witty, pungent observations on topics ranging from marriage to patriotism delight and sting today no less than when they made him famous in 18th century London.

On Marriage: “A second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience.” On Patriotism: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” and on Scotland: “The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England.” As you might imagine, the latter remark earned him something less than gratitude from those living north of the border, and even though Johnson wound up approving of much of Scotland and its people during his 1773 tour with Boswell, many Scots never forgave him. To this day.

Johnson’s most outstanding literary contribution came in his role as lexicographer, producing after more than a decade of labor the  monumental Dictionary of the English Language. Its publication in 1755 secured his reputation as England’s literary monarch; some of his definitions still find their way into the latest Oxford editions. He wrote books about the classic poets and about Shakespeare still read and revered in the 21st century. He was a moralist, essayist, poet, biographer, a man of deep and profound feelings, and we remain in Boswell’s debt for his story (even if there is a bit more to it than even Boswell knew).

If you don’t know Johnson’s work, there’s no better time to get acquainted. Perhaps the best way to be introduced is through Peter Martin’s Selected Writings of Samuel Johnson, published last year by Harvard University Press. Martin also has written a fine, up-to-date biography of Johnson, and Penguin Classics has published a handy paperback, Samuel Johnson: Selected Writings. You’ll find web sites galore that explore aspects of Johnson’s life  (www.samueljohnson.com has a wealth of materials throughtfully arranged for sampling).  

Johnson and Boswell together emerge in Boswell’s biography, and there’s an abridged version if the original too thick for you. I’ll have a bit more to say about the both of them a little later since they figure quite prominently — beware of a shameless plug coming up — in my forthcoming book, Whisky, Kilts, and the Loch Ness Monster: Traveling through Scotland with Boswell and Johnson. End of shameless plug.