Book banning always struck me as a special kind of terrible. Not necessarily because of direct harm done — a student forbidden from reading, say Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is not a different end result than just not having that book on the syllabus — but because of the principle. There’s no greater insult to the very idea of education and to the discerning capabilities of young minds than to say, “You students can’t handle this book. You need to be protected from it.”
Once a year, the American Library Association hosts Banned Book Week (Sept. 22-28 this year), a way to spread word about which books are being challenged or removed as a way of informing the public about its ongoing battles against censorship. The ALA will compile a list every year of books with the most objections. The “winner” for 2012? That great spoiler of childhood innocence, Captain Underpants.
Last week, a North Carolina county school district decided to start the celebrations early by pulling Invisible Man from the curriculum and the shelves. Just so we’re on the same page, I’m talking about Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel about a man struggling to find his identity in a world intent on using and abusing him as a tool for personal and political gain, not H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel about an invisible man.
Invisible Man would unquestionably make my personal list of top ten favorite novels. It’s a book that has proven itself more meaningful each time I’ve returned to it. It pulls off the nearly impossible feat of perfectly representing a specific moment in history (racial tension in the mid-20th century) while asking universal questions about defining oneself as an individual, not just as a part of a uniform group or ideology. This is all achieved through a lightly surreal lens which makes every magically realist metaphor indelible.
So needless to say, I think this is a pretty worthwhile book for high schoolers to read. It has the potential to carry a lot of personal significance, as it did for me, for young people looking to define their role in the world. It’s an easy book to digest with a lot of meaning to unpack, depending on what you bring to it.
It’s also a book about which one North Carolina education board member said, “I didn’t find any literary value.”
If you can’t find literary value in Invisible Man, you have no right to be ruling on what students should or shouldn’t be reading. It’s a criticism that I simply don’t believe. There’s no chance that board member actually took issue with Invisible Man‘s literary value, this was simply a matter of objectionable content. The book has sex, violence, and racism. You might be able to get away with one or two of these, but all three? Forget it.
The challenge to the book’s “literary value” is a cop-out. What good is literature if it can’t address difficult topics like racial violence and sexual politics? What good is education if you’re shielding 18 year olds from discussing these sorts of painful real-world issues through the lens of literature, where it can be analyzed and discussed in a structured setting?