Friday, October 3, 2008

Friday's Forgotten Books - Banned Books Week

This week Patti Abbott is dedicating Friday's Forgotten Books to Banned Book Week. Contributors were asked to review a book that has been frequently challenged. My choice for this week is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Of course, anyone who has read this book isn't going to FORGET it, but let's OBSERVE the fact that this book has been challenged and is still challenged today, and then let's CELEBRATE the fact that we are free to read it! This is not only one of my favorite books of all times, but it was also one of my favorite books to teach.

To Kill a Mockingbird has been challenged, and even banned, for a variety of "reasons." One of the more common reasons is its use of the word "nigger." The American Library Association also reports that it has been challenged because it's a "filthy, trashy novel," it "contains profanity and racial slurs," and my personal favorite, it "represents institutionalized racism under the guise of good literature." Wow! All this time I was teaching it as a book that CHALLENGED institutionalized racism. Maybe in my umpteen times reading this Pulitzer Prize winning novel (I reread it every time I taught it) I completely misinterpreted the themes! I guess I'll have to go back and read it again to see if I can figure out what I was missing. In the meantime, let me tell you a little bit about the book at #23 on the list of the 100 most challenged books during the time span of 2000-2007.

Jean Louise Finch, a.k.a. Scout, is the narrator of this "trashy novel," set in Maycomb, Alabama. She's telling the story as an adult looking back at her life during the Great Depression. Her father, Atticus Finch, was the lawyer who agreed to defend Tom Robinson, a black man, who was charged with raping Mayella Ewell, a white woman.

Tom Robinson's story is loosely based on the Scottsboro Boys Trial, which took place in the 1960s about the time Harper Lee was ten.

The themes in this novel are incredibly powerful. Harper Lee addresses racism, class distinction, gender differences. One of my favorite scenes in the book deals with a "Morphodite" snowman, highlighting what I think is the most moving theme of the book, Innocence.

I can't deny that To Kill a Mockingbird "contains profanity and racial slurs", and it does contain the words "damn", "nigger" and "whore lady." It absolutely does. But I don't know how Lee could have 1.) written a realistic book with this same plot and themes without those words and 2.) realistically illustrated Scout's adolescent attempts to show her independence ("pass the damn ham, please") without some profanity.

What makes this book so powerful is its realism. It portrays Southern America in the 1930s exactly as it was. Banning a book like To Kill a Mockingbird won't make it any less so. In no way does the book condone profanity or racial slurs, quite the contrary. And no matter how I read the book, I cannot see that it "represents institutionalized racism." What I do see is that it DENOUNCES "institutionalized racism."

We've come a long way since the 1930s. Efforts, like Lee's book, to bring wrongs out in the acknowledge them for what they really are...have helped us move in a direction closer to equality. To hide them, pretend they don't exist, ban them is simply wrong. We still have a ways to go before we reach equality; let's not move BACKWARDS!

Celebrate your right to read, pick up To Kill a Mockingbird. If you've already read it, it's a GREAT book to re-read!


Traci October 3, 2008 at 8:31 AM  

I loved To Kill a Mockingbird. I'd say it's in my top ten all time favorite books.

beauvallet October 3, 2008 at 9:50 AM  

To Kill a Mockingbird is arguably the finest American novel ever written. That it deals frankly with the issue of racism, the issue so troublesome that it still affects our electoral processes and judicial system even decades after this book was published, is just one indication of what remarkable book this is. Great choice, Jen.

pattinase (abbott) October 3, 2008 at 12:19 PM  

My bookgroup read this book recently and we were amazed at how brilliantly it deals with the topic.
And your blog is the most restful place to put my feet up. I love it.
I'm adding the link so I can come here quickly.

le0pard13 October 3, 2008 at 2:15 PM  

Jen, it's great that you've brought this classic book to the forefront in your post, and tied it to Banned Books Week. Ideas and subjects need to be brought to the attention of others, and doing it in such a grand literate manner (and casting of those times) illustrates the genius of the writer. I would add that one of the most important family discussions we ever had was with my twelve year old this summer after he finished Twain's, Huckleberry Finn. Both books reflect their turbulent times extraordinarily well and force us to examine them, and ourselves. It makes me recall my mother's favorite quote by Socrates, "An unexamined life is not worth living."

Corey Wilde October 3, 2008 at 5:09 PM  

Lovely new digs, Jen!

I haven't read 'Mockingbird' in several, several years. I'd forgotten about the 'damn ham' incident. It's a great book, reflective of its time but also with (unfortunately) relevance to modern readers.

Tim October 3, 2008 at 5:46 PM  
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tim October 3, 2008 at 5:48 PM  

Jen --

Great take on a great book, probably not one of Sarah Palin's faves, great new look on your site. All in all, great all around. Sites like yours make an invaluable contribution to the absolutely essential task of keeping this country literate. Watching that debate last night and watching the focus group reactions on CNN flatline every time Biden talked about amendments and judges and issues, and then watch them peak whenever Palin used the words "soccer mom" or when Biden teared up -- AAAAARRRRGGGHHHHHHH. Haven't we had enough of government by illiterates? People who don't read are dangerous in positions of power. Not to mention boring at parties.

Let's see, who else can I offend?

Tim Hallinan

Jen October 3, 2008 at 6:15 PM  

Thanks everyone! This book is amazing, and I'm so glad that there are people out there recognizing that fact. I was mortified to learn one of my friends - a little older than me- had NEVER read it! It wasn't required in her reading program through school. Like many of you have pointed out, this book, while set years ago, is still (sadly) extremely relevant even today. We can all benefit from reading this book!!

And Tim - you're preaching to the choir. I couldn't agree with you more!

darbyscloset October 3, 2008 at 9:58 PM  

Love the new look ... you go girl!!!
"To Kill a Mockingbird", is one of my all time favorite book and movies!!! I enjoyed your write up on this book!
darbyscloset (at) yahoo (dot) com

Barrie October 4, 2008 at 7:19 PM  

My highschooler just finished reading this as part of the curriculum. How times have changed...

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