Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Secret Little Book-Banner Inside You (and Me)

This week is Banned Books Week, so designated by the American Library Association, which created the week in the hopes of motivating us to celebrate our "freedom to read." The ALA keeps a list of the most frequently challenged books each year, including a list of banned "classics," and my guess is that a quick perusal of those lists would still shock most of us. There are the predictable ones, of course-- like Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (which clearly encourages people to become serial killers), Nabokov's Lolita (which clearly encourages people to become pedophiles), Orwell's 1984 (which clearly encourages people to read Animal Farm)-- in which one can easily reconstruct the arguments, however fear-mongering and conservative and erroneous, that were levelled against them. Then there are the seemingly vanilla texts-- like Milne's Winnie the Pooh and Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea-- which just seem curiously undeserving of their proscription. Then there are the ones that, upon seeing them on the list, you find yourself secretly relishing the incendiery, subversive, revolutionary, salacious, or otherwise pot-stirring reputation that got them there in the first place -- like Sinclair's The Jungle, or Rushdie's Midnight's Children, or Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, or Woolf's Orlando. But there's another general category of entries, I think...

There are also titles on the list-- I'd put Rand's Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, perhaps also Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in this group-- which, although I wouldn't proactively solicit their banning, and although I wouldn't waste any lighter fluid to burn them, I also wouldn't be too sad if they went, well, unread. Does this mean I'm not really invested in "celebrating the freedom to read"? Am I engaging in some variant of good old-fashioned Sartrean bad faith here? Wasn't I just arguing a few days ago that I don't want to "police"?

Monica Edinger, over on The Huffington Post, wrote an article titled "Everyone's a Little Bit Book Bannerish" that offers at least some comfort in its suggestion that maybe, just maybe, even those of us who, as a matter of principle, "celebrate the freedom to read" still harbor a secret little Censor that we try to keep in the closet, but which rears its ugly head from time to time. I'd like to think thay my Inner Book-Banner is of an entirely different ilk than the stereotypical ones, prefering as I do instead to steer students, friends and generally literate people away from books in which I think the writing is terrible, or the ideas are stupid, or the style is juvenile... you know, for their own good. But, alas, that's exactly what the Standard Freedom-To-Read-Hating Censors do as well, and for exactly the same reasons, I suppose.

So, just for a moment, I'd like to encourage readers of this blog to go ahead and let their Inner Book-Banner out of the closet for a moment. Do tell: what books would you ban (let's assume you must choose a few)? And why? You are permitted, of course, to saddle your proscriptions with all manner of explanation and whatever other caveats might assuage your obvious hatred of the freedom to read.


Michael said...

I am reminded of Hume's closing of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:
"When we have run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance, let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion."

While I may not agree with Hume's empiricism, and do not want to actually burn books, I think he's on to something. Were I to ban any books, it would be those that present their theses as logical or scientific, but then flagrantly ignore reason in their construction. I'm thinking specifically of a good deal of New Age 'metaphysics' and self-help. Masaru Emoto's repeatedly discredited pseudo-science and Rhonda Byrnes' horrifically presumptuous The Secret come to mind.

If a book intends to inform people on how to act, but does so by creating poor inferences masked by flowery rhetoric, it ought not be read. If a person wants to publish drivel, they can, but they shouldn't hide their nonsense under a deceptive guise of word games designed to look like rationality.

Scu said...

Wait, what is your problem with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?

anotherpanacea said...

If I must ban something, I would ban the following books:

_How to Shit in the Woods: An Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art_

_How to Avoid Huge Ships_

_The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification_

I think it's weird to ban Ayn Rand. _Atlas Shrugged_ is like the best argument ever *against* objectivism. At least in this case, the marketplace of ideas works better with all the repugnant ideas and arguments left intact for examination.

DOCTOR J said...

@Scu: I wouldn't really advocate an outright banning of Hitchhiker's Guide. I would, however, ban it with the following caveat: I wish noone would read it until they've at least had one *real* philosophy class. I guess I've just had too many inane barstool-conversations with people who thought they were philosophers on account of that book.

@Anpan: See above. Same goes for Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.

For that matter, I'd use the same ban-with-a-caveat argument against almost any book by Nietzsche as well. And Derrida.

Scu said...

Ah, gotcha. I've never had that problem with Hitchhiker, but it use to be a regular problem with The Matrix. Almost hate the movie just because of that happening again and again.

Oh, I don't know what books I would ban. Maybe the Twilight books?

the phenomenologist said...

There are several categories emerging, one of which is "Books I'd Ban," another is "Books I'd Prefer Go Unread (or Unpublished)," a third is "Books That Inspire Insipid Conversations," and finally "Books You Shouldn't Read By Yourself." I think "Hitchhiker's," and "Atlas Shrugged," along with "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" and "Stranger in a Strange Land" all fall into category three (though some might want to include Rand in a few other categories as well). Nietzsche and Derrida fall into category four. Most scholarly research goes into category two. I can't currently think any books I'd like to see in category one, even in a pique of anger, but if I were forced to ban books, at gunpoint, I'd choose the central texts of the three major Abrahamic religions, i.e., the Torah, the Bible, and the Koran, as well as any direct, commentaries on them. My verification word is "quand" ... donc maintenant !

DOCTOR J said...

@phenomenologist: I like your categories alot, mostly because they capture many of the reasons why I might not want a book read (or read at that time) even though I wouldn't really want it banned. I suppose, for me anyway, your Categories #2 and #3 are mostly overlapping ones... which is to say, I guess, that I don't want books read that (or read at a time such that they) inspire insipid conversation.

As to the so-called "holy" texts, I would put them in your Category #4 ("Books You Shouldn't Read By Yourself"). But I suppose if I were also forced, at gunpoint, to ban something, I can certainly see many good reasons to agree with you. Even still, I guess I'm more inclined to say that there is enough truly worthy-of-reading-and-thinking-about material in those texts to risk the gunshot on them.

Scu said...

So, on categories 3 and 4. On the one hand, I hate having insipid conversations. One the other hand, any book that gets kids interested in philosophy is probably a good thing. That is why as much as I dislike Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, or Quinn's Ishmael, if that gets some of those people to study philosophy or take a philosophy class, then it is probably worth it.

I am pretty heavily involved in debate at both the college and high school level. And at the high school level I see students struggling with texts from Butler, Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault, Nietzsche, Heidegger, etc. They get more things wrong then they get right, but I am really happy to see them trying to play with these texts. To see a bunch of high schoolers without access to a class or a professor on these thinkers do their best to figure out what is going on. That's how I got into philosophy. We were a bunch of geek-punk kids trying to read Nietzsche and Foucault in high school.

I guess it is hard for me to really hate books that get students interested in philosophy, and I can only respect people who try to read great works of philosophy outside of the academy. Like Deleuze I always dream of a pop philosophy.

John said...

Interesting question. I would like to approach the problem of bad (or dangerous? or dangerously bad?) books from another angle. I imagine each of us has particular "weaknesses" for certain works, ways we allow ourselves to be undermined or deceived, particular "blind spots" in our thinking or judgment. And isn't it precisely our intellectual commitments and "positions" that open up this or that specific "blind spot" in the game of thought? In the case of ultimate commitments, our "life projects" we have something like what Bataille would call "the blind spot of absolute knowledge".

Basically I wonder whether the errors of thinking or errors of judgment of a "thinker" are not actually greater, the greater the scope and implications of the thought and the thinker. For someone like Heidegger, didn't works of Far Eastern thought become additions to the "domestic library", didn't perhaps his thought begin to veer towards a paralysis or stasis as a result? My question is then, isn't it what is "read into" a work, rather than the work itself, that creates the danger?

And isn't it depth rather than surface understanding that makes the thinker capable of dangerous thinking to begin with?

John said...

Is deception about history a sound basis for banning a book? If so, I would ban Oriana Fallaci's The Rage and the Pride.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

I find it interesting that no one has trotted out any of the many shitty books that the right wing puts out that are actually ruining America.

Here's my theory as to why (and I'll submit this as a fifth category of the Phenomenologist's kinds of books): these are books that don't really count as books.

I thought about banning Anne Coulter or Glenn Beck and then realized there would be little point because their books are just a tiny part of their media empire. It would be beside the point to ban them.

I'd include most books written by politicos/pundits (Dreams of My Father being a notable exception) and many mainstream books about pundits into this category. Also just about anything put out as part of the culture industry (as opposed to things about the culture in this category also.

If we leave aside books that aren't really books, which is where most of my bans would come from, I kinda don't know, but I'd be inclined to agree with the Twilight/Abrahamic texts suggestions.

Alternatively, I might ban adults from reading books written for children and thinking this makes them literate.