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Banned Books, No Simple Matter

Posted on 09 November 2009

By Richard Gambino

I attended three high schools. Large ones in Manhattan and Brooklyn, then in my junior and senior years, the smallest public high school in Nassau County. In this last school, a teacher one day talked about Voltaire’s 1759 novel, Candide. He described it as a witty, bayonet-sharp satire. Two young people, “Candide” and his female friend, “Cunegonde,” each encounter brutal, stupid, corrupt and cruel behavior all too common in different societies. I decided I wanted to read it.

However, at the local public library, I was told the book was banned to those under the age of eighteen. But a sympathetic librarian told me that if I got permission in writing from a teacher to read it, I could take it out. I did both, and in reading the book, Voltaire’s use of dark humor to get us to reflect on societies’ and individuals’ worst behavior was fulfilled.

I had also heard in a class that Hitler, in his 1925 book, Mein Kamph (My Struggle), had pretty much telegraphed to the world what he would inflict on humanity if he ever came to power. This book too was banned to minors, but I got another teacher’s permission note. I read it, and found that Hitler had written just as said in class, so the teacher’s point came home to me with stark force: The world in the 1930s had ignored it. After World War I, the attitude of millions in Europe and the U.S. was that war is horrible beyond description — which is true. About fifteen million people had died in that war. And, it was thought, the Great War had proved that in modern war “no side really wins.” So Hitler’s intentions were willfully ignored in massive denial and in wishful thinking for peace — for a great many people, right up to the point when he started another world war by invading Poland on September 1, 1939 — a war that would kill some sixty million people.

Learning to read controversial books critically had a powerful influence on my life. The experience helped set in me a life-long desire to understand the world as best I could — including a career in scholarship and education. So, when I learned this autumn that Sag Harbor’s Jermain Public Library was conducting a week-long banned books program for teenagers, I became very interested. The censoring of books for young minds is not a cut-and-dried simple issue. For too many, it only seems to be a problem when the banned book is morally or politically correct — of course, from their point of view. But, Candide contains “casual” accounts of rape and mutilation, not to mention other crimes and various forms of human corruption. Hitler’s book is full of hate, notably, but not exclusively, against Jews. But its disgusting anti-Semitism goes on at length, and one might reasonably ask why a young person, or anyone, should read it, if not for its historical value — which trumps its offensiveness.

The Jermain Library’s list of books actually banned, or that people wanted banned, in various places includes other famous ones which contain material that would make any decent person cringe. For example, in Mark Twain’s 1884 novel, Huckleberry Finn, characters routinely use the “n” word, the most racist word ever directed against African-Americans. But the book does not merely reflect the racist views of the late 19th century.

A mind that is informed about the history of racism in the U.S., and the methods of effective literary satire, especially biting humor, goes beyond a first and lasting wincing at the word to see the great condemnation of racism that is in fact the heart of the novel.

Just as an informed mind that has been educated in the modes of literary satire appreciates that Candide is a very effective assault on those who prefer to turn their eyes away from human evil, in Voltaire’s time, and in ours, choosing to think this is “the best of all possible worlds.” The lunatic evil in Hitler’s mind is better understood and made offensive to all decent people by the education of his book’s readers — education in history, psychology and morality. In fact, learning how to discern the moral or political agendas in a book, and evaluate them with an independent mind, is critical. What is the point of having a young person read a controversial book if not this? And the program at Jermain aims to help accomplish these important goals in the education of teenagers. It encourages them to read books on the list, and a librarian discusses questions regarding censorship with them.

Again, the matter of censorship can be very challenging with regard to some books. For example, Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice is the most troubling work I’ve considered. I can’t see it as satire — in which humor is used to seem to say something, but clearly at the same time ripping that something apart. Merchant is a work of genius by the best playwright and poet ever — and the play is one of his most powerful. But not only is its anti-Semitism ugly and relentless, but also, as is generally true of Shakespeare’s plays — sometimes maddingly so — he doesn’t judge his characters. In contrast, say, to Dante who did so overtly, placing some in heaven, and others in purgatory or in hell in his Divine Comedy. Shakespeare presents characters who are all too realistic and let’s us judge them. For example, the murderous tyrant, Richard III, in the play of the same name, who delights in his sadistic oppression of people. But in Merchant, the anti-Semites triumph. “Shylock,” an anti-Semitic stereotype, who is routinely referred to by other characters as “the Jew,” is completely broken and humiliated. The sometime triumph of great evil is part of what makes Shakespeare a “modern” writer — as is seen too in the death of Lear’s only good daughter, “Cordelia,” in his great play, King Lear,

The stereotyping of Shylock, and the vile, long, hate-filled treatment on stage of him by other characters in Merchant in fact is an effective primer for any student of the long, atrocities-filled train of anti-Semitism in European history, and especially after its escalation into modern anti-Semitism that starts with the First Crusade in the year 1095 and culminates in the Nazi Holocaust. (The same Holocaust our kids hear denied by the current head of Iran’s government.)

So yes, as part of their education, teenagers should be encouraged to read — and especially in how to read — some of the books that provoke many people to call for their being banned from public libraries. Reading and thinking about Candide, Huckleberry Finn and The Merchant of Venice can contribute to the growth of one’s mind and soul. I salute the Jermain Library for its banned books week, and urge its staff to expand it into a year-round program.

RICHARD GAMBINO is Professor Emeritus at Queens College, holds a PhD in philosophy from NYU, and lives in North Haven.

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