Monday, January 19, 2009

Selling Huck and Jim Down The River

According to an article in today’s Los Angeles Times, John Foley, a 48 year old teacher from Ridgefield, Washington, wants to remove Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn from the high school curriculum because of the word nigger. He would also like to drop To Kill A Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men for the same reason.

“…[W]ith an African-American about to be inaugurated as president,” reporter Kim Murphy writes, “Foley wonders whether ‘Huck Finn’ ought to be sent back down the river. Why not replace it with a more modern, less discomfiting novel documenting the epic journey of discovery?” Maybe because the “epic journey of discovery” that Huck and Jim undertake includes the realization that people can be incredibly evil to each other, as best personified when someone hurls the word nigger at a black person.

Literature and art are not supposed to make us feel comfortable. In fact, books can and should disturb us, inspire us to change, make us rethink our lives.

Jim is the most moral, caring, loving, conscientious character in the novel. The scene where he finds Huck after thinking him lost overboard is one of the most moving in the book. Huck feels so guilty because Jim cares about him, and he was trying to trick him.

Tom Robinson is an innocent victim of racism. Atticus Finch proves he did not commit the rape of Mayella Ewell, yet the all-white jury still finds him guilty. Bob Ewell, as well as several members of the community, call Atticus a “nigger-lover” for doing his job—defending a man accused of a crime. Worse, they call him this epithet not just to his face, but also to his children, Scout and Jem.

What do my students get from these novels? They see the injustice. They feel what Tom Robinson feels, what Jim experiences, maybe not in totality, for how can a non-black person understand fully the fires of racism without being black? But the books give us another view and that is what good literature should do: expand one’s understanding of the world and its people. Students are outraged at the end of To Kill A Mockingbird. The conclusion makes them angry; it disturbs them, and that is how it should be.

“Foley said he doesn’t want to ban the books,” Murphy writes. “He just thinks they shouldn’t be the backbone of the American literature curriculum in 2009…” Just because we have elected an African-American to the office of president does not mean we are done with racism in this country. And is injustice and discrimination only about race? My state will not allow two people of the same sex to make a commitment to one another. Sexism, racism, and discrimination are all still an unhealthy part of American culture.

In addition, to remove these books from the high school curriculum because the black male characters are “ignorant, inarticulate and uneducated,” is incredibly stupid in its own right.

Barack Obama is part of a generation that broke through the barriers of race in the university and in public life. He is articulate and highly intelligent because of the struggles of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and many others, both black and white, to eradicate racism and segregation from society, and give people of color equal opportunities. Jim and Tom Robinson are not so fortunate to live in this time.

And are these two characters truly ignorant?

Jim demonstrates his thoughtful logic and intelligence when he analyzes the wisdom of King Solomon and the dispute between the two women over the infant. Tom Robinson displays an acute understanding of the plight of others. It is what gets him in trouble in the courtroom when he says he feels sorry for Mayella Ewell. Let’s not confuse undereducated with uneducated. These two characters have much to teach us and future generations, and although their stories are not the only ones to teach values, they should always be included on the reading options for literature courses in high school.

As for Mr. Foley, he displays his own brand of ignorance. “You have to remember, it’s a hard to sell kids these days on books,” he says in the article. “I write young adult novels, and sometimes I wonder, why bother? You’re writing for three girls who like to read.”

Don’t bother, Mr. Foley. The world does not need another writer, and those three girls and a host of other kids have plenty to read without “selling” them your ideas on what constitutes good literature. As a teacher, you should have more respect for the intellect of your students.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

One Man, Reading*

It is time to disturb the universe. It is time to do something subversive. Yes, it is time to try to reignite the intellectual fire in this country.

I want to see people, in public, reading.

Reading scripts at the local Starbucks does not count. Here in Los Angeles, everybody reads scripts in public. It is how one telegraphs to everyone else that he or she is an actor or screenwriter. Poseurs and frauds, frauds and poseurs! One must be reading a book—serious literature only.

And preferably, cover up the front cover, because that is another trick: we read War and Peace in the doctor’s office in the hopes that someone will be impressed.

No, what we need is a real intellectual life, not to impress others, not to pick up on beautiful people, not to make others think we are intelligent—we need to read in public because it is important to us, because it is necessary to the mind life of America.

I propose that we take the year 2009 and read. Not just read, but publicly read. I want to walk around this great nation and see readers everywhere. I want to see people so engrossed in text that they miss their names when they are called, they have thick books open in their shopping carts at the local market. I want to see the break rooms filled with people reading. If one no longer has a job, this allows even more time for public reading. Off to the library with the unemployed!

I want to see people reading at church on Sunday. People in parks, people at museums, people at sporting events—everybody, take out your books and start. No one should be watching the in-flight movie. Turn the damn thing off and throw it out the window. We are reading and cannot be bothered.

Hopefully, this will start a cascade effect.

People will want to discuss what they have read. I do not mean the kind of nonsense Oprah discusses on her inane show with alleged writers. (How is it that dear Oprah keeps getting duped by liars?) People should discuss things, as the kids say, for “reals.” Is the novel still valid as an art form? What are the stories we tell ourselves in order to live? Where are the poets? Why don’t we listen to them? What does the Invisible Man mean here in 2009? Are we still living lives of quiet desperation? Is Ahab us, and if so, who or what is our white whale?

Let’s sail away with Horatio Hornblower. I can see it now: Huck, Jim, and all of us on a raft heading down the Big Muddy, looking for adventure. While all is quiet on the western front, let’s discuss the things we carry in war and in our lives. I want to sit up late with Hamlet and try to figure out why we are here. Can we fall in love again, like Romeo and Juliet?

I want to sit around the campfire with Jack London, and the drawing room with Edith Wharton. I want to ride through Wyoming with E. Annie Proulx and Gretel Ehrlich. I want to fly over the dark continent with Antoine De Saint-Exupery, discuss into the wee hours of the morning the meaning of life with Thomas Merton, Aldous Huxley, and dear Spinoza, only I would call him Barry.

Book stores will have to stay open later to accommodate the demand. There will be more than enough business for the chains to open more stores, and all the independents will come back again.

Libraries will become a federal institution and rival their university counterparts. The federal government will cut funding for war and the military, and channel the funds to our new national library system. America will become the biggest consumer of books. Newspapers will multiply, magazines will prosper, Paris Hilton will be seen at one of the new hot reading clubs in Hollywood pouring over a copy of Death Comes For The Archbishop.

Okay, I’ll stop now.

Let’s just begin with reading in public. If we can get just one man reading in public, thinking, reveling in ideas, we could start a revolution.

Get out in the town square, lounge on Main Street, take to public transportation, open the book. Let the journey to the brave, new world begin.

*Update: On the Los Angeles Times blog on books called Jacket Copy, writer Sarah Weinman discusses how she read 462 books in 2008. Yes, that is 462 books in one year! We should all be so diligent.