Sunday, March 21, 2010

What do you do about problematic books in your library?

[info]lightningrose asked me:
I've been pondering what to do with a few "problem" books... ie books I like, on a whole, but have an odd uncomfortable phrasing/content bit. I have "Jane of Lantern Hill" which is a wonderful book, on a whole -- yet contains the father stating that he "jewed" the landlord down into a lower rent for their summer home. (Being Jewish myself, it sticks in the craw). Also a recent discovery, an otherwise charming book -- Marian Cockrell's 1945 "Shadow Castle" has a questing fairy first encounter, and dismiss "primitive red Indians" before he goes off and finds some properly civilized mortals to hand with in a nice European castle. (Unlike, say, Ma's racism against Native Americans in Little House, it's not a deep plot point.) Do you keep the book around to provide teachable moments? Edit one's library? Skip over the section when reading aloud to your kids? What do you do with the throwaway racist line in literature?
My first reaction is, "You're asking me??? I am so the wrong person for this question!"

But then I realized this is one of the issues that the racefail flamewar raised. Several people on the other side said they no longer wanted my books in their homes. To which I could only say something like, "That's cool. It's your home, and your reactions are your reactions. If something bugs you, you're under no obligation to do anything more than throw it out."

But that was a lazy response. I actually think we all have a personal obligation to look closely at the things that bother us. It's the obligation expressed by Socrates as "The unexamined life is not worth living," and by Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas as "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."

Which might be a wee bit much when you want to read aloud to kids. (smiley here!)

If I was going to read something to kids that had a bit which I couldn't leave out, I would take a minute to talk about it. I would point out that some people use racist language because that's what they're used to, but they may still be good people who treat people of other races well. We had neighbors like that when we lived in Florida in the '60s. A famous example: George Wallace is almost synonymous with "racist" today, but as Wikipedia notes, "He gained a reputation for fairness regardless of the race of the plaintiff, and a black lawyer recalled, "Judge George Wallace was the most liberal judge that I had ever practiced law in front of. He was the first judge in Alabama to call me 'Mister' in a courtroom."" Wallace had a lot of support from black Alabamans because he did a number of things that improved life for blacks there. People are complex.

I would end by telling the kids I would be very hurt if I heard them using language that would hurt people's feelings, because now they know better than that author or character.

As for something in my personal library, I might take a pen and strike out or rewrite anything I didn't like. Marking up a book is a fine way to have a discussion with an author.


  1. Not having any small children, I'm not terribly worried about whether my library has teachable moments for them. (I used to read to my nephew before he got too old to enjoy it, but we mostly stuck with Dr. Seuss books wherein jewing down landlords and primitive red indians do not play a major part.)

    I have internal arguments with authors all the time, though. It's one of the things I enjoy about reading. I think it would be very boring to read books only by authors that shared my world view.

  2. Nothing. If I got rid of all the problematic books in my library, I wouldn't have any library.

    Besides, "problematic" is in the eye of the beholder. I remember reading a bedtime story to my six year old niece; when she saw the illustrated "hand of glory", she ran screaming from the room.

    Ten years later, she gave me a copy of Twilight. When I saw the rackety sentence structure, the thin characterizations, and the god-like and super creepy stalker Edward, then *I* ran screaming from the room.

  3. serial and Blue, I like you guys. Just sayin'.

  4. Awww....I like you too, Will. Which makes up for how much my niece will hate me if she ever finds out I dissed "Twilight". ;-)

    However, this is the same girl who loved your "The Princess Who Kicked Butt" when I read it to her, so there's hope for her literary tastes yet.

  5. I've never read Twilight since I have a strong aversion to romance. This makes me completely unqualified to dis it, of course.

    I have been reading fantasy manga from the local public library lately, though. Maybe I'm just picking the wrong stuff, but it feels like I'm trying to read video games. Very non-linear and everything ends with a fight of some sort. *head hurts*