Reading Journal (30 Sept): The Gift of Choice (Thoughts on Banned Books Week)

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When I was a teenager (probably aged 13 or 14), I selected a book on the freshman reading list with an interesting title: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. My English teacher pulled me aside. There was a disturbing scene in it, she warned me, and I should think about it and ask my mother if it would be okay to read. I mentioned it my mother, and I don’t think she blinked an eye.

“I think that would be a great book for you,” she said. (She, an English post-grad student, knew the book.)

I read it. Yes, there was a troubling scene in it. But the overall message of that book, and the overall impression I received after I closed it, was one that I still haven’t forgotten. I remember feeling strongly that others should read the book to get a sense of what it means to be discriminated against. Besides all that, I left feeling amazed at the power of a life where, even while she feels caged, even when she has been abused, Maya Angelou felt she had a reason to sing. I loved the book.

A few years later, as a junior, my English teacher explained that our next book would be The Catcher in the Rye, but if anyone wanted to select a different book, it would be fine. The mother of one of my friends (incidentally from my church group) told her daughter (whom I’ll call Jane) to read one of the other books. My mom, who literally hates Catcher, told me it was my choice. I read the book, and I loved it. I felt I had a friend in Holden Caulfield. (P.S. I just started rereading it and, um, I am not liking it so much I want to cry! What happened to my friend?)

When I was in high school, I did ban myself from media on one occasion. One of my history classes (I don’t recall which year) watched Schindler’s List and I felt very uncomfortable with it, so I sat in a different room during the three days of history class when they watched it. I don’t think anyone else sat out with me.

Did Jane miss out? Whatever book Jane read was probably good too. Sitting in a different class while we discussed Catcher probably wasn’t fun for her, but in the long run, it probably didn’t matter that her mother chose which book she should read. But then again, I don’t know Jane, so who knows if Holden would have been her friend, too?

Did I miss out on Schindler’s List?, I know I am personally most disturbed by graphics, movies, and anything visual. I never forget them. I suspect my 14- or 15-year-old self would have been quite disturbed. While I know Schindler’s List was probably a very memorable, touching movie to end our unit on the Holocaust, I don’t think I missed anything that I needed at that age.

And then the other question: Was I sidetracked from my conservative upbringing by reading books with “issues”? No. Really, reading Caged Bird was important in my understanding of the world. And I wasn’t going to start smoking and cussing because Holden did. I just related to his teenage angst because I apparently had plenty of my own angst. (P.S. I think this angst is why I dislike him so much now!)

What I loved is the fact that my teachers, while wanting us to read the books, still gave us the ultimate choice. What I love is the fact that my mom, knowing me, allowed me to choose for myself. What I love is that me, knowing me, chose not to watch that movie. It’s all about choice. Even though my mother hated Catcher and thought it be disgusting and pointless (and a little bit without morals), she still let me choose.

Incidentally, my mother is one that challenges books, but maybe not in the way you expect. One year, my brother came home with the following books on his reading list for the year: Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies, A Separate Peace, and The Catcher in the Rye. My mother was furious and went to school to complain. Her complaint? Every single book is written by a white male, about disturbed white teenage boys. Certainly, world literature can provide some more variety!

I personally don’t think it’s wrong to “challenge” book choice, especially those that are a part of the curriculum. Why, exactly, are these particular books required out of all that we have to choose from? Let’s question. But in the end, let’s allow teachers and teenagers to choose which books they will ultimately read. What was okay for me may have been disturbing for Jane.

I guess my Banned Book Week bottom line is that I will be forever grateful to my mother for letting me make my own choices. I personally feel sad to think that some moms are saying “no” to letting their high school-aged kids exercise their own gift of choice. At some point, mothers have to let go.

Of course, as a mom to a toddler, my “letting go” is a little different. This week, I’m realizing that yes, he really does want to read The Little Red Caboose five times every single night.

If I hide it on the top shelf for a few days, would that be banning it? Yes?

Ah, well, I’m starting small. OK, son, let’s go read it again.

Abandoned Books/Finished Reading

Each week, I mention the books I finish or abandon. I may finish Catcher this week!

  • Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud (215 pages; nonfiction in comic format). FINISHED! Also was new Library Loot.
  • Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell (187 pages; fiction). FINISHED! For Heather J.’s October read-along.
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker ( audiobook, 27 segments, about 16 hours total; fiction). FINISHED! For the RIP IV Challenge.
  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (audio CD, 7 disks, about 7.5 hours total; children’s fiction). Returned. I was so excited to listen to this. Within about ten seconds after I started, the disk was all garbled and I couldn’t understand it. I decided I don’t have patience to listen to this book, considering Dracula took me over a month to listen to!

Currently Reading

Each week, I list my progress so I can see how my reading compares week to week.

My Books

These are the books I own that I chose to read this week.

  • Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (130 read of 190; children’s fiction). I am reading this aloud to my son at a very slow rate.
  • The Stories of John Cheever (21 of 61 stories, 820 pages total; fiction/short stories). Part of my Pulitzer Challenge. I read one story this week.
  • Our Latter-day Hymns: The Stories and Their Messages by Karen Lynn Davidson (70 read of 350/455 pages; nonfiction). So far, I’ve read the stories of 40 hymns.
  • Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter by Seth Lerer (208 read of 330 pages; nonfiction). I read one chapter this week.
  • Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (75 read of 220 pages; fiction). For the Banned Books Challenge.

New Library Loot

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Eva and Marg that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library.

In addition to Understanding Classics, which I’ve already finished, I also got a few other books.

  • Classics for Pleasure by Michael Dirda (324 pages; nonfiction). I picked this up to get ideas for The Classics Circuit. Make sure you submit your own ideas for future tours!
  • Norton Critical Editions: Oliver Twist (fiction/nonfiction). This edition of Oliver Twist has analysis and criticism at the back of it.
  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (25 read of 310 pages; children’s fiction). For the RIP IV Challenge. (See note about about garbled audio version.
  • The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White (250 pages; children’s fiction).

Noteworthy Notes

I’ve been horrible at making notes of which books you’ve added to my list. So many more books have caught my eye than have been noted. I’m also still a day behind in my Reader.



  • The London Scene, five essays by Virginia Woolf.  Eva at A Striped Armchair says, “Basically, Woolf walks around various parts of London and writes her impressions. It’s beautiful.”
  • Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin. Jenny at Shelf Love and Tara at Books and Cooks both reviewed this cooking memoir this week!
  • Creating a World Without Poverty by Muhummad Yunus. Eva at A Striped Armchair recommends it. I still need a few more books for the World Citizen Challenge.
  • A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong. Eva at A Striped Armchair liked it. I like myths, so it made the list.
Reviewed on September 30, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Thank you for sharing your experience with books growing up. Your mom sounds like quite the lady! For you not to watch Schindler’s List (and to be the only one to do so) is brave on your part and the fact that you knew yourself well enough to know your limits is commendable.

    As for myself, my mom did not pay attention to what I read. I was reading graphic romance novels in the 6th grade and my mom never said a word. So I never was necessarily “banned” from anything.

    There is some books that my bonus kids will not read for religious reasons and even though, I’m a bit disappointed that they don’t give some of these books a chance, I respect their (and their mom’s) opinion and don’t force it upon them.

    You are right…at the end of the day, it’s about choices.

  • Angst-ridden teens are the main reason I don’t fare so well with YA lit now. Also shows why I am okay with and even love YA fantasy (as they don’t deal with angst, more on other things like fighting dragons and saving princesses). It’s an age thing. We mature and don’t relate with those personalities anymore. I also loved Holden very much then, but am hesitant to reread as I might feel the way you do now, yikes.

    P.S. Thanks for the link love.

  • So funny about Catcher in the Rye. I remember not getting, or liking it at all when I read in in high school but I re-read it this summer and LOVEd it the second time around. It was all wry humor and family-focused the second go around.
    About books, I do appreciate a heads up about graphic scenes in books but then, as you say, like to weigh my own options about whether the read will be worth it.

  • Oh no, you don’t like Holden anymore? I still have such warm affection for him, but I understand why people think he’s obnoxious. I just think that whole novel is so masterful, the way Salinger has Holden’s voice from absolutely the first sentence, and keeps up that strength and energy for the entire novel. His level of control over his narrative totally floors me.

    To your larger points: I totally agree. Questioning and conversing is good; eliminating choice is bad. I feel SO grateful to my parents that they let me find my own literary path!

  • I need to re-read Catcher in the Rye –when I read it, it was in college (voluntarily)… a loooong time ago :-).

    I kind of feel like I am not going to worry too much about my kids’ reading choices as they get older. While I won’t hand over “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian” (which as you know I recently read) to my 8th grader insisting that he reads it now — but if he did pull it off my shelf to read, I would just say if he had any questions let me know.

    My parents were not at all concerned about my reading choices, and I think I turned out OK :-).

  • I love the fact that your mom has come in and challenged the reading list to make it more diverse! That’s an excellent way to look at books, and I don’t consider it a form of banning at all. When someone is encouraging people to give more choice, it’s not “challenging” in the same sense and people who want to take books away.

  • I more or less agree with your post – I was going to write a post on this earlier this week, that there is an essential difference between banning a book and challenging a book, between pulling it from circulation, and thinking it’s not appropriate in a particular setting. To some degree, I think freedom is speech is freedom of silence, and by extension, freedom from speech we’d rather not be exposed to. I think Huck Finn is a great book to read in Freshman English – but I also think that the dialogue about whether or not it is appropriate is extremely powerful and important – or SHOULD be. Like so many issues of honest disagreement, this is one where where the peripheries dominate the conversation. One the one hand, I think that many book challengers one hears about are not challenging as part of a userful conversation – many of the challenges I’ve heard or read have been offered as an exercise in intolerance, if not outright publicity hounding (I mean, the guy who wants to take books from the library in West Bend and burn them in the public square isn’t ACTUALLY trying to be taken seriously, is he?). I think that some of the people against book banning (partially as a result of the previous statement) refuse to countenance any whisper of a challenge against a book, without shouting ‘Nazi’ and ‘Farenheit 451’. I think most people are in the center, but unfortunately, this center never speaks, so the conversation, the slow, quiet decisions about who we are as a culture keep getting buried…

  • I’m impressed that as a teen you knew yourself enough to remove yourself from viewing Schindler’s List; it’s good that you had that option in school, and that you excused yourself for the reasons you did (it was graphic and visual), not because “someone” thought it would be too much for you to handle, or something “they” didn’t want you exposed to (as often happens with books)

    Interesting about CATCHER IN THE RYE, too. I’ve been disappointed in some re-reads, too, but realized that I’m at a different point in my life and the book speaks to me differently.

    Your mom sounds wonderful – I like her approach to reverse discrimination in books (is there a word for “challenging” in this respect?)

  • Tracie Yule, I wonder if my history teacher was disappointed I didn’t watch Schindler’s List, but really I don’t care! I know I couldn’t handle. Not sure I still could! What age do you teach?

    claire, Holden was just startlingly disappointing. But I’m not done with the book yet!

    Mary, I’m not done with Catcher but just my first impression was he’s a bit annoying. I hope I like it overall! I was so disappointed!

    I do appreciate heads up. But I’m really glad I got to choose if I read the book in the first place. Still am glad I can choose!

    rhapsody in books, thanks!

    Emily, welll, like I just said in a comment, I haven’t finished it yet! I agree about the narrative and all, I just find Holden himself a bit too angsty for me today!

    Valerie, I think that’s a good point. Some books I’m not going to hand to my son, but he can choose it and talk to me about it!

    Amy, thanks! I’m glad it resonates.

    Lu, thanks!

    Amanda, I thought her “challenge” was pretty cool, considering the other challenges that are made! I think she wanted the curriculum changed, but not out of spite. (And I’m sure she’d read them all!!) Incidentally, I suspect now that many of the teachers we had have retired and the young’uns are high school teachers, they’ve probably revamped the curriculum: it was a remnant of the older generation of teachers, I think.

  • jason gignac, I think you are right on — many book challenges are from people who don’t know enough about the book to challenge in the first place! But discussion about books and book choice might actually be useful. You say it so well.

    Dawn, I’m determined to get through Catcher, so maybe by the end I won’t be so annoyed with it! Yes, my mom is pretty great!

  • Oh no! Everyone I’ve talked to keeps telling me how they loved ‘Catcher’ as a teenager and loathe it now that they’re older. I think I’d better read it before I turn 20, or I might regret it for the rest of my life!

    Also, this is sort of going off on a tangent, but isn’t it funny how these days a lot of people consider books outdated and stuffy, but throughout history literature has contained the some of the freshest, most revolutionary, and often most controversial ideas?

  • I think I’m one of the ones that read Catcher in the Rye too late to like it. I think I was nineteen or twenty. Holden unfortunately reminded me of a guy in my dorm who drove me crazy, and I had to force myself to finish.

  • When I was in 11th Grade, we read Catcher in the Rye, a book I had already read and loved. But one girl got a note from her parent so that she could read something else instead… I think in the end, I understand far more the perspective that no one has the right to tell us what we should read rather than what we should not. If someone doesn’t want to read a particular novel because of the language or the immoral behavior, or whatever, then fine. But it bothers me to no end when these same people want to make it difficult or impossible for others to read that same piece of fiction.

    I think the banned book that bothers me most (though I am against book banning in pretty much every circumstance) is Huckleberry Finn. It makes no sense to me why people would want to ban it because it uses a now objectionable term. I’m sorry, but when the book was written, the “N-word” was part of American dialect (and let’s be honest, it still is). It is not longer acceptable to use it today, but it is ignorant and short-sighted to pretend it doesn’t exist. Reading that book provides an important perspective on America and sheds light on injustices committed in the past… slavery is nothing to be proud of, but that doesn’t mean we should stop reading about it!

  • Love this post!

    I’ll never read Catcher in the Rye, because I doubt I’d relate to it at all now that I’m not a teen. But I love Salinger’s short stories!

  • Tuesday, I actually picked up Catcher again because someone thought it was outdated…I’ll have more on that when I finish it and review it, though….Definitely not stuffy, I don’t think.

    Jenny, It’s going fast for me, but yeah, the first 25 pages while he was in the dorm, I thought “oh no. This will never end.”

    Steph, Completely agree. If I say “I don’t want to read/watch/etc that” it’s one thing. Saying “I don’t want anyone to read/watch that” is the wrong way to go.

    Eva, haven’t read the short stories but I’m glad to hear they are good! I have Franny and Zoey on my shelf so must give it a read too.

    melissa, thanks!

  • Great post! I especially agree with your point that challenging a book isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially when the book in question is part of the curriculum. Why this book? Are most of the students able to handle it? Those are important questions to ask. It seems to me that the important thing is that there be open, two-way dialogue and that kids not be forced to read something they aren’t ready for, and that the “challenged” books not be kept away from the kids who are ready.

    Classics for Pleasure is wonderful! I got lots of reading ideas from it, and I’m sure there are lots of good ideas for the circuit in there.

    And PS, Jenny reviewed Home Cooking at our blog, not me 🙂

  • Teresa, (oops! Sorry Jenny! I fixed it. I tell you, I’ve had a really hard time remembering to save the links this week. Loosing my mind. )

    I’m so glad you enjoyed Classics for Pleasure! I only read the intro so far and it’s funny he’s talking about The New Lifetime Reading Plan because I”m also working my way through that!

    I think dialog with school teachers would always be a good thing. It seems many of these challenges end up being one-way “Remove it, I tell you!” commands, not dialogs.

  • Love this! (Came over from a link at Amy’s) It’s so empowering for kids to know that they have a choice in what to read. And I love that your teachers and mother let you make an informed choice.

  • Hi Rebecca I just found your blog from Charing Cross Road review – you’re lucky you had a choice, I’m from the UK and studied English lit some years ago (I’m 49) and we were just told what to read and examined upon it!! Of course, these days things are more enlightened but sadly here in the UK education system the classics seem forgotten – I had to read E M Forster, Dickens, Hardy and dull, depressing poetry by John Dunne and didn’t appreciate any of it when I was 12 but I am pleased I was made to because in my twenties onwards I revisited many of these books (mainly after seeing the movie, such as E M Forster’s Howards End)and literature therefore became a pleasure. Kids these days are lucky they have movies of books to bring things to life and compare, good or bad interpretations. Great blog, will keep coming, thanks.

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