In Praise of Rarifying Books (Sort of)

Holy smokes, have I just endorsed book censorship?  Yes– and no! 

Steve Himmer, in his lovely essay “Making Room for Readers” on the fab TheMillions, advocates aggressively encouraging children to read, and removing any barriers that can be seen as “rarifying” the book.

I disagree.  Huh???

OK.  I agree with the first part: a book-encouraging environment is necessary to raise readers—but I’m not so sure I buy the negative interpretation of the obstacles Mr. Himmer found in his way.

Because I’m all for obstacles in book publishing and constraints on reading—if those obstacles and constraints reinforce the essential value… of books in our children’s lives and in our lives.

I’m big on publishing gatekeepers—from literary agents to publishing companies to editorial boards to higher-than-99cents-ebook prices–and I’m also big on keeping abreast of the books my kids read.  I’m even OK on libraries setting age requirements on kids’ library cards. 

I say all this as a dues-paying member of the ACLU.

Mr. Himmer shared two events that concerned him (and please read his essay; it’s terrific): his local library refused to bend its policy of granting library cards only to kids over five or could write their names, and a young teen girl’s aunts(?) were hesitant about allowing her to buy his (unfamiliar) book.  The adults said, “books are so…books are tricky.  That’s something your mother needs to decide.”  He saw these as examples of a greater problem:  the rarifying of books.  I saw these as examples of just the opposite—evidence of valuing books and their power—and found them encouraging. (From the other comments I saw on his essay, I’m in the minority.)

I’m strongly reminded of the controversial Wall Street Journal article Darkness Too Visible by Meghan Cox Gurdon where again I’m the contrarian.  This article—asserting current YA fiction as a whole is darker, more violent and more disturbing than in years past, and that is a bad thing—set off a maelstrom of angry responses from young readers and from some authors as well.

Dare I say I was sort of on Gurdon’s side?  Not on the side of book-banning—but on the side of parental awareness.  (My then fifteen year-old read The Kite Runner and Long Way Gone in his general literature class in public school last year.  I am a huge fan of both books, but still it gave me a little pause, knowing this was the first time my son had been exposed so graphically to child rape and horrific violence.  Am I glad he read them? Yes, absolutely.  Would I have preferred he had read them a little later in his life?  Perhaps.  What mattered to me:  that he read other books as well, and that the books were discussed in a larger context.) Do I worry, as apparently does Ms. Gurdon, about the cumulative desensitizing impact of our popular culture on my children, and other kids?  Sure, I do.  It’s neither brain surgery nor cynical to be aware of the psychological truism of desensitization (whether to violence or e-rudeness, to name just a couple of my constant concerns).  Do I think Ms. Gurdon painted with an overly broad brush?  Yes, again.

But I digress, a bit. 

These arguments increase my optimism.  You may believe, like me, that “rarifying” books commercially enhances their value and promotes the longevity of the medium, and that exposure to some issues in any form may be inappropriate for your kids at certain ages.  You may believe on the other hand that such limitations constitute censorship at worst, or at least are counterproductive to the promotion of letters. 

For me, reading this article and loving it while still disagreeing with some points, and watching the fallout from the Gurdon piece brings me to a surprising realization:  Hey!

A whole bunch of us compassionate book limiters and dogged book “unlimiters” are coming from the same place–a love of the written word and its power, and a deep desire to protect the medium.  That’s a very good thing. 

No argument there, right?





  1. Josh Schonhaut says

    I have to say that as an aspiring writer, that having to work around gatekeepers that stand between my words and their publication is a hard thing to swallow… but that’s the nature of the beast, isn’t it? If it were easy, then everyone would do it. So, inherent in that is a great respect for the presence of literary agents and publishing houses. Their presence in the industry is as much necessity as are the implements with which we draft our prose. In that I have to agree.

    Hiller’s article, however represents two drastically different circumstances.

    One such case in which with a guiding paternal hand, he takes his daughter to the public library and so ensues a complete farce in which the library has instituted an absurd rule guarding access to their books based upon the ability to write within a prescripted margin. (This is particularly difficult for those young children whose motor skills have not yet developed enough). Meanwhile, he is standing right there. Obviously her guardian. Obviously approving that she be allowed to check out the books. But that’s not enough…

    In the other circumstance, Hiller is at a book signing and a girl in her young teens wants to buy his book. However, the people accompanying her here are not her parents and like good temporary guardians would prefer that the girl get her mother’s permission first.

    There is one subtle difference in these two examples – the presence of the parental guardian. The decision maker. The final say.

    In my opinion Hiller is absolutely right to object to the treatment of the librarians; he’s the parent, it’s a public library (I presume) and he should have the final say. And though I don’t object to the girl dragging her feet when she was given a firm “no” in regard to Hiller’s book (she’s a teenager – it’s her job), I think that these people (who were not her parents) made the best decision they could considering the circumstances.

    I agree with you, Jody. I think parental awareness should be urged more often than it currently is. In fact, I wonder how many parents were aware, as you were, of what was being read in your son’s class.

  2. Hi Jody. Thanks for your response, and for your email inviting me to comment. It’s always an honor when someone thinks further about something I’ve written.

    As I hope came through in the essay, my intention isn’t to vilify the guardians of the girl I met (whatever their relationship to her was), because they have responsibilities to their own young reader that I only have for my own daughter, and they know her capabilities as in individual in ways I don’t. But I suppose what saddens me is this: at that age, so much of your life is out of your own control, and dependent on the decisions of others (necessarily so, of course!). Reading, for me, was where I first found more freedom, both to imagine lives other than I was living, and to ask questions about the world that weren’t coming up otherwise in what was frankly a pretty good childhood. Sometimes, that was uncomfortable. I distinctly remember reading a novel in which a brutal incident of gay-bashing kept me awake all night, and I was troubled by that horrible scene long afterward, and still am. But it was also a major intellectual moment for me, crucial to becoming the person I’ve become with the cultural and political convictions I hold. That kind of private, complex engagement with the world is (I think) one of the greatest virtues of literature, and the risk it entails — a risk sometimes best taken in secret — seems equally valuable. So in a nutshell what upsets me about the “rarifying” I mentioned isn’t that adults make decisions to keep kids safe, as they should do, but that kids get prevented from making their own decisions in a sphere where they can do so more safely than in other areas of their lives. Positioning books as “taboo” also seems to send the message that grappling with the complexities of morality, intellect, culture, etc. are off limits, too. I suppose I prefer to think of reading as how we become more worldly and wise, rather than something we need to save until we are more worldly and wise. And regarding gatekeepers in the book world, I often have the same concern: playing it safe by confirming the world as we already know it, rather than challenging us with perspectives we aren’t expecting.

    I’ll stop before I go on too long (too late?), but again, thanks for furthering the conversation. And in all seriousness, I realize that thinking about this as the parent of an almost four year old is far different from thinking about it as the parent of a teenager, so we’ll see where my head is in a few years when my daughter starts working her way through the row of Michel Houellebecq books on my shelf.

  3. Steve, thank you so much for your really thoughtful comment–I love this conversation, it really gets down to some very essential questions regarding the role of limits in both art and society. I’m just not sure whether publishing gatekeepers always play it safe–certainly some do–or, through being selective and “rarifying,” gatekeepers promote innovations that would otherwise be lost in the noise. And by “gatekeepers” I don’t mean just Big Six publishers; I mean any group that works hard to establish a trustworthy, open and identifiable mechanism that both filters and promotes. There are lots of analogies in higher education, right? We want our college-age kids to be taught by “qualified” educators and to be exposed to new ideas at the same time…I also worry about the loss of the individual voice finding and promoting the next great and innovative writer (the great acquiring editor)…letting the crowd alone judge can mean that new perspective disappears while the romance novels dominate. Hope to keep talking!

  4. Thanks, Jody. I’m definitely not anti-gatekeeping. Frankly, between being an editor and being a teacher, I make an awful lot of decisions about what is and isn’t deemed “good” writing, so I keep a few gates myself. And that’s a great point you make about letting the crowd judge alone—it would definitely be better for the status quo than for innovation. But I’m still pretty happy to see that between social networking tools, self-publishing, and so many options there’s still space for those “outside” voices to find a corner to speak in. Knowing they’re speaking makes me optimistic for culture at large, even not all of them are voices I particularly want to listen to. So perhaps it’s a matter of scale, or equitability: I’d like to think that there’s as much possible for a strong voice, one that readers respond to, to rise to the level it deserves even if the more “official” gatekeepers ignore it. And vice versa—a voice that is outside mainstream taste but gets championed by a strong, smart editor for reasons other than potential sales. A system of checks and balances, I suppose.

    • Thanks again for a really thoughtful comment; our publishing worldviews have converged! Steve, I’m very interested in your thoughts about books vs. TV/film in terms of the issues we’ve been discussing. If you ever explore that topic in an essay, please let me know! (It sounds from your notes as if you might think there is a substantive difference between letting a young teen see a rape scene in a movie, for example, and reading it in a book.)

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