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Andrew Fox
Posted on Monday, September 27, 2004 - 07:56 am:   

We're in the midst of another Banned Books Week, sponsored by the ACLU and various booksellers' and librarians' associations. Every year in New Orleans, our House of Blues hosts a Celebration of Banned Books, wherein about a dozen local writers, humorists, and columnists read short passages from one of the hundred most frequently banned or challenged books. I've taken part the last couple of years. The majority of the books on the list are books which have either been yanked off public schools' assigned or suggested reading lists, pulled from the shelves of public schools' libraries, or challenged in court by upset parents. Last night, we heard selections from Lolita (Poppy Z. Brite read from a famous contemporaneous review which defended the book), Brave New World, The New Joy of Gay Sex, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Ginsburg's poem "America," and Where's Waldo? (yes, Where's Waldo? has actually been challenged, but Patty Friedman, who selected the book, wouldn't tell us why it was the subject of controversy. . . instead, she challenged us to go through it, picture by picture, and discover what might have pressed some over-sensitive parents' alarm bells. . . the first one to discover it and email her gets taken to lunch by Patty herself).

I read a selection from Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon. I first read the original novelette back in junior high school, as an English class assignment, and it scared the hell out of me. Really, that piece gave me the willies much worse than any vampire or zombie or alien invader book I'd ever read, because it hit so much closer to home. Like so many young SF readers, I was the victim of much bullying, and my reaction was to cling ever more closely to the differences I saw between me and my bullying peers--primarily the fact that I considered myself much smarter than they and was much more interested in my schoolwork and in reading. The story of a young retarded man, Charlie Gordon, who undergoes an operation which makes him a genius, but only temporarily, and who then suffers a swift, cruel, humiliating descent back into feeble-mindedness (all told from Charlie's viewpoint, in the form of a series of intimate progress reports he writes, until he is no longer capable of writing), dramatized a far more terrifying fate for me than to have my blood drained or my flesh eaten off my bones. For weeks after I read the novelette, I scoured my consciousness for any signs that I might be losing my intelligence like Charlie does, and thus losing my only advantage and my only defense. (My junior high years were far from my most emotionally stable years, as was probably the case for many of you.)

A bit of research on the good ol' Internet taught me that Flowers for Algernon has been challenged or banned from schools about half-a-dozen times for sexually explicit themes. Never having read the full-length novel, I borrowed my wife's copy a few nights before the Celebration of Banned Books to discover for myself what the hoo-hah had been about. It was a very fast read, and a beautifully written, very emotionally insightful book. It doesn't shy away from illustrating the challenges faced by the mentally handicapped when they try to deal with sexual feelings and desires. None of the scenes portrayed in the book come even close to being sexually explicit. The passages which seemingly offended a number of parents have to do with Charlie's pre-operation, childlike voyeurism, and similar behavior which reemerges once his intellectual elevation is fading. The word "erection" is mentioned once, by Charlie's father when he is defending the teenaged Charlie from Charlie's mother's wraith over Charlie's innocent physical display of sexual attraction towards one of his sister's friends. Some of the themes presented in the book could be emotionally stressing to young readers between the ages of 10 and 15, but they are raised in such a way as to provoke valuable questions in young peoples' minds which could be usefully addressed by parents or teachers. Comparing the level of sexual content within this book to that of the average PG-13- (or even PG-) rated movie aimed at the same age group, Keyes' book comes across as a model of polite restraint and thoughtfulness.

One comment I came across on an Internet bulletin board which discusses banned and challenged books struck me as particularly apt, and I shared it with the audience at House of Blues last night. The poster suggested that Flowers for Algernon, if it should be banned at all, should be banned, not because of sexual content, but because it is so damned sad.

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