James Brewbaker: Don't read this

June 1, 2014 

As a kid, I read everything I could get my hands on about World War II and its aftermath, among other books Herman Wouk's "The Caine Mutiny," Leon Uris's "Battle Cry" and "Exodus," Richard Tregaskis's "Guadalcanal Diary," a memoir.

My father, a Congressional attorney with access to the Library of Congress, brought home official Defense Department accounts -- vividly photographed with fold-out maps showing the position of platoons and companies -- of the battles for Tarawa, Iwo Jima, and Omaha Beach. I pored over these books as if I were in charge of planning World War III. They were pretty gruesome in spots and, yes, disturbing.

At the University of Virginia, professors had me read Hemingway ("For Whom the Bell Tolls"), Tolstoy ("War and Peace," two volumes!), and Faulkner ("The Sound and the Fury"). These books were not for the skittish. Definitely not.

En route to becoming an English teacher, I became acquainted with books written for adolescent readers, a bit bland by today's standards, but still books that dealt with racism, drugs, alienation, war, and death. Some, I learned, were censored in some communities because they were racy, used street language for authenticity, or broached subjects that made some adults uncomfortable. Yes, I mean adults, not the kids.

During a multi-decades career in teacher preparation, I have introduced future grades 6-12 teachers to books that turn kids on to reading, books that address tough subjects honestly, books that avoid easy answers. My college students read Lois Lowry's dystopian novels "The Giver" and "Son," which offer a ghoulish look at a "perfect" future, and Laurie Halse Anderson's "Speak," which centers on sexual abuse in high school. In Walter Dean Myers' novels, they read about how tough, and how good, life can be in Harlem, and in Katherine Erskine's "Mockingbird," they discover how the world is experienced by a ten-year-old with Asperger's.

These well-written, realistic books -- together with others that English and language arts teachers discover on their way from the university to the middle or high school classroom -- are among those that young people read today alongside traditional literature. They form a bridge between Laura Ingalls Wilder and, say, Carson McCullers and Margaret Atwood.

As reported in the Ledger-Enquirer and elsewhere (see Kathleen Parker's column for Monday, May 26), some among us are, umm, bothered by the fact that literature can be bothersome, even disturbing. Parker wrote, "Just when you thought American higher learning couldn't get any more ridiculous, along come demands for warning labels on provocative works of literature."

Warning labels? Oh my.

Even at prestigious institutions where you'd think that everyone from the university president to an underpaid teaching assistant would know better -- try Oberlin and the University of Michigan -- the notion of putting warning labels on works of literature is being tossed about. College students, some reason, should be able to opt out of reading literature dealing with racism, rape, and PTSD, because doing so might be traumatic, might dredge up unpleasant memories. Without a warning of some sort, some say, our college-age sons and daughters would be endangered somehow.

Here's the rub: if they are alive, they are in danger anyway and have been since they were much, much younger.

I stand with those teachers and, yes, professors, who support a young person's right to read controversial materials at school. I believe that, on balance, earlier is better than later. I believe that the middle-school teacher whose eighth-graders read Laurie Halse Anderson's "Speak" -- in which the main character, entering high school, drinks three beers and is raped by an aggressive senior -- is doing important work on her students' behalf, both the girls and the boys she teaches.

In 1996, Frenchman Daniel Pennac, in "Better Than Life," published "The Reader's Bill of Rights." Terry Lesesne of Sam Houston State University has given Pennac's work an interesting update by adding a few "rights" she thinks he overlooked, including the adolescent's "right to read books that disturb them and especially their parents." Maybe she should append "their professors" as well.

Is this a disturbing idea? Not in my book.

James Brewbaker, Professor Emeritus of English Education, Columbus State University

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