“I Know it When I See it”

The it does not refer to what the original speaker of the titular quote used it to refer to. Instead, “it” is that pronoun that encompasses any number of sins in literature (or sins of literature for that matter). In my online life, I recently railed against an “it” that led me to question my usually literarially liberal viewpoint.

A Catholic school assigned The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons for summer reading. To sixth graders. Now, we could argue until eternity the distinctions of adult vs. YA vs. children’s literature, and whether or not the classifications need to a velvet rope or to see ID before you can read them. But who wants to visit Purgatory today? That’s not to say, though, that we shouldn’t think about what it means to command a child to read a book s/he may not be ready for (a determination made in conjunction with parents), a point which I will try to make while willfully ignoring the thematic inappropriateness of the novel’s content in relation to the school’s specific values.

When I was in seventh grade, I picked up A Time to Kill by John Grisham for reading time at the end of the day. What can I say? I had recently seen The Rainmaker on TNT, thought Matt Damon was cute and the writing of the movie as smartly humorous. I checked out the book to bring home. While I was in the midst of the gripping narrative on my pink carpet, my mom came in and told me my teacher had called and said I had picked this book. This book with the rape and the sex and the shooting. “Was I okay with it?” my mom asked in a gently concerned voice. I nodded and got back to the cool lawyer. Mom let me be, but made sure I knew she was around if I wanted to talk to her about it. In the end, I wasn’t traumatized by the book, and since I speed read, I pretty much glossed over the “inappropriate” stuff and felt unaffected.

I share this story to illustrate 1) Neither my teacher nor my mother barred access to this book. 2) I had self-determination in my reading. 3) No one told me I had to read this book, nor told other kids who maybe weren’t slighlty emotionally dead inside that they had to as well.

I normally hate when one parent tells a library to remove a book because s/he doesn’t like the thematic content. I want to join letter writing campaigns to save the banned book. But today, I found myself willing to write a letter to the school that I don’t know to ban these two books – from the reading lists.

I guess I don’t think it’s disingenuous to say once, “Don’t tell me I can’t read that,” and another time “You can’t make me read that.” Because the only person who gets a final say in reading a book is the reader herself.


One thought on ““I Know it When I See it”

  1. Zareh says:

    I think you’re right on with your opinion here. Your mother and teacher responded appropriately to your reading choice — they let you read it and made sure to be there in case you wanted to talk about it. However, to include on reading list two pieces of fluff for students is not acceptable. I can understand the motivation behind it — some teachers think it’s better to have students read ANYTHING than to not read at all. Yesterday, on the T, I read half a page of a James Patterson novel over a fellow rider’s shoulder. IT WAS CRAP! The bit I read broke every rule they taught in the MFA program I attended — cliches galore, awful, stereotypical dialogue, and descriptions that made no sense. To paraphrase bit I read: He shot the chief a glance that said, “I dare you to explain what happened and accuse me of wrong-doing.” Really? A glance that said all that? I could imagine the character’s face contorting to form the words in some sort of facial sign language. Yet Patterson is a bazillionaire for producing such works. OK, I digress. I suppose it’s OK if that’s what the masses want (sigh), but schools should not mandate that students read these books. By doing so, they are tacitly telling students that it’s OK to write this way themselves. When I taught college composition, I had many students defend grammatical errors and the like because they’d seen similar errors in published pieces. It made my job more difficult — I mean, who was I? A part-time, low paid wannabe compared with a gazillionaire like Stephen King or a writer for Sports Illustrated. Compared to such published writers, I didn’t carry much clout.

    Well, I need to read a friend’s short story now and get feedback to her.

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