Monday, September 22, 2014

Wordcraft -- To ban or not, is that the question?

Well, this is embarrassing. We’re in Banned Books Week, September 21-27, the time set aside by the American Library Association to spotlight the freedom to read, and I find myself supporting the censorship I’ve previously denigrated.

Kind of supporting censorship, that is, when the use of a single word keeps a major American work out of the hands of kids who would most benefit from it.

The word I’m writing about is the most offensive epithet in English. The book is Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

As I mentioned in my September 10 post, I took this stance after listening to an audio version of Twain’s original text. The more than two hundred repetitions of the n-word¾ sometimes multiple times on a page, was horrifying. This single word is the major reason for Huckleberry Finn’s status as one of the most complained about books on school library shelves and reading lists of the past decade.

I’m not calling censorship of a classic book a good thing, but there are new editions, such as the one from NewSouth Books, which substitutes the word “slave” for the n-word.

This kind of workaround won’t stop all the squabbling over Twain’s masterpiece. Its depictions of racism still rankle, as they should. In her objection to current state textbooks, University of Texas-Austin history professor Jacqueline Jones put it this way: “We do our student a disservice when we scrub history clean of unpleasant truths.”

But the unpleasant truths don’t always have to be rubbed in with razor wire.

Still, in recent years the greatest number of challenges were due to “sexually explicit” material. Most challenges of any sort came from parents reacting to books in school libraries and classrooms. (The ALA defines a challenge as “a formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness.”)

For a peek at the most challenged books of the last decade, see

To participate in the discussion, consider reading some of these out loud by uploading a video of yourself to Texas State University’s Virtual Read-Out at Or tune in for a free webinar Wednesday, September 24, (see details at

Or check out this site’s previous discussion of such frequently banned books as Toni Morrison’s Beloved (“Haunted by a love that killed,” October 30, 2013), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (“Lost moms of the brave new world,” July 9, 2014) or Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (“When being good isn't good enough,” September 4, 2013.)

Then drop by here Wednesday for a discussion of another among the frequently-challenged, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group).

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