Thursday, March 31, 2011

A centuries-old issue

Not long ago, Kathy Kehrli blogged about writing rules that it's okay to break.  Although most of us writers are sticklers when we see spelling and grammatical errors in everyday life, it seemed like most of us agreed that the rules listed in the article were okay to break.

NPR did a story yesterday, on a book called The Use and Abuse of Literature, that reminded me of Kathy's post.  The author of the book says that disagreements over the "proper" use of the English language have been around for centuries.  So to have efforts to ban books that weren't deemed appropriate — heck, even Shakespeare was challenged, once upon a time.

The author makes the point that if we are still bickering over language usage, still dealing with challenges to books, it's actually a good sign, because it means that people are reading.

It may look as though reading is declining in importance. After all, yesterday's readers are today's video game players or text message obsessives. But the fact that these controversies still crop up — for example, over a new version of Mark Twain's Huck Finn being released with every instance of the n-word changed to "slave" — is, Garber believes, proof of literature's power. Books are labeled as dangerous "precisely because [they] can enrich the mind, challenge, disturb, and change one's thinking," she writes. So let the naysayers bemoan the shifting tides. Literature has been through much, much worse.

Obviously, there are things that aren't such good signs, such as the apparent lack of editors lately and the dwindling importance of teaching handwriting in schools.  But if we can still have a healthy debate with someone over whether the singular "they" is correct, or if there are still parents rioting over whether Huckleberry Finn is appropriate for their 14-year-olds, I'd have to agree with Marjorie Garber.  The point isn't who wins these little battles, it's that they are still being fought in the first place.


Kathy@TheFlawlessWord said...

Thanks for the link love and the great tie-in! I was just reading this article that I think you'll find interesting: Collins, Alexie make list of challenged books. I have a feeling if Twain were alive today, his sentiments would be very similar to Alexis': "It almost makes me happy to hear books still have that kind of power."

Katharine Swan said...

Oh! What a great article! I especially like the point one author makes, that his books are tame compared to what kids can find on the Internet. Really, if you think about it that way, books really must have some serious power to make people overreact like that.

After reading this article, I may have to bump The Hunger Games up my reading list a little...


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