Should board take vacation from revising summer reading lists?

July 15, 2014

Back in the ‘70s, an English teacher at Cape Henlopen, a Mr. Glassner, assigned us a short story. It included some rather coarse language.

The story didn’t make much of an impression on me. Nor did the language. It wasn’t language I heard at home, but I heard it often enough everywhere else. Just like kids nowadays.

I also read the same words in books, because I read all kinds of stuff. And the words appeared in Rolling Stone magazine, which was much looser than most publications of the day when it came to publishing “cuss words.”

The only reason I remember the short story is because some parents saw what their children were reading and raised a ruckus. The uproar, I suspect, had something to do with Mr. Glassner not returning to the district the following year.

At the time, I could see both sides. The language didn’t upset me, but I could understand why it would bother some people. On the other hand, Mr. Glassner was a good teacher who had a natural rapport with students.

I feel the same way concerning the recent controversy about a book, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” by Emily Danforth. The book was part of a summer reading list for high school students put together by Delaware librarians.

“Cameron Post” also contains some coarse language, which upset some parents, who took it to the Cape Henlopen board of education, which voted 6-1 to remove it from the list. Board members cited the book’s profanity as the only reason for its exclusion, and not the novel’s theme of a young girl coming to realize she’s a lesbian.

I’ll address the profanity first. I can understand why some parents might see bad words and wonder, Aren’t there other worthwhile books that don’t contain this kind of language?

Sure, but attracting young readers is hard. Librarians must search for the most relevant, best-written books to engage students (who in this case are on summer vacation).

Often those books will be written in the vernacular, which includes plenty of rough language.

Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” was also written in the vernacular and includes plenty of rough language. The result was modern English.

As it happens, I recently finished reading Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Few parents would think twice if they saw this book on a summer reading list. It’s considered one of the great works of American literature. (Not that many students would read it.)

But it’s loaded with obscenities. Literally.

In deference, I suppose, to the sensibilities of his readers, Hemingway - or his publisher - took out every “f-word” and replaced it with “obscenity.”

So instead of “‘F-word’ you,” it says “Obscenity you.” Or “‘Expletive,’ he said.” Seriously. It’s weird.

The result is a bizarre reading experience that lessens the literary value - it’s just plain awkward - while, paradoxically, highlighting the obscenity.

Comedian Louis C.K. recently did a bit on this topic. He maintains that saying the “f-word” is the same thing as saying, well, the “f-word.” See how silly this is?

The point is, they’re just words. They won’t cause any harm. If you don’t curse around the house, your kids probably won’t either.

Even mainstream magazines now use the “f-word.” If that’s what a person says, they print the actual word. About the only publications that still use the “f-word” convention are newspapers, because, striving to appeal to a mass audience, they remain wary of offending even a small sliver of their readers.

Schools, in a sense, are in the same boat, which is why I have some sympathy for board members, who are unpaid for the many hours they work striving to improve education.

But when they start micromanaging, which is what they are doing when they start removing books from a reading list made up by librarians, they get themselves into trouble.

Which brings up the second issue, the book’s gay theme. Board members said the story itself had nothing to do with the decision. It was the profanity. Period.

Unfortunately for the board members, the staff of pretty much destroyed that justification. They went through other books on the list, including “The Fault In Our Stars,” a popular book and movie, and found all sorts of curse words, including the “f-word” and the “b-word” and the “s-word” and so on.

It’s possible the book’s gay theme wasn’t the reason, but that’s not how it appears. Given the obvious inconsistency concerning the profanity issue, the board lacks a sensible reason for not reversing its decision.

Otherwise, they’d be under an obligation to read each book and render a decision on its individual merit. That, most emphatically, is not the board’s job. They have more than enough on their plate just providing general guidance for the district.

There’s also the odd fact that the book remains in the school library, where it can be checked out by all high school students during the school year. Even though, according to the board, it’s not suitable for some kids to read during the summer. The logic escapes me.

The upshot of the controversy, not surprisingly, is that the book has become wildly popular locally. It’s like the days of “Banned in Boston!”

Which brings me to one request. I have an ebook called “The Wreck of the Nymph.” I would be most appreciative if the school board could denounce it in the strongest possible terms.

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