Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Bad books

The plot of Ian Sansom's novel The Bad Book Affair revolves around librarian Israel Armstrong's loan of Philip Roth's American Pastoral to a 14-year-old girl, who disappears the next day. Roth's novel is the "bad book" of the title. It is one of the many books called the Unshelved, those kept under the counter only for adult readers who specifically ask for them. The girl's father, Israel's boss and even the local police wonder if Israel, by letting the girl check out the book, is somehow responsible for her disappearance.

Of course, that's just silly. The girl later admits she didn't even read the book. Still the furor gives Israel a reason to play detective and allows Sansom to have a little fun with what some people might consider to be "bad books." Among books kept under the counter by the library board are As I Lay Dying, Brave New World, Bridge to Terabithia, Carrie, Catch-22, The Chocolate War, The Handmaid's Tale, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Slaughterhouse-Five, most considered classics and a couple of them even intended for young readers. Israel thinks it's outrageous to keep such books out of the hands of teenagers.

Yet Sansom adds a subtle twist to the narrative about bad books when he has Israel himself make sarcastic comments about some of the books his library patrons and Ted, the driver of the mobile library, choose to read. A true literary snob, Israel has little use for the Harry Potter books, among many others. In the eyes of some, genre novels or anything else not meeting the highest standards are "bad books."

One side applies a high moral standard to books, the other a high artistic standard. In either case, those who designate something a "bad book" may not have even read it.

I would not argue that there is no such thing as a "bad book." If a book can be good, it can also be bad. Yet it can be a mistake to keep books under the counter, so to speak, for either reasons of morality or taste. Exceptions may be made where children are concerned, however. Schools, especially at the secondary and college levels, need to encourage the reading of quality literature. They also need to make choices about which books might be too offensive for young readers. Such choices are never easy, nor should they be.

I spoke with a former school librarian at a supermarket last week. When she noticed I was wearing a Sports Illustrated sweatshirt, she commented that she always hid the swimsuit edition when it arrived. If a brave boy asked about it, she said she would tell him it must have gotten lost in the mail. I would not condone the lie, but was she wrong to hide the swimsuit edition? Might it have caused undue commotion among the schoolboys? Would it have corrupted anyone? Would it have harmed the schoolgirls in any way? We might disagree on where to draw the line, but whether we are talking about American Pastoral or the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, we should respect those librarians and educators entrusted to make the right call for their communities.

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