Reviews | What the battle against the book ban is really about
I err on the latter side and try to model what I think our libraries and schools should be doing. I make sure he has access to many other stories of the peoples that Hergé has twisted, and I provide context with our discussions. These are not always easy conversations. And that may be the real reason why some people want to ban books that raise difficult questions: they involve and embarrass adults, not children. By banning books, we also ban difficult dialogues and disagreements, of which children are perfectly capable and which are crucial for a democracy. I told him that he was born in the United States because of a complicated history of French colonialism and the American war that brought his grandparents and parents to this country. Maybe we will eventually have less war, less racism, less exploitation if our children can learn to talk about these things.
For these conversations to be strong, kids need to be interested enough to want to pick up the book in the first place. Children’s literature is increasingly diverse and many books today raise these questions, but some of them are irretrievably marred by good intentions. I don’t find piety and pedagogy interesting in art, and neither do children. Hergé’s work is deeply flawed, yet narratively and aesthetically captivating. I forgot all the well-meaning, moralistic children’s literature I read, but I didn’t forget Hergé.
Books shouldn’t be eaten as good for us, like the spinach and cabbage my son grows on the side of his plate. “I like to read short stories,” a reader once told me. “It’s like crisps. I can’t stop with one. This is the attitude to have. I want readers to crave books as if they were a delicious, unhealthy treat, like the chili-lime chips my son gets after eating his carrots and cucumbers.
Read “Fahrenheit 451” because its captivating story will keep you up late, even if you have an early morning. Read “Beloved”, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, “Close Quarters” and “The Adventures of Tintin” because they are indelible, sometimes uncomfortable and always captivating.
We should value this magnetic quality. To compete with video games, streaming video, and social media, books have to be thrilling, addictive, tricky, and dangerous. While these qualities sometimes cause books to be banned, it should be noted that sometimes banning a book can increase sales.
I know my parents would have been shocked if they knew the content of the books I was reading: “Portnoy’s Complaint” by Philip Roth, for example, which was banned in Australia from 1969 to 1971. I did not choose this quintessential American novel, or any other, because I thought reading it would do me good. I was looking for stories that would excite me and confuse me, like “Portnoy’s Complaint” did. For decades later, all I remembered from the novel was how young Alexander Portnoy masturbated with anything he could get his hands on, including a piece of liver. After consuming his affair with said liver, Alex put it back in the fridge. Completely ignorant, the Portnoy family dined on the raped liver later that night. Raw!
Who eats liver for dinner?
Turns out my family. Roth’s book was for me a bridge between cultures. Although Vietnamese refugees differ from American Jews, I recognized some of our obsessions in Roth’s American Jewish world, with its ambitions of upward mobility and assimilation, its pronounced “ethnic” traits, and its sense of historical horrifying not far behind. I sympathized. And I could see a part of myself in the erotically obsessed Portnoy – so much so that I paid homage to Roth by having the narrator of “The Sympathizer” abusing a squid in a masturbatory frenzy then later eating it with its mother. (“The Sympathizer” wasn’t banned in Vietnam outright, but I encountered huge obstacles trying to get it published there. It’s clear to me that it’s because of its description of war and its aftermath, not sexy squid.)