We Need to Keep Talking about Books, Not Ban Them
Students should not be afraid of books: without them, conversations stop
The Core Curriculum at Boston University’s College of Arts & Sciences is marking its 34th year this fall, and as the director of the program for the last 4 years, I have been thinking about the state of authors and stories in society today. In recent weeks, I’ve read headlines about unexpected books banned in libraries across the United States, the actor Simon Pegg describing how using AI in Hollywood will create an age of mediocrity, and a production of Martin McDonagh’s black comedy The Pillowman being canceled by a regional theater for being “problematic” (even though it is currently running on London’s West End).
All of these things make their way into our classroom discussions and have something in common with our Core Curriculum, where the status of the book and the author is often put to the test. In part one, chapter six, of Cervantes’ Don Quixote (from Ormsby’s translation), we read:
“…the curate asked the niece for the keys of the room where the books, the authors of all the mischief, were… The moment the housekeeper saw them she turned about and ran out of the room, and came back immediately with a saucer of holy water and a sprinkler, saying, “Here, your worship, señor licentiate, sprinkle this room; don’t leave any magician of the many there are in these books to bewitch us in revenge for our design of banishing them from the world.”
What follows is an overstuffed inventory of 16th-century books set to be burned while Don Quixote sleeps. In one of the author’s great ironies, when they discuss Cervantes’ own La Galatea, they decide that since the curate “knows” the author, it can survive, but it must be locked up in his private quarters (we assume for the pleasure of his private reading).
Who gets to be all-powerful and determine what should be seen or not seen, read or not read, remembered or not remembered? In the case of Don Quixote, it is a housekeeper, a niece, a curate, and a barber—no names, just types. In the case of John Milton’s Paradise Lost and the Bible’s Book of Exodus, it is God. In these comparisons, Cervantes’ parody of the power to censor is put into relief. In The Republic, it is Socrates, through the imagination of the mischievous Plato, who will be the authority of knowledge. All of these authors knew the high stakes of censorship.
In Milton’s Paradise Lost, God erases the history of the Fallen Angels, saying:
“Though of their Names in heav’nly Records now
Be no memorial blotted out and ras’d
By their Rebellion, from the Books of Life.” (Book 1, lines 361-363).
Chronologically, Milton’s wonderfully invented world comes first, and what God says to Moses in Exodus 32: 31-33 follows.
“And the Lord said unto Moses, Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book.”
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates’ ideal city would censor tragedy, Homer, sad songs, flutes, and “complex Sicilian relishes,” in order to educate the young men of Athens for a life of philosophy. At this point, I would remind the class that anyone who is not an 18-year-old male Athenian should not be reading this, which makes us eagerly read on.
The books in Core enable us to discuss the origins of difficult ideas and share diverse points of view, whether we agree (or not) with the authors, or with each other. Students should not be afraid of books. If the books are gone, the conversations stop.
However, there is nothing in our books to draw on for AI as a tool for writing. Most of the books we read originated in cuneiform, parchment, papyrus, or early print. Thank goodness for the human hands that copied them. To envision nonhuman aggregates of information as an option to be submitted instead of a personal essay concerns me, but we are up to the challenge. We want students to develop their own voice and not to settle for mediocrity.
I return to McDonagh’s The Pillowman, which we don’t read in the Core Curriculum, but which serves as a case study for beginning a discussion. Since 2003, the play has enjoyed productions around the world and has been translated into multiple languages. By all accounts, the public likes it. However, after selecting Pillowman for its upcoming season because it was “edgy,” Stage Left Theatre of Spokane, Wash., changed course when community members expressed concerns that its portrayal of mental disability perpetuates harmful stereotypes. To me, “perpetuating harmful stereotypes” is a teaching opportunity: to confront their visual, linguistic, and cultural origins and not to hide from them. If something is edgy one week and problematic the next, is it the book, or the reader, who needs to adapt?
Let the conversations begin. I anticipate they will be anything but mediocre this year.
Kyna Hamill is the director of the Boston University College of Arts & Sciences Core Curriculum and a BU master lecturer. In December 2017, she was wrongfully accused of banning the song “Jingle Bells” from elementary schools. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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