Burning Books and How to Navigate Paradigms of Reality

“Burn the books! That author is evil!”

“No! Let them be read! We don’t want censorship! You’re trampling on freedoms of speech!”

Several times in the past few months I have come across discussions about how to decide what to let children read. The latest example I have found is a well written and thoughtful post by a fellow writer and online friend, Taffy Lovell. The discussion, which includes questions about school reading lists, is at her blog, Taffy’s Candy.

I thought about commenting on her post, but what I had to say on the subject needed a lot more room than a comment would allow, and I didn’t want to hijack her blog. Here are my thoughts on the subject.

Your Paradigm Is Not My Paradigm

A paradigm is a framework, a pattern, or a model. One of the best definitions and uses of this word I have ever come across was in Steven R. Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In his book I learned that a paradigm is a reference point. It is like looking out a window. And the window frame from which I see the world may be entirely different from the window frame that you are peering out of. People see the world differently.

I would like to apply that idea to this subject of books.

As a society, how do we decide what books are appropriate for children to read? Should we as parents be able to decide whether our child reads a certain book on a school list of recommended reading? What about a list of required reading which the student will be doing for a grade? What if the English teacher has a favorite book which at some point in their life touched them deeply, and they insist that all their students read it…and yet the book is full of profanity, descriptive sex, or gory violence? What then? Who gets to decide what books go on those lists, anyway? Is it school administration? The teachers themselves?

“But this book is literary genius!” “Don’t shelter your child!” “You shouldn’t keep your child from reading this book… it may be gritty, but it is reality! How are they going to deal with the real world if you don’t allow your child to read these types of books?”

Hogwash.

My paradigm: This life is NOT reality. It is an existence filled with misinformation, truth, lies, wisdom, deceit, knowledge, temptation, conscience, darkness, and light. How does one discern truth from error? What is real for you? It may not be anything close to what is real for me.

As you make personal choices about what to read, and what not to read, will you simply just go with the crowd? Why do you want to read something which haunts you?

I had a bad experience with reading as a young teenager. What I read was wholly inappropriate for me, and to this day, I still have images in my mind about that story. I wish I would have had the courage to reject it.

My youngest daughter is quite sensitive. She is a wonderful young lady. There have been times when there has been a show on TV that my other, older children have watched, and yet, she has had the courage to tell me, “Dad, I don’t like that. It scares me. I’m not watching it.” I applaud her courage. I love her for it.

School reading lists are created by people. Those people may or may not have the same value system as yourself or your children. The list could be very tame, or it could be overly risqué. It depends on who made up the list. So, in your mind, which authors should be on the lists? Can you make a good argument for, or against, each of them?

There are many celebrated authors who have been lauded for their literary accomplishments, whose works I have attempted to read, but then quickly put down. Their words have offended my sensibilities. What is great writing to one person, may be total and complete garbage to another. And if I choose to put that NY Times best-selling book down, why should my opinion about the work offend anyone else? If they liked the book, great. I am glad they are reading books. But they shouldn’t get offended because I chose not to read it.

There is another argument out there…an argument about the positive effects of exposing children to the realities of this life. They say, “You should help your kids to learn about the world around them.”

I know that I can go out into the world and I will find pain and suffering, poverty, drugs, murder, profanity, dishonesty, hate, war, suicide… grit. I think every person who walks the journey of this life will come across these things in some way or another. However, in my paradigm, I would not seek them out just so that I could experience them all for myself, all at once. Sometimes the difficult issues are handled well in literature. Sometimes they are not. I should have the privilege of choosing for myself when and how I learn about them.

Might I offer a couple of suggestions:

1. Be involved. Know what your kids are reading. Ask them about it.

2. Help them figure out what is important to them, then let them choose. Teach them to stand up for themselves. “If your friend decides to jump off a cliff, are you going to do it too?” That is a favorite quote in our house. If they don’t like something, they need to stand up, say so, and explain why. They should have the skills to decide for themselves what they will or will not allow onto the stage of their mind.

3. Negotiate. Make sure your child knows that it is okay to ask a teacher if they can read something else. And if the teacher says no…well, then let’s put something in perspective. If the teacher won’t bend, and there is nothing which can be done to convince them or the school administration to let your child pass on the required reading, is that one grade going to really matter? Don’t let a bad reading experience turn a child off from reading altogether. And certainly don’t allow your child to be forced to read something which offends them.

My take on this may be far too conservative for some folks. For others, it may be too liberal. But I am who I am. It is my paradigm. I don’t burn books. And I am perfectly happy to let authors write what they want. But don’t expect me or my kids to eat every plate of food they serve, just because the literary critics say it tastes like chicken. No matter how you dress it up, I personally think raw oysters taste like snot.

April 14, 2010 UPDATE: My thanks to yourLDSneighborhood.com for picking up this article today!

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Burning Books and How to Navigate Paradigms of Reality — 6 Comments

  1. Raw oysters taste like tough slime with sand in it.
    Blah!
    Good post Daron. I read a few books as a young reader and teen that were suppose to be amazing. I regretted reading them. They put images and ideas in my head that weren’t even on my radar and yet, those books were about ‘reality’. Whose reality? Not mine then nor clear up through adulthood.

    P.S. thanks for commenting on my blog!

  2. Daron, I really like the way you put it. I feel like I am pretty conservative. My husband and I both watch what is being taught to our children very closely. We feel the weight of our responsibility as parents. One day I was watching cartoons with my boys and a certain cartoon really offended me. I then went and put a block on both our TV’s so that my children would only be able to watch TV with a certain rating. I have also felt the need to write Disney about how much they focus on teenage girlfriend/boyfriend relationships. Anyway, again I like the way you put it.

  3. This is an excellent post, Daron. I really appreciated all your comments. These points are one of the reasons my husband and I chose to homeschool, so we could guide our children toward material that fits them at each stage of their development and not rush them into gaining knowledge of gritty things before they are ready for it. They will have years to learn about the harshness of life. They will experience it every day. But there is a precious little window of time in which to build the foundation they will need to withstand the harshness. I consider that one of my biggest responsibilities – to give my children enough of a world of love and joy and beauty so that when they do encounter the world, they know it doesn’t always have to be bleak.

  4. Well put, Daron. A university colleague recommended that I read a book about a pedophile — a “classic” contemporary read with exquisite prose. She said reading his gorgeous prose helped her to improve her writing. I thought, “It may be covered in gold and diamonds, but beneath it is still a turd.” I think people in the arts sometimes forget that content is as important as presentation.

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