Monday, October 11, 2010

Rapp It Up: Act of Treason Review


Author's Note: This review will contain some spoilers, so be warned that certain plot points will be revealed. I find it difficult to avoid them since they form part of my critique. You have been warned. Thank you.

I've never been a big fan of thrillers. It could be that the action dominates the story at the expense of everything else. We concentrate on the shootings, the blowing up, rather on characters. Still, since I can't recall having read any suspense thrillers I decided to give it a try. Therefore, I selected a popular author: Vince Flynn. I also selected a book at random: Act of Treason. Given what I heard (it was the audio book), I am reluctant to tackle another adventure with MITCH RAPP.

We're in the closing months of a Presidential campaign. Incumbent President Hayes declines to run for re-election due to his Parkinson's Disease, and the Democratic Party has nominated Georgia Governor Josh Alexander and Connecticut Senator Mark Ross. Their motorcade is attacked with a bomb, which injures them but kills Alexander's wife and seriously injures Agent Rivera, who headed up security for the candidates. Almost as a form of protest, the public votes Alexander and Ross in. Still, the mystery of who is involved is still unknown. Enter MITCH RAPP.

He uncovers that this was not the plot of Islamic extremist. Instead, nefarious forces are at work. An American in exile in Switzerland is desperate to return to the United States, but what he needs is a Presidential pardon. In exchange for assisting a certain Vice-Presidential candidate to win the election, this candidate will grant him said pardon. Of course, there's no way MITCH RAPP will allow this. MITCH RAPP is a special kind of counter-terrorist agent: a bit like Jack Bauer without a sense of humor.

It may strike you as silly to keep referring to MITCH RAPP as MITCH RAPP, but Flynn has his characters almost always call him MITCH RAPP. He's not Mitch or Rapp or Mitchell or any nickname. He's always MITCH RAPP. I'm a bit surprised that MITCH RAPP doesn't refer to himself as MITCH RAPP. It's terribly reminiscent of how Stephanie Meyer always has her characters refer to one of the leads as EDWARD CULLEN, not Ed or Eddie or Edster or Cullen, but always as EDWARD CULLEN. Have I missed the trend of having a major character always called by his full name in today's literature?

Just getting some information about MITCH RAPP from Act of Treason, I find him a rather sad and unhappy being. Yes, we are informed that his wife and unborn child were killed in a previous story, so Act of Treason is his first major mission post-tragedy. I couldn't help think of James Bond, because something similar happened to him in On Her Majesty's Secret Service: his wife was also killed at the end. We usually have these stories where our hero has some major tragedy, so Flynn isn't tackling any new major territory. Of course, MITCH RAPP has the benefit of work, and nothing takes the mind off losing your family than in shooting a Belarussian in the hands and knees.

MITCH RAPP has no life outside the CIA. He has no hobbies, no outside interests. He doesn't play any instruments, follow any sports, read any literature. He doesn't paint. He doesn't collect coins or stamps or postcards. He doesn't study cheetahs. He doesn't follow Star Trek or Doctor Who or have a passion for Bette Davis or Sandra Bullock movies. In short, MITCH RAPP has absolutely nothing that will mark him as human. That's because he isn't suppose to be human. He's suppose to be a hollow, empty being. MITCH RAPP wouldn't like any of those things since that would make him a wimp, and if there's one thing MITCH RAPP is not, it's a wimp. Well, that's not entirely true: he does know several types of combat. To me, MITCH RAPP isn't real, so I had no interest in anything to do with him. Flynn is making the argument that we need people like MITCH RAPP--someone who isn't too bothered with the technicalities of the law to get those who would do us harm.

In terms of Flynn, writing, I found it at times curious. His style is straight and to the point. Just as there is nothing excessive about MITCH RAPP, there is no attempt to have a certain prose style in Act of Treason. Take when Flynn first describes Mrs. Alexander. She is suppose to be an incredibly beautiful woman. Flynn could have described her in any number of ways: her body was temptation for every man; she inspired lust merely when her expensive perfume was felt in the air; she bore the burden of desire and knew how to make men fall to her considerable invitations of pleasure. None of this for Flynn. Instead, he described her thus: She had a body to die for. For me, this is rather a second-rate description: weak and of little interest. Admittedly, I was trained to be a bit more elaborate in my descriptions, but couldn't Flynn try to ratch it up a notch? Also, there is the scene when MITCH RAPP and his team arrive back to the United States from their mission on Cyprus. The omnipresent voice compliments the British by saying thus, "They know how to keep their mouths shut". When MITCH RAPP speaks, he compliments the British by saying thus, "They know how to keep their mouths shut". FLYNN ACTUALLY USED THE EXACT SAME PHRASE TWICE. I would never allow a writing student to try to pull that off, and I was stunned that someone with Flynn's experience and popularity would not have had an editor call him out on that.

I also was bothered by what to me seemed certain stock characters, like Agent Rivera. She's this super-tough broad, whose greatest pleasure is in taking down men...sometimes literally. When MITCH RAPP comes to her dojo to question her, she won't speak to him but instead with her hands challenges him to fight. I would imagine that this kind of scenario would only happen in movies and MITCH RAPP books, not in real life. I am of the worldview that people actually behave much more rationally than Flynn appears to think. Then we have Senator Ross--this villainous hypocritical liberal. I suspect that MITCH RAPP is Flynn's alter ego, but they seem to share a dislike for left-wingers and their politics. This is especially true in Flynn/MITCH RAPP's contempt for the reporter for the New York Times, whom MITCH RAPP refers to as a 'lefty'. Finally, we have a red herring in the fact that Mrs. Alexander is having a torrid affair with one of her Secret Security detail, down to where explicit pictures of a liason were taken. We could have had this as a motive, but really it was not important in the overall plot that she was humping around on Josh when her car got blown up.

This isn't to take away what I did like about Act of Treason: the ending, and I'm not saying that in a sarcastic tone. Flynn is best when describing action, and when MITCH RAPP takes care of the American criminal who put out a hit on the candidates Flynn is a master. I give Flynn credit in that MITCH RAPP has at least a code of honor about who he kills, though his superior, Director Kennedy, is not so discriminating...even if it means assassinating the Vice President-elect of the United States.

I'd like to take on another action/suspense thriller. I do think Vince Flynn has a great ability in imaginative plots. However, Act of Treason did not hold my interest since MITCH RAPP was entirely too much of a machine than a man to care about.


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Kells of A Tale: How the Irish Saved Civilization Review


I often talk about The End of Western Civilization, but after finishing Thomas Cahill's How The Irish Saved Civilization, I see this is not the first time our world has faced total extinction.

It's a short book, easily readable and could be finished within a week, two at most. Cahill starts with the fall of Rome and the ensuing chaos that it unleashed. With the barbarian hordes overrunning the remnants of the Western Roman Empire (Byzantium still hanging on, though shrinking and shrinking), it isn't just the actual knowledge of the ancients that is lost. Cahill argues that in a nutshell, people did not have time to think on great things. The struggle for survival took precedence over pondering the great mysteries of life.

Enter the Irish. There, in the wilds of Hibernia, the barbarians didn't seem interest in going--namely because the Celts were already wild, pagan, and dangerous. Their heroes slept around, were shape-shifters, and the population had deities all over. They also had slaves and abducted people into slavery. Among these abducted was a young Romanized Briton named Patricius. He lingers in Eire for several years, until he escapes, guided and protected by God, he is brought back home. However, he feels it in his heart to go back and bring Christianity to the Emerald Isle. With that, the future St. Patrick goes back to be a missionary.

His conversion efforts succeed, and scores of monasteries arise, not only to be thriving, but they now send missionaries back to Europe to convert the barbarian horde, founding monasteries as far as Scotland and Italy. With them, they bring their books. These books are a curious thing for the Irish to bring because before the monks Gaelic had not been written down. It was the Irish monks who began to copy down the works of the Greeks and Romans, and they copied down everything: not just the philosophical works of Aristotle or Cicero but the Aenid and Celtic legends along with the Scriptures. To them, all knowledge was valuable, all literature was worth writing down and preserving.

However, as Rome began to pull itself together and start dominating all branches of Christianity, Irish Christianity began to give way to the power of the Bishop of Rome. By a curious twist of fate, while it was the Irish monks who brought knowledge and a sense of civilization to barbarian Europe, once the Europeans regained civilization they clamped down on the more 'unorthodox' aspects of Irish Christianity, such as having WOMEN as heads of church or not banning pagan celebrations like Samhain (which would eventually evolve to the American Halloween). Eventually, Europe took what the Irish had given them and in a sense, ostracised them.

As I read How the Irish Saved Civilization, I was amazed at certain themes that emerged. For example, I am amazed that it was Christianity that brought civilization and a strong sense of peace to the warring Celts of Ireland. What makes it curious is that so often in today's 'post-Christian' world, faith in general and Christianity in particular is seen as backward, anti-intellectual, intolerant, narrow-minded, even dangerous to thought. We're constantly given the examples of the Inquisition or the creationist debate as proof positive that Christianity is against thinking itself. The book argues that it was the peace brought by Christianity, a faith that objected to violence as the solution to problems, that created the requirement for study.

This is the most important theme in How the Irish Saved Civilization: that is it PEACE that brings civilization and a flowering of thought. When there is war, conflict, and destruction, you can't have a space where thoughts and intellectual expressions can grow. To bring a modern-day context to it, this may be why the Middle East has not had a Renaissance since before the fall of the Ottoman Empire. There are other factors: dictators who want one thought and one thought only to be given (much like the barbarians like the Goths and Vandals who weren't interested in having their subjects question their authority) and a true anti-intellectualism (how else to explain how the Taliban can justify blowing up the Buddhas of Bamyan or the destruction of the National Museum of Afghanistan).

However, when the struggle to survive is dominant, those needs take the place of giving over to think, to contemplate, and the interest of knowledge is lost. In post-Roman Europe, people lost the ability to read and to a larger extent the interest to think. These books, this literature, weren't necessary to daily living, so they were discarded and in danger of being lost forever. The idea that knowledge is important was kept alive only by early Christians (the Jewish nation also has that idea that the Word must be preserved to keep their civilization alive), because they felt it important that the words and life of Christ and the letters of the apostles (especially Paul of Tarsus), so they began to write and copy them down. The Irish did that once the nation had been converted, but they expanded it to include the works of the ancient Greek and Roman pagans and their own literature. Without their work, so much would have been lost forever, and that would have changed the world we live in today. In effect, history turned with every one of those pen strokes.

I felt a sense of joy that the idea that words, thoughts, ideas, should be preserved was important. As someone who works in a library, I love words, I love literature, and am working to expand my worlds (and yes, my words). However, as I ended How the Irish Saved Civilization, I felt a certain sadness, because I think we're entering another post-Roman world, but this time it isn't the barbarians at the gate that are bringing civilization down (although we are facing an actual war against a certain mindset that distrusts individual thought and feels compelled to have group-think). It is apathy, laziness that will bring about the end. People are reading less and less for pleasure. It is a flaw of modern-day education, that gives the idea that reading is a task to be endured. People are now abandoning reading itself after their formal education ends. Instead, we go and rely on television, movies, the Internet. I love all those things, but newspapers are closing down partly because people are taking less interest in reading. Americans are having a harder time spelling because they are relying on 'text-style' writing to communicate (Side Note: sometimes I look at a text message and am baffled because I find it virtually indecipherable).

I won't be too critical: sometimes I make the same spelling mistakes because no one is perfect. However, Americans are having a harder and harder time thinking out an argument. "Literature" such as the writings of Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw or Jack London appear to be foisted on students who look on with horror while James Patterson, Nicholas Sparks, and Stephanie Meyer are looked on as new Ovids or Homers. (Side Note: I find it hard to critize Patterson or Sparks since I haven't read their works--I may end up liking them--but I do wonder how the former can crank out so many books within a short amount of time while the latter appears to tell the same story if I judge by the film versions. I have read Twilight and found it utterly awful). We now have a sense that books are, instead of dangerous or necessary, rather boring and useless, so there's no need for them. As a result, we are in danger of slipping into a state of semi-civilization if not downright idiocy.

Let my digress to say we are facing a similar situation today when it comes to 'orthodoxy'. The Irish Christians didn't get into twists about pagan celebrations or vernacular literature. Today, some elements of Christianity are in fits about Halloween and Harry Potter, believing them so dangerous they must be burned or even banned, and of keeping women from being pastors. I find myself on the left of these issues, but I think my bretheren should be more concerned about how and why people are abandoning Christianity itself than whether a child dresses up as a princess or Batman and eats too much candy one day of the year.

How The Irish Saved Civilization is a short, fascinating read. We understand just how close we came to losing the foundations of Western Civilization...and by extent, world civilization, and how a small group of Irish monks kept the light burning while the world was plunged into darkness. I can only hope that we do not let it burn out due to apathy.



Saturday, August 21, 2010

His Big Fat Greek Memoirs

Here are the few things I know about David Sedaris:

1.) He's Greek

2.) He's Gay

3.) He's Allegedly Funny

I say 'allegedly' not because I have a dislike for Sedaris, but because I've heard the essayist only once, on one of the worst programs in American history: This American Life. Only those who bother with National Public Radio have even heard OF it, let alone heard it. I imagine TAL host Ira Glass and I would not get along.

Glass strikes me as the type of man who not only would host salons where, over copious amounts of chardonnay, he and his minions (like Sedaris, John Hodgman aka the 'PC' guy from those television commercials, or Sarah Vowell--who always reminds me of a hyper-intelligent 12-year-old girl in her looks, dress, and voice) would get into an energetic argument over whether Jean-Paul Satre or Albert Camus was the truer existentialist, but would actually refer to these events as salons. He and his cohorts would take a look at me and say, 'There he goes, living in his little Matrix-like world, with his quaint ideas about such things as a literal existence of God or the "rights of the unborn" (as if there such a thing as...well, either). He certainly is not like us (and not just in skin tone, even though we identify with his 'people' and their struggle), here in our ivory towers where we get to look down on everyone, we who not only have read every word of Remembrance of Things Past (which we read in one afternoon) but who have the intelligence to celebrate Darwin-mas. Dear little man, who probably has made the mistake of voting REPUBLICAN at least once in his life'. I suspect that if I ever were invited to one of these soirees, it would be because they were short one Mexican waiter.

What does this diatribe against mild-mannered Ira have to do with Davey? Well, other than the opportunity to express my disdain for the godless Glass (which, given his atheism, is a completely accurate assessment), it's relevant because as I understand it, Sedaris is Glass' protege. Sedaris was taken under Glass' wings (and Glass' glasses) and become one of the stars of Ira's Follies. Yet, I digress. That one time I heard David Sedaris speak on TAL involved his efforts in music. My remembrance of this past thing I confess to being hazy, since TAL has an extraordinary ability to lull me into a pleasant slumber. From what I recall, Sedaris talked about his father, who loved jazz and wanted his son to be a jazz singer (where's Al Jolson, Danny Thomas, or Neal Diamond when you really need them?) So David dutifully took singing lessons, and the last thing I remember was an audition he had in which he sang the Bologna Song from the Oscar Mayer commercial in the style of Billie Holiday. There is the last memory of This American Life I have: a fifty-ish year old man attempting to sound like a drunk Holiday intoning "My bologna has a first name, it's O-S-C-A-R..." Personally, he sounded more like a drunk Truman Capote than Billie Holiday, but I digress. I don't know what happened afterward because at this time, I finally lost consciousness. From what I do remember, the audience was lapping all this up. I was only nodding off.

Now, I figure I might be extremely unfair to Mr. Sedaris. He might be an extremely humorous man. From what little I know he hasn't written any actual fiction; all his books have been essays and memoirs. The private life and adventures of Mr. Sedaris may be quite funny, or at least I've been told. I've decided to venture out again into the world of the unknown, which is why I have obtained a copy of the audio version of When You Are Engulfed in Flames. I go into it a complete virgin: I know nothing of what is contained within those CDs.

One thing I do admire about Mr. Sedaris (or at least from what I know/understand) is that his homosexuality is only a part of his life. David Sedaris isn't a gay man. David Sedaris is a man who happens to be gay. Is this splitting hairs? I think not. Too often today gay men/women are defined (or define themselves) strictly by their sexual inclinations, and from that flows everything about their worldview. Sedaris, from what I gather, is someone who is comfortable and accepting of his sexual orientation but who doesn't focus solely on that. The Billie Holiday story as far as I know had nothing to do with same-sex attraction. The distinction between "being gay" and "being homosexual" frees Sedaris up to write of things beyond sex.

I look at his face, and I think this man will be honest to me about how he sees the world, give me his taken on things that have occurred to him which will be different from how others will see such things. I note a sincerity and yet a certain sadness within it, as if the humor he gives isn't always the reaction he's expecting from the audience. Of course, all of this is pure conjecture on my part. Still, Sedaris has a couple of pluses in his favor. I tend to favor non-fiction, especially biographies (not so much autobiographies, given my own dislike of self-revelation). I also go into David Sedaris not knowing what to expect. Therefore, he gets my full benefit of the doubt.

Well, I confess: his adventures on This American Life (how I LOATH that program) do make me predisposed not to like him. Guilt by association I suppose. Still, David Sedaris isn't TAL. He's only a part of it. That being the case, When You Are Engulfed in Flames allows me to judge him based on his own one-man show, so to speak.

As it stands, I have so much listening and reading to do. I have Vince Flynn's Act of Treason, Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms, and David Sedaris' When You Are Engulfed in Flames. Since Flynn was in first I'm going to tackle that to begin with. Capote will be read after How The Irish Saved Civilization, but both books are rather short, so I figure I can get through those quickly. I am very excited about my new venture: I'm entering new worlds, discovering new things. What greater thrill is there than that?

I know only two Greeks who are funny: Zach Galifianakis and Arianna Huffington (though they make me laugh for different reasons). Even though Ira Glass and his Court probably wouldn't care for this bourgeois Hispanic Lutheran who isn't much for progressivism in its various forms (social/political), they might grudgingly approve of my venture to explore new things. If only they would apply that sentiment to their own lives...

Friday, August 20, 2010

Flynn Is In

I was surprised to see how quickly my requests were filled by the library. The first one I will tackle is Act of Treason, a novel by Vince Flynn.

This is kind of an experiment with me. I've never been into contemporary popular writers such as Mr. Flynn, and the thriller has never thrilled me. The exception to this has been the film version of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, based on the novel by John le Carré. From what I saw it was not just interested in the details of espionage work, but also on the toll such works takes on the individual.

I don't know if Flynn will take us into the heart of his main character, Mitch Rapp, but I am curious as to why his books are so popular. As I understand it, Rapp is the central character in a series of novel, and Act of Treason is one of the more recent ones. It will be interesting to see if one needs to know a great deal of Rapp's background to follow the plot. My belief, having just started the unabridged audio version of Act of Treason, is that I, the reader, do not have to know Rapp's early years to understand his motivations or thought process.

There's one thing I like about Flynn's work already: Mitch Rapp. One thing I have always taken to heart about writing is that names of characters can tell you so much about the character him/herself. Doesn't 'Tom Sawyer' sound like a young, mischievous lad? 'Sherlock Holmes' is the name of a highly intelligent, aloof, persona; 'Miss Marple' give the impression of a sweet old lady (even if her mind is razor-sharp). In the same way, 'Mitch Rapp' sounds like a man of action, who, like a song from Van Halen says, 'ain't got time to mess around'. Mitch. Rapp. Monosyllabic. Short. Simple. Direct. He's not 'Mitchell', which sounds more elite. 'Mitch' is the name of a guy's guy: one who isn't afraid of challenges. He's got a job to do, and the niceties of the law won't get in the way of what needs to be done.

There are things I've learned about Vince Flynn (curiously, a name that is also monosyllabic) that impress me. He's been open about his dyslexia, and it makes it even more impressive that someone with the disability has made a successful career in writing. My hat goes off to him. I also admire the fact that he left a very secure job to pursue his passion for storytelling. That takes a great deal of personal courage--moving into a venture where failure is a strong possibility is not for the faint-hearted. I gather that he writes from his convictions, and that these thrillers around counter-terrorism agent Rapp come from his worldview: that terrorists (usually Islamofascists but not exclusively) are threatening the country he loves and that at times extra-legal actions are needed to secure the nation. A writer should always be convinced of his own works.

I see his face and this is a tough man, a strong man, one who (like Rapp) isn't afraid of a fight. I imagine he's the type whom I could go and get a couple of drinks with, then go and visit the family. Yet I digress. What about Act of Treason? As I said, I've barely started it, so it's impossible to make an assessment of the work. I want to be a more open-minded fellow, to step away from the biographies and mysteries that I'm more fond of. That being the case, I hope to enjoy Act of Treason, and once finished I will share my thoughts on it, on Mitch Rapp, and Vince Flynn.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Big Life For A Little Man

Well, it took far longer than I thought, but I finally ended the biography of Truman Capote. I guess I knew more about his life than I thought...little drunk (literally).

This isn't to say that I didn't end it with a certain sadness for the man. After writing In Cold Blood, he went off the rails in a big way. Bad romances, drink, drugs...the usual things that bring people down. One of the points of the two Capote films, Capote & Infamous, suggested that the stress of creating In Cold Blood (specifically his relationship with one of the murderers, Perry Smith) all but wrecked him emotionally. There is a certain truth to that: after In Cold Blood, the only things he produced were the short story collection Music for Chameleons and a few hints at his unfinished work Answered Prayers. Oddly, one of those parts, La Cote Basque, destroyed his associations with the very people he longed to be part of. It could have been a desire to destroy himself, I have no idea.

I got through his life story for two reasons: one, the two aforementioned films intrigued me about the real man, and two, his seminal work, In Cold Blood, was listed as one of the books of the Twentieth Century...and has also been challenged/banned. I plan to read In Cold Blood, but first on my list is How The Irish Saved Civilization. I've started on it and find it quite interesting, well-thought out. Somehow, seeing how Western Civilization is in danger of collapsing--what with college students not being able to write in cursive, having no appreciation or even fear/hatred for actual books or works of art (and a lot of modern art being, well, curious at best), and the glorification of non-entities (Jersey Shore, Rob Dyrdek) and second-rate performers (John Mayer), and a shocking lack of knowledge (believing either Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann are actual news sources rather than propagandists for their respective causes), we need to look back on when we were in danger of having vast stores of knowledge erased by the barbarian horde.

I hope to finish How the Irish Saved Civilization in two weeks, but I also will indulge in more popular literature. I have never read a novel by Janet Evanovich, James Patterson, John Grisham, Nora Roberts, Nicholas Sparks, or Vince Flynn. I understand they are wildly popular, but they've never appealed to me. However, I think I should give them all a fair hearing. Oddly, that's what I'm going to do: hear them. I confess to enjoying books on audio more, and I am able to finish a story faster that way (I'm a slow reader--what, six to eight weeks for a biography, although And Then There Were None I was able to finish in one sitting, still the only book I was able to do that with). With that in mind, I have requested a title from Mr. Flynn and Brad Thor, who writes similar books--action/espionage thrillers. I can't say whether they're goo or bad. I'm not snobbish enough to dismiss their work as trash, but I can't elevate it to great literature either. It may be that Flynn, Thor, or any of the above want to be thought of that way. Of course, I don't think they want to write garbage either. Good books will always be good books.

Well, there it is. Next book: How The Irish Saved Civilization.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

To All The Books I've Read Before...

Before I begin tackling 100+ books, I think it would be good to see where I've been. Isn't that the saying, "unless you know where you've been, you don't know where you're going?"

As I've stated before, of the 100 Greatest Novels of the 20th Century, I've read only 11. They are:

  1. To Kill A Mockingbird
  2. The Lord of The Flies
  3. Charlotte's Web
  4. Brave New World
  5. Animal Farm
  6. Gone With The Wind
  7. The Call of the Wild
  8. The Lord of the Rings
  9. The Jungle
  10. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
  11. A Separate Peace
As I look at the list of those which were targeted, I can actually see why they are still scandalous. You have Number 11: Lolita, which has become shorthand for "underage girl having sex with older man". Number 2: Catcher in the Rye, I know it strictly by reputation. Number 36: Go Tell It on The Mountain. Anything by James Baldwin HAS to be evil, right? Number 55: The Satanic Verses. Enough said.

Still, one wants to be more educated, and I might tackle these stories again. Oddly enough, I enjoyed every one of them (only Charlotte's Web, The Lord of the Rings, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz were not targeted, although The Lord of The Rings was found guilty of introducing Satanism). I even enjoyed The Jungle--I ate steak while reading it. The only thing I didn't like were the last two chapters, when it turned into a Socialist term paper.

Well, I look forward to this little experiment. To The Library for To The Lighthouse (Number 34). It's time for my own Awakening (Number 50, and I think I read it but can't remember). I do want to finish the biography of Truman Capote (whose In Cold Blood, Number 53 is also among the challenged/banned books). Curiously, GORE VIDAL didn't make the list. Curious, that...

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Welcome, welcome all to a new experiment of mine. First, a little background.

I work at a Public Library and love my job. I like to tell people that I haven't worked in close to three years, because the adage is true: if you do something you love, it's not really 'work'. I also like to say I get paid to check people out (bad joke, but in reality accurate). I am a member of REFORMA, a group that promotes literacy for/to Hispanic and Spanish-speakers. As a member, I often get a lot of e-mails, and I confess sometimes they are not of the greatest interest to me. However, one did catch my eye.

It was one that contained a series of links to various library-related subjects, and one of them was about banned books. This subject is of endless fascination to me, most controversial. On the one hand (I sound like Topol in Fiddler on the Roof) I am loath to ban anything from the library itself. I firmly believe that Freedom of Speech is vital to our survival. I also firmly hold that there should be a wide array of views and opinions and thoughts that should be expressed freely and that should be accessible to everyone. There are some books which I passionately disagree or dislike, but I would not want to deny access to it merely because they have views opposite of mine. On the other, I know that total freedom is anarchy, and that there must be limits to every right. My right to use my fist, Oliver Wendell Holmes I think said, stops at the tip of my opponent's nose.

In any case, I came across various lists provided by the American Library Association (ALA) about banned/challenged books. These are books that either individuals or groups have attempted to remove from libraries (mostly schools) and classrooms. As I looked over two lists, a few things surprised me.

On the list of the 100 Novels of the Twentieth Century, 42 had been targeted. I looked at the list, I was ashamed to discover that of the 100, I have read only 11. The BIGGER shock came in the fact that of the 11, 7 were among the 42. If everyone who wanted those books removed had gotten their way, I would have been allowed only 4 books. What was even more amazing was that 6 of the 7 banned books was required school readings, ranging from middle school (Gone With the Wind) to college (The Jungle). The seventh (The Call of the Wild) I had read after college and for my own pleasure. Could someone have found this story so onerous that they thought they were doing me a favor by getting rid of it and not letting ME read it?

Of course, you can argue, these bans wouldn't apply to adults. They would be forbidden to children (Think of The Children! Won't someone please THINK OF THE CHILDREN?). Some on another list (The Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books Between 2000-2009) are no surprise. The Number One book (the Harry Potter series) has been the source of fierce controversy since publication. I am familiar with both sides: one believing they are introducing occult and Satanic ideas into children, others that see them as completely harmless. Some however, did really take me by surprise. Take for example, Number 71: the Junie B. Jones series. JUNIE B. JONES? There was a parent or group of parents that thought a series about the wacky misadventures of a FIRST-GRADER were that dangerous? I've read one or two of the Junie B. Jones books and find them rather innocuous. I'm therefore extremely puzzled to see them listed as banned or challenged. Truth be told, I can see why Number 13 (the Captain Underpants series) causes concern: the two protagonists delight in mocking and questioning authority figures and come up with the most idiotic situations for their eponymous superhero. However, I've only glanced at them, so I'm not in much position to actually say if they are good or bad.

Of course, here is the crux: as a parent, I wouldn't allow my child to read Captain Underpants, maybe Harry Potter (not because of any Satanic overtones, but because I dislike the mass killings within them...and I didn't think Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was well-written in the first place, but I digress). The distinction here is that I am exercising control over MY child/children, not over SOMEONE else's child. If another parent wants their offspring to devour everything Harry Potter, that is their prerogative. I would not ask that it be removed from the school is not my place to tell other people and their families what to do with their eyes or minds.

What if it were a requirement to read Harry Potter in class, or if the teacher read Harry Potter out loud to the children? Here, we get into more dicey circumstances. I'd like to think I'm consistent enough to say that I still wouldn't ask that they be removed. I would have to debate whether I thought the removal/banning of a book was worth the price. For some parents, it is. Here I guess is where I dissent from those who oppose banning completely. Parents have the right to have their voices heard, and to be given a fair hearing as to why they would object. I most certainly would object if my middle school had as required reading The Joys of Gay Sex (Number 78--still can't believe Junie B. Jones is MORE DANGEROUS than gay sex) because I don't think middle school kids should be reading about sex at all. High school I think would be more appropriate for that, so I wouldn't protest a high school with a copy. To my mind, it's not a question of title, but of age-appropriateness.

One thing I WOULDN'T do is burn books (irony of ironies, at Number 69 is Fahrenheit 451, a novel about book burning). I know someone who is PROUD of the fact he participated in a book burning: Harry Potter books in particular. He in his heart of hearts truly believes he did the right thing. I don't know if he burned Number 40 of the 100 Greatest Novels of All Time, but I did read about a group which did (I think he was with them too). This group burned, because they believed it encouraged Satanism, The Lord of the Rings.

Allow me to say a few things about that book and its author. Professor J.R.R. Tolkien was a politically conservative man: he even admired Franco. I don't hold that against him--George Bernard Shaw thought Stalin was a gentle giant, showing that even the greatest of writers can be absolute idiots. Tolkien was also a very Catholic man. In fact, it was his Catholicism and faith in Jesus Christ that were one of the causes of then atheist/agnostic Clive Staples Lewis to become, in his own words, "the most reluctant and dejected convert in all England". Without Tolkien, there would be no C.S. Lewis, Christian apologist extraordinare: no Screwtape Letters, no Mere Christianity, no A Grief Observed. (Side note: given that The Screwtape Letters involved demons, shouldn't those be burned as well?) I can imagine dear old Tollers, this most Catholic, conservative, old-school professor, being accused and found guilty of Satanism! I'm willing to place my life, my fortune, and my sacred honor, on the fact that if Lewis had seen this going on, he would not have been amused, and most certainly would not have endorsed it. Tolkien would have been shocked beyond anything to have seen his writings set ablaze because a few decided they knew his mind better than he did.

I now digress to ask these questions of my Book Burners. Who exactly appointed you to decide what is in my best interest? Am I that intellectually weak that I cannot tell the difference between fantasy and reality? Are you so spiritually in-tune with my God that He has commanded you to make decisions for me? Oddly, I think I am the best person to decide whether a book is bad or not, not someone with a lighter. I roundly condemn those who burn books for public spectacle. If you wish to burn your own books that is your business, but if you gathered books together or worse bought books for the sole purpose of burning them, then you are an idiot and not fit for the title of Christian.

Well, forgive my diatribe. I have not learned to be brief. Here is my experiment: I will do something few people do: I will read banned books. That is the purpose of The Index of Forbidden Books. I'd like to tackle those 100 Greatest Novels as well...working to be more educated (which is what Book Burners are not). Some, like the Harry Potter books (which I confess I'm not eager to tackle--they look awful long), will take a long time to get through. However, I take great delight in being able to read in the first place, and greater delight in being able to decide for myself whether a book is so dangerous that it must be removed. I'm in such a giddy mood about this, I might even read The Communist Manifesto...even though I HATE Communism. Updates will not occur quickly: I like to take my time. However, I'm looking forward to touch the forbidden.

I conclude with this. The picture above is from the 1930s, when the Nazis were deciding that anything THEY declared anti-German (ie. Jewish or anti-Nazi) should be exterminated from the face of the Earth. The picture below is from 2000s, in Albuquerque, where a group of "Christians" decided to get rid of the evil known as J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien. Man truly is extremely foolish.