Saturday, September 27, 2008

Banned Books: As Seen On TV!

The Wifey and I watch a lot of Gameshow Network, which means we're subjected to a lot of commercials for their target audience: Medicare supplements, class-action lawsuits, hearing aids, pet care, and random "As Seen On TV" products. One advertisement came on during prime-time hours, though, that made me stop where I was; I had to grab a piece of paper and write it down, because the medium and message were quite unexpected for an ad timeslot that caters to conservative, elderly women. While I could have ordered over the phone, it offered a website — the URL I was so anxious to write down was "myhuckfinn.com".

The commercial over on the left is a longer version of what was aired: the Easton Press is selling the 100 Greatest Books Ever Written, finely bound in leather with gilt edges, on a subscription basis. The reason for the Twain reference in the URL is that the first book in the series, available for an introductory rate of about 15% actual price, is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

As far as a book's history goes, Huckleberry Finn takes as much from its contents as from the events revolving around it. Written as a sequel to a much more popular novel, Huck Finn took a darker, more introspective look at the Southern culture that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer took more lightly. From when Finn was first published in 1884, readers lashed out at the book, citing coarse language and uncouth demeanor of most of the characters. The repeated use of the word 'nigger' grew to a more unacceptable degree into the 1950s, and is the root (along with other negative depictions of black people) for modern attempts to censor the book. However, great minds lauded Huckleberry Finn as a masterpiece — Hemmingway declared, "...all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn." With good reason, the book has been a staple of English courses, because the book combines modern literature, American history and locales, a sympathetic young character, and a touch of adventure and thrills to keep students interested. The book's critics, however, still keep Huckleberry Finn in the top ten most challenged books of late. I can't imagine Easton would be ignorant of the book's history, and the choice to make the hotly-disputed Huck Finn their loss-leader edition seems a deliberate act.

Easton, sadly, doesn't provide the list of the 100 Greatest Books, but other people have. Huck Finn isn't the only overlap when it comes to banned books: Brave New World, Of Mice and Men, Uncle Tom's Cabin, On The Origin of Species, Canterbury Tales, and numerous others (at least 20%) all appear on both the Easton's list and somebody's contested-book list. To some people, Easton's commercial on prime-time cable TV is about as bad as a Playboy subscription commercial on Nickelodeon, showing a mother and child reading from the Greatest Books library — together! In fact, children figure prominently in the commercial's cast, all shown enjoying the literature found in these books, much to the shock and dismay of those who think such smut is only found in gradeschool classrooms and public libraries. The attitude of book censors suggests that these dirty, naughty works of literature should be under the counter, bound in plain-paper, available only to those who understand what they're getting into. While I don't advocate shelling out over four grand for Easton's library, I greatly respect their decision to wrap these offensive books in fine leather and silky end-papers, make their outsides sparkle with gold, and make one of the most contested books in American literature their flagship product. Banned Books Week is here, courtesy the ALA, and those challenged books should stand out as the great works they are, and not as the small-minded opposition sees them as.

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