A tribute to books, and the people who help us access and explore them, during Freedom to Read Week.
ODDLY ENOUGH, FOR SOMEONE who’s spent 60 years extruding about eight million of them into print, I was a slow starter when it came to words.
My mother told me how she had waited anxiously for that first “MaMa” or “DaDa” from her first baby. I remained silent. Beyond the usual non-verbal expression of imperious infant demands that first word didn’t come. And didn’t come. And didn’t come. And then it did.
What? Hippopotamus? Well, that was it, she insisted—and the story made her chortle, even more than half a century later. Mysterious for sure but darling baby’s first word was, well, yes—the name of that ponderous, ungainly African river beast.
Where it came from she couldn’t be certain, she said. Most likely I’d absorbed it from bedtime stories. Some included the adventures of Popo the Hippopotamus, a children’s book by Georges Duplaix.
Popo was published in the mid-1930s when my mother was a little girl. The Nazis had just begun burning great heaps of books that weren’t suitably Aryan on their enthusiastically-stoked bonfires in the great university towns across Germany.
We were ambling through Doris Page Park in Cordova Bay. She was giving me a local botany lesson interspersed with reminiscences about her days as a young mother. A week later with surprising suddenness she was dead.
My mother was, I later realized, bequeathing me memories from my childhood that I might not have and that would otherwise depart with her, the on-going risk of oral history.
The memory of her snickering over her now-old-age-pensioner-baby’s first pompous word entered my mind again while reading about the resurgent rage for book bans sweeping through society yet again as a peculiar populist righteousness takes hold from Abbotsford, BC, to Zapata County, Texas.
FREEDOM TO READ WEEK has arrived again to mark chilly February and we should all pay close attention at a time when some British Columbians complaining about perceived constraints on their freedom in a relatively free place like Canada give themselves permission to rough up and denounce reporters as “dirty, filthy human beings” for having the temerity to tell the rest of us at what’s going on.
“This is what happens when you have your brains scrambled by misinformation,” Brent Jolly of the Canadian Association of Journalists astutely noted of the protestors in a Canadian Press report.
Intimidating reporters is a well-ploughed field for those less interested in finding truth than in controlling how it’s defined.
The method of control is to limit the narrative, become the gatekeepers of acceptable ideas and get exclusive power to churn out the disinformation, half-truths, dog-whistle innuendoes, demonizing stereotypes and outright lies that characterize the sewer culture of The Big Lie. That lie asserts that non-approved journalists are the enemy, government is a giant conspiracy, doctors and nurses are charlatans and books not certified by self-appointed authorities as fit to read are bad for your moral health.
Attempting to prevent people from reading a book or even a newspaper or magazine is really an attempt to kill the writer, not physically but nevertheless serves as an existential attack on the writer’s soul.
At last count, there were 850 titles on the would-be censors’ list for removal from school libraries in Texas alone, including a graphic edition of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the dystopian novel about an America in which a faction of Taliban-like Christian zealots sizes power and repurposes women as breeding stock for powerful elite males.
Art Spiegelman’s Maus is a graphic family memoir which depicts the savagery of the Holocaust as a chilling metaphor in which Nazis are cats, collaborators are pigs and their victims, in this case Jews, are mice who suffer unspeakably. Maus was banned not because it portrayed the mass extermination of six million people as a monstrous failure of humanity but because some readers were offended by cartoon images of mice being stripped naked before being executed on an industrial scale.
Ironically enough, also on the list of oft-challenged books is George Orwell’s 1984, another dystopian story about authoritarian strategies for controlling the narrative through censorship, fake news, propaganda and the rewriting of history. Now think of China’s President Xi Jinping having the Communist Party’s history revised so that in the newly rewritten version a quarter of it is now about his decade in power.
On the Texas list, there’s an unsavoury obsession with titles dealing with sex, gender, power and race issues, right down to requests that biographies of black American women like Michele Obama and Olympic sprinter Wilma Rudolph be consigned to the trash because their success stories might make white kids feel uncomfortable.
If Texas were just a benighted intellectual armpit in which a majority of folks were so fearful of their inability to present alternatives to ideas they find upsetting that they feel compelled to ban them, that would be one thing. But, of course, Texas is far more complicated than the zealots would have us believe and the problem of censoring unfavourable ideas is actually part of a much broader assault on thought that spans society from far right to far left and actually includes most positions in between.
The book banning virus pops up everywhere, including here in BC.
BOOK BANNING ATTEMPTS IN BC range from labour unionists upset by what they perceive as “anti-logging” attitudes in children’s books on the Sunshine Coast to books about same-sex parents in Metro Vancouver. Challenged books range from reports of hanky-panky in the province’s starchy upper crust to one about an estranged dad abducting his own kids. Does that ring any bells from recent headlines? It should. In 2019, the most recent year for which I could find tabulated results, there were about 10 parental abductions every month. But the book was denounced as “hate literature against men.”
From self-avowed fascists to the devoutly religious to the progressive left, our Age of Umbrage now means everybody seems to have something that the strong-minded minority wishes removed from library shelves before it contaminates the presumably weaker-minded majority of folk who may be exposed to it.
Those who read something or, frequently just read about something, and take umbrage are apparently immune to contamination by the ideas they so ardently want suppressed.
After a century of it, we’ve become desensitized by the desire of the self-appointed custodians of what’s proper to shield the rest of us from, say, the allure of adultery in Lady Chatterley’s Lover; from Molly Bloom’s occasionally salacious innermost thoughts in Ulysses; from the recounting of a childhood assault in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; from the casually brutal racism of small town American south in To Kill a Mockingbird; from the curse of hormone-driven teenage angst portrayed in Catcher in the Rye and so on.
But the would-be sanitizers of thought for the greater good want to wield a wide eraser.
Among the prominent Canadian writers that have been challenged to remain on school shelves are:
Lawrence Hill for The Book of Negroes because it uses “Negroes” in the title—never mind that Hill is Black himself, his book is about the Black Loyalists who fled the American Revolution to settle in Nova Scotia at a time when the word was the polite term or that the book won Hill the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and a slew of other awards, including praise from Canada’s Black community.
Margaret Laurence for The Diviners which won a Governor-General’s Award. The recurring charge here is that her novel exploring themes of colonialism, mixed-race identity and the struggles of being both a single mother and a woman with a sexual life in a controlling patriarchal society is too explicit in its language. In other words, her characters speak like real people, not with some bowdlerized rhetoric ostensibly used by religious social conservatives, who, in my actual experience often have quite salty vocabularies of their own and seldom speak like CBC announcers.
Oh, and Laurence is also on the ban-this-book list for depicting teachers as, um, having sex out of wedlock. Gosh, as though that never happens. It happens to the religious, too—half of avowed Christians surveyed now say sex between unmarried couples is ok and some surveys find that actual behaviour among young unmarried Christians tracks their attitudes. Times change. They always do, which is why the censors have a moving target.
Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t just a bête noire for the outer fringe of the American religious right, whose yearnings for social control it activates, it’s been the target of would-be censors across Canada who object to it as anti-Christian. It’s not anti-Christian, of course, it’s a cautionary tale about what can happen when fascist authoritarianism is infused with Christian fundamentalism and then crystallizes its extreme values into a cynical, hypocritical oppression of women.
Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro, as mild and generous a personality as one was likely to meet, made the hit list for The Lives of Girls and Women which depicted women as having—and even wanting to have—sex lives, which we all know is simply not the case, leaving the arrival of another 140 million babies every year an unexplained mystery.
Mordecai Richler fell afoul of those who would protect our young from literary taint with The Apprenticeship of Daddy Kravitz. Parents demanded that it be removed from high school libraries because it exposed their kids to “vulgarity, sexual expressions and sexual innuendoes” in its portrayal of a working class Jewish kid from Montreal trying to make it in a WASP culture. Presumably, the objectors’ kids and the kids they play with all spoke proper elevated English and weren’t interested in well, um, you know what!
The logical conclusion, of course, would be if you don’t want your child reading this material, then don’t let your child read it.
But that’s not the real agenda, of course. The real agenda is to prevent other people’s children from reading it. Why? Because exposure to ideas that challenge the complainants’ world view might bring it into question.
Those who are most insecure about the foundations of their beliefs are often the most vehement about limiting their own and other people’s exposure to ideas that challenge or, heaven forbid, contradict those precepts.
Some, like British journalist and man of letters Holbrook Jackson, who died at just about the time I arrived in Victoria for my fateful encounter with Popo the Hippopotamus, are of another view.
“Fear of corrupting the mind of the younger generation is the loftiest form of cowardice,” he observed.
I didn’t grow up in a household like that, thank heavens. I was encouraged to read anything that caught my interest—including classic comic books, which were viewed with withering contempt by my parents as bowdlerized fables for the simple-minded.
But back to the hippopotamus in my tent.
POPO, WHO WORKED IN A CIRCUS, resembled—the pictures did at any rate—Babar the Elephant who started life in Histoire de Babar in 1931, the French children’s book that became a global cultural phenomenon.
Babar has since sold more than eight million copies, been translated into 16 languages and has spun off movies and television series that are now broadcast in 30 languages in more than 150 countries and remains a lucrative franchise for a giant Canadian media conglomerate that was perspicacious enough to secure rights.
Written in the sickly afterglow of brutal colonial empires already being dismantled following the Great War, Babar the Elephant, is based on a charming children’s yarn first concocted for her children by the author’s wife.
Babar has not been without controversy because of its early accompanying illustrations depicting African people through the ugly racist prism of self-perceived colonial overlords. Then there’s Babar’s mission, bringing French civilization to the animals of the African jungle in the form of Parisian fashion.
Ok. Even out here in our post-Victorian outpost on the fringes of a largely-decayed empire we’re still susceptible to being “civilized”—Babar-like—in the form of haute couture and culture as defined by higher tastes in Paris, New York, London and Berlin, the perceived centres of high civilization, although the latest Liberty of London blouses and their price tags generate less contention than obnoxious imagery in near-century-old kids’ books.
Babar endures because, despite its flaws, the core story is benign, accessible, generally benevolent and seems malleable to the values of each age through which it passes.
The unpleasant echoes of discredited standards from another time are subsumed into the better values that many appear to believe worthy of celebrating, even in an era grappling with the urgent task of creating a post-colonial world, the on-going colonial projects of China regarding Tibetans and Uyghurs and Russia and Ukraine notwithstanding.
But back to Popo again. It had to be a library book that embedded the word hippopotamus in my unconscious. I’d never seen one except in a picture book.
My parents, newly-landed immigrants in 1948, were pretty well skint. My dad had found work as a deckhand on the scow that went from the foot of Johnson Street out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca to deposit Victoria’s overnight garbage on the outgoing tide. Later he did some itinerant logging for small contractors (who seemed to have a knack for going broke just before the final pay day), worked briefly in the BapCo Paint factory, delivered bread to the backdoors of Uplands for McGavin’s and so on.
My mother had me, at 18-months, my baby brother, and very little money. But she did have a library card. And thus I had Popo, among the many other titles that swept through the cottage on Whiteside Avenue in the days when it was surrounded by farm fields and considered the rural countryside: Pirates in the Deep Green Sea, The Water Babies, Peter and Veronica (the 1928 title, not the 1969 book, by which time I was already on to Catch 22), The Hick-Boo. That’s what I chiefly remember from childhood, books; many books. And encouragement to read whatever was going.
Among my earliest memories is awaking in my sick room—what the illness was I don’t remember but it was serious enough to worry young parents—to the susurration of wind in the lilacs outside the widow, the play of light on the ceiling as it came through the leaves, and the rise and fall of my father’s voice. He was reading to me from Homer’s Odyssey.
He says he doesn’t remember that moment but I do, the story of Odysseus lashing himself to the mast while the Sirens sang to him. What was that about? I didn’t figure that out for quite some time but it made for a good story!
“You can go anywhere if you can read,” my dad would tell me. “There’s no place you can’t go and you can go there whenever you like!” Which was nice to know when the family budget for a holiday extended to a picnic in Beacon Hill Park. And it was true. Books took me to Africa to look for King Solomon’s Mines, across the Pacific in an open boat, into the Arctic tundra and the snowy Himalayas of the Yeti and Shangri-la.
Later, living in Port Alberni, the air redolent with eau de pulp mill, my mother would deposit me at the library while she did her Saturday shopping. I was in Grade Four. I had worked my way through Freddy Plays Football—only later did my father point out the anti-semitism—the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, Tod Moran who still wanders the Seven Seas in an itinerant tramp freighter, and the other musty kid lit relics from an earlier age that lingered in the small town stacks.
The librarian took pity. She must be long dead now but I remember her halo of grey hair and the steel-rimmed glasses. She beckoned me to the desk and with great ceremony issued me the card that let me take out books from the adult section.
“Make sure you tell your dad,” she said gravely. “If he objects, tell him I’d like to talk to him.”
With some apprehension, I told my dad. He called my mother. They examined my shiny new card and, I swear, they were as pleased as I was that I had advanced upon my reading journey.
Never once did they challenge my reading of any of the books I subsequently lugged home. Not even a well-thumbed copy of The Decameron, although that raised my mother’s eyebrows.
I owe them and my librarian a great debt. I never forget it, especially now when we’re asked to help our librarians—whether in schools or public libraries—withstand the rising attempts to constrain our hard won freedom to read.
Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, labour unions, politicians, feminists, fascists and anti-facists, racists and anti-racists; in the Age of Umbrage every faction with an axe to grind argues that the world would be better with fewer books and wants some title or other cancelled because it either might hurt somebody’s feelings or might lead weaker minds than theirs astray.
Ban all the books that offend somebody and we’ll eventually be restricted to reading the labels on cereal boxes. No Bible, no Qur’an, no Shakespeare, no Harry Potter, no Fifty Shades of Grey—just the bland labels on our Quaker Oats boxes. Oh, wait, sorry, objections have been raised to the cereal labels, too. Some of us, it seems, take affront at the French.
See the Freedom to Read website for more information. Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.
Top photo credit: A member of the SA throws confiscated books into the bonfire during the public burning of “un-German” books on the Opernplatz in Berlin, 1933. Unknown photographer. Creative Commons.