Book Banning! & Is Everyone a Critic?


“What would Obama think?”  I wondered the other day.

I had just read that officials in the public schools in Duluth, Minnesota, have banned Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the English curriculum.  (They have not yet decided what books will replace them.)  Although these two classics are among the most “challenged” and banned American books, I do not associate Minnesota with book-banning.

Twain’s satiric masterpiece, the humorous, poignant story of a friendship between a runaway boy and a runaway slave, is one of my favorite books. I do not consider it racist, despite Huck’s ignorant use of the “n” word.  I do think the dialect may be too difficult for today’s students.  And if they don’t understand, they will not read, nor will they listen to teachers’ explanations of the historical context and impact of Twain’s satire.


On the other hand, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960, is an easy read, appropriate for all ages, and clearly delineates the lawyer Atticus Finch’s fight against injustice in a town in Alabama during the Depression.  What can the objection be?

Did you know Obama cited To Kill a Mockingbird in his farewell speech on Jan. 10, 2017?  He held up Atticus as a role model.

He said,

If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters in American fiction, Atticus Finch.  “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Obama cites “To Kill a Mockingbird” in  his farewell speech

IS EVERYONE A CRITIC?  I very much enjoyed the “Secrets of the Book Critics” feature at Book Marks (Feb. 14).  It took the form of a short interview with Alexis Burling, a writer, book reviewer, and critic.  She said the two books she would love to have reviewed when they were  first published are War and Peace and The Golden Notebook.  I  love, love, love War and Peace and The Golden Notebook. She’s definitely a F.O.B  (Friend of my Blog) now, whether she wants to be or not.

On the other hand, she expressed the crankiness typical of critics in the post-print age. When asked about misconceptions of critics and criticism, she said,

How about the idea that everyone can be a book critic? That all it takes to write a worthwhile review is just a quick read of a book and then a dribbling out of your off-the-cuff opinion? Anyone who contributes to this column can tell you that reviewing a book is definitely not an easy, zippy process. There’s research involved—reading an author’s past work(s) to put the current book in context, maybe reading an interview or two to see where the author was coming from when he/she wrote the book, plus keeping on top of what else has been or is being published about the subject. Then there’s the taking notes while reading (well, I do that) and the working and reworking of sentences and paragraphs that hopefully come together into a cohesive and un-stuffy package that will do the book justice. Maybe it sounds a bit like I’m tooting the collective book-critic horn, but as with any profession, the job requires training, humility, and lots of practice.

I don’t quite agree with her here.  My first editor told me, “Any intelligent person can review a book,” and I stand by him.  It is true that some intelligent people write better reviews than others, but give them a copy of Strunk and White and they will grow (or pare down).  There are people who think they can do as well as you can, but you just smile and ask them if they’ve read Hermann Broch’s The Death of Vergil and that will shut them right up.

I read all kinds of reviews:  The New York Times,  Goodreads, blogs.  Each medium has much to offer, but from my point of view a traditional book review works best.

Mind you, I don’t write traditional book reviews here. Well, not very often. But yes, I see bloggers as being closest in intention to reviewers/critics, if not in execution.

I’d ask for your input, but I’m on a social media break. Call it Lent.