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Archive for September, 2013

“Invisible Man” may be widely acknowledged as one of the greatest works of fiction of the 20th century, but it’s no “Captain Underpants.”

I’ll explain, but bear with me.

The Randolph County (N.C.) Board of Education voted this week to remove all copies of “Invisible Man” from its school libraries.

Coincidentally, Sept. 23-27 is Banned Books Week, an event launched in 1982 to highlight attempts to remove literature from schools and libraries.

The book at issue in Randolph County is not “The Invisible Man” by H.G. Wells. It is “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, published in 1952 and winner of the National Book Award in 1953, selected by Time magazine in 2005 as one of the 100 best English-language novels published since Time (the magazine) began, selected by Random House as one of the 20 best novels of the 20th century.

When Ellison died in 1994, his obituary in the New York Times described “Invisible Man” as “a stark account of racial alienation that foreshadowed the attention Americans eventually paid to divisions in their midst” and “a chronicle of a young black man’s awakening to racial discrimination and his battle against the refusal of Americans to see him apart from his ethnic background, which in turn leads to humiliation and disillusionment.”

The Times went on:

“’Invisible Man’ has been viewed as one of the most important works of fiction in the 20th century, has been read by millions, influenced dozens of younger writers and established Mr. Ellison as one of the major American writers of the 20th century.”

Ellison said in his speech accepting the National Book Award that the experimental style of the book was influenced by T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” which he said was the first place he ever saw the improvisational spirit of jazz set to words.

In a lesson plan that PBS NewsHour Extra provides for teachers for studying “Invisible Man,” which it lists as having a reading level of 11th and 12th grade, it says: “Being an outsider, being outcast, being ignored – all are feelings most people can relate to. Ellison related this personal experience to a greater societal structure, using characters and imagery to do so. In this lesson plan, students will use similar tools to explore the theme of invisibility in the book, in their own lives, and in their communities.”

The lesson plan also cites this paragraph from the novel’s prologue:

“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.”

The parent of a Randleman High School student complained about the book, which was among three books for optional (optional!) summer reading, “This novel is not so innocent; instead, this book is filthier, too much for teenagers.”

Too filthy for teenagers? I have to question whether this parent has actually had a conversation with a living teenager.

Granted, the PBS lesson plan includes a note saying that the book’s subject matter is “challenging.” But life is full of challenging subject matter, presenting children as well as adults with a fairly constant stream of moral quandaries and objectionable situations, usually without the structure of a classroom discussion to help anyone make sense of them.

The parent’s urge to shield her own teenager from the uglier elements presented in parts of the book is understandable, and her argument that as a parent she has a right to object to her child reading it is correct, though it can be argued she is misguided when it means preventing a young adult from reading one of the most acclaimed novels in the world.

A parent has no right, however, to seek to prevent all high school students in her community from having access to a great work.

What is most objectionable, however, was the reaction of the school board. The seven board members read the book, and only two rose to defend it as even belonging on the library shelves. One board member stated flatly, “I didn’t find any literary value.”

It is one thing to say, “I didn’t like it,” or, as another board member said, “It was a hard read,” or even, as the parent did, to say that elements of the book are “filthy.” It is another entirely to say this book has no value.

If you don’t like a TV show or movie, don’t let your kids watch it. If you don’t like a book, don’t read it. If children are the issue, then as the Randolph County parent said, other parents have the right to make that decision for their children.

It’s a slippery slope from deciding you can and should ban material that you personally find offensive to taking reactionary measures to ban ridiculous perceived offenses, which is probably why the books most often challenged for removal from schools and libraries in 2012 were in the “Captain Underpants” series of children’s books by writer/artist Dav Pilkey. One of the books, “The Adventure of Super Diaper Baby,” was banned because it contained the phrase “poo poo head,” the American Library Association reports.

So it is now that “Invisible Man” now takes its place alongside book titles such as “The Day My Butt Went Psycho: Based on a true story.”

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The news coming out of a series of meetings that the new owner of the Washington Post, Amazon founder Jeffrey Bezos, had with the paper’s employees this week sounded both encouraging and discouraging to longtime news people like me.

It was encouraging because so much of it reinforced the values we have always been taught.

For instance, this was the first paragraph of the story by Post writers Paul Farhi and Craig Timberg about the meetings:

“Jeffrey P. Bezos had a simple bit of advice for the staff of the newspaper he’ll soon own: Put readers, not advertisers, first. Don’t write to impress each other. And above all, ‘Don’t be boring.’”

But what’s discouraging is just that: Almost everything that those listening to Bezos found worth repeating was so thoroughly familiar that it ought to have been unremarkable.

For instance, every bit of that Post paragraph above was pretty much from News Writing 101. Many reporters hate the idea that advertising is even IN the newspaper, so you hardly have to tell them not to put advertisers first, but getting a writer to think of his story from the perspective of a reader can take some work. And “Don’t be boring”? Get serious. That falls under the category of advice that my wife calls “Don’t shave the cat,” which means it’s advice you really shouldn’t need to hear in order to do the sensible thing. No editor ever chewed out a reporter for failing to load a story full of six-syllable words, math equations and technical explanations.

“What has been happening over the last several years can’t continue to happen,” Bezos said of seemingly never-ending cuts to news staff. “If every year we cut the newsroom a little more and a little more and a little more, we know where that ends.”

I have yet to hear anyone say otherwise, so while it’s nice to know that Bezos doesn’t think you can cut your way to prosperity, that thought by itself doesn’t mean he can get the revenue moving back in the right direction.

What the news industry hopes to see from Bezos eventually is a way for the business to thrive in the world of free and instant sharing on the Internet. The closest he got to that was this:

“Should it be as easy to buy the Washington Post as it is to buy diapers on Amazon? I think it should.”

Can’t argue with that. Many of the business practices at a great many newspapers are firmly rooted in the pre-Internet 20th century. But again, that’s hardly a novel realization. People have been talking about this in the industry for years, yet, just like the weather, no one does anything about it.

Then we get to a couple of things the Post reported Bezos saying that are just depressing to journalists.

“You have to figure out: How can we make the new thing? Because you have to acknowledge that the physical print business is in structural decline,” he said. “You can’t pretend that that’s not the case. You have to accept it and move forward. . . . The death knell for any enterprise is to glorify the past, no matter how good it was …”

If that’s the death knell, then we’re dead, baby, because journalists have been glorifying the past for decades – particularly at Pulitzer-winning metropolitan papers such as the Post.

“All businesses need to be forever young. . . . If your customer base ages with you as a company, you’re Woolworth’s.”

All I have to say about that is, welcome to Woolworth’s.

Actually, I’d rather end on a positive note, or as positive as any of Bezos’ comments struck me, which was this on what Bezos said his purchase of the Post shows about his outlook:

“If I thought it was hopeless I’d feel BAD for you guys. But I wouldn’t want to join you.”

So he’s an optimist. Which might just be the surest evidence possible that at heart he isn’t a journalist.

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