Category Archives: Rant

Kitten Seeds of Evil

My banned books mug. So many kitten seeds of evil!

My banned books mug. So many kitten seeds of evil!

Normally I just use this blog as a way to record my thoughts about books I’ve read, but an article in today’s Washington Post got me sufficiently fired up to veer off onto the subject of politics–and the slippery slope to book banning. Specifically, the object of my rage is proposed Virginia legislation that would allow parents to review and potentially block books deemed “sexually explicit” from reaching the vulnerable eyeballs of their children. Here’s how the Post describes it:

“The bill would require K-12 teachers to identify classroom materials with ‘sexually explicit’ content and notify parents, who would have the right to ‘opt out’ their children and give them something less objectionable to study.”

The bill, approved on Thursday by the Senate education committee, was inspired by a parent who tried and failed to keep Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved out of Fairfax County classrooms in 2013. Now, I realize Beloved is an intense book. It doesn’t shy away from difficult, painful subject matter: slavery, sexual assault, murder. It’s also a powerful and important part of American literature, as well as a Pulitzer Prize winning novel.

First of all, who gets to define what “sexually explicit” means? And second, why would a parent attempt to restrict the reading material of their high school senior anyway? At that age, kids are one step away from independence and adulthood; preventing them from reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (two other books mentioned by the outraged parent in question) will not keep them in a bubble of ignorant safety forever. Personally, I will be THRILLED when my kids start reading such challenging, engaging and profound works of literature. (My oldest is currently halfway through The Catcher in the Rye. Good times!)

More importantly, this type of legislation could easily lead to teachers shying away from controversial literary works and sticking with more anodyne choices to ensure that no kids have to opt-out. Ultimately, the state’s curriculum could be skewed away from reading assignments based on merit to books chosen for their innocuous content. As a parent in Virginia and a life-long reader, this prospect is chilling.

Parenting is about instilling values and judgment in your kids, not putting blinders on them, and certainly not diluting the education of children across the state.  I would suggest that parents who have concerns with what their children are learning take a close look at the materials assigned over the course of the year, actually read the books, and then discuss them with their child. Imagine what opportunities that sort of ongoing conversation could provide!

Unfortunately, however, not all of the state senators who voted the proposed bill out of committee have even read Beloved. Senator Charles “Bill” Carrico admitted he’d only read excerpts, and he had this to say in the Post article:

“Evil is just–when you plant the seed, it’s a kitten,” he said. “You feed it, it becomes a lion and it eats you.”

That’s right. The Virginia state senate is here to protect our children from the kitten seeds of evil. I feel so much better now.


Internet Limbo

I haven’t posted a single review this month–not because I haven’t been reading, but because our home internet connection has been out for the past three weeks. I’m typing these words from a conveniently located but unreliably wired cafe, with hope in my heart that this week will find me back online in the comfort of my own little office.

I have been reading as furiously as ever, and settling for one-line goodreads comments in lieu of full-length reviews. Fingers crossed, Biblionomad will be back in business very soon!


Category: Rant

The Chunkster Challenge

After three years living in India, we will be moving on this summer. That much I’ve known for a long time, but we recently learned our next destination has changed. Although originally slated to move to Istanbul, we are now headed to Rangoon, Burma (aka Yangon, Myanmar) instead. (Goodbye Orhan Pamuk, hello Pascal Khoo Thwe and George Orwell!)

No matter where we’re going, moving means shedding weight. We’ve already passed on boxes and bags full of outgrown or worn out clothes, little kid toys, and those books that I’ve finally accepted I will never get around to reading. That still leaves a lot of books. So many books.

That’s why I have assigned myself the Chunkster Challenge: to read only the hJonathan Strange and Mr. Norrellefty, huggable hardcovers weighing down my shelves. My first chunkster: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell by Susanna Clarke. I’m on page 400 and around halfway through this marvelous story, set in an alternate version of 19th century England, in which magic and fairies are part of English history and experiencing a revival thanks to two very different magicians. I love it, except when I’m trying to take it with me. My purse is big enough to hold it (that’s a key criteria for any purse of mine) but the book weighs a ton. More incentive to finish it!

Next up on the Chunkster Challenge: Sacred Games by Vikram Seth, The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen L. Carter, and The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer which I  inexplicably still have not read despite really, really wanting to.

The hard part will be resisting all those skinny paperbacks which suddenly look so tempting on the shelf, not to mention the books on my Kindle. Truth be told, I am not very good at sticking to resolutions, especially when they are book related. I tend to read whatever I feel like reading, and that’s that. But in this case it’s either read these ginormous books or leave them behind unread. Hopefully that thought will be enough to keep me focused!

Rant: What’s Wrong with Jonathan Franzen?

In an essay that appeared on The Guardian’s website last week, critically acclaimed author Jonathan Franzen railed against the technological trends of modernity, citing as prescient a turn of the century Austrian satirist named Karl Kraus (aka “The Great Hater.”) Kraus had a problem with the newspapers of his day, and Franzen has a major problem with the Internet. And Twitter. And self-publishing. And authors with a gift for self-promotion (he specifically mentions Jennifer Weiner. I couldn’t help imagining her looking up from her computer screen and muttering a Seinfeldian “Franzen!”) Oh, and he compares Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Although not quite as old as Mr. Franzen, I remember the days before tweeting, texting, iPads, Kindles, PCs and Macs. I remember typing simple programs on my Commodore 64 as a kid, and saving the games on a cassette tape (!). I remember questions left unanswered because they were not specifically addressed in my set of 1984 edition World Book Encyclopedias. In those days, I read whatever I could find on the shelves of my local and school libraries. Knowledge was limited to words on paper within my immediate vicinity.

Those days are gone. When my kids ask me a question about the world we live in, I can find what is known about that subject and share it with them. We talk about identifying trustworthy sites and credible sources, applying critical thinking and carefully chosen search terms. Would they be better off knowing only the facts they could memorize? I doubt it. The ability to answer their questions hasn’t made them stupid; it has facilitated their insatiable curiosity and interest in the world.

That doesn’t mean we’ve given up on books. Our home is teeming with books, stacked in shelves and closets in, literally, every room of our house. Thanks to Amazon, I can get my hands on virtually any book at will, from the latest bestseller to the most obscure title by a little known author. That doesn’t stop me from going to bookstores, where I love to browse and make spontaneous impulse purchases. I get that Amazon has effected a sea change in publishing. Yet there must be other readers like me, who choose to read books in a variety of forms, from a variety of sources.

Mr. Franzen, however, waxes nostalgic for the days when gatekeepers barred inferior works from reaching the hands of hapless readers. He bemoans the fact that in the near future, readers will have no one to guide them through the thickets of self-published and fake-reviewed drivel (I suspect he’s not talking about Oprah). From my perspective as a reader, the idea that there are too many books and not enough good ones does not seem like a valid problem. So many brilliant, fascinating, inventive, orginal books come out each year that even reading as frantically as I can, there’s still no time to get to them all. It’s an embarassment of riches.

Surely Mr. Franzen must acknowledge that throughout history, talented authors have been overlooked by the gatekeepers. Today, at least those authors have a shot at directly connecting with the reading public. Which brings us to Twitter.

Mr. Franzen snipes at Salman Rushdie, an author he believes “ought to have known better,” for engaging on Twitter. I guess he forgot to slam Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood and countless other novelists for doing the same thing. Twitter is a tool. What you do with that tool, how thoughtfully or carelessly you use it, is entirely up to you. Why does Mr. Franzen feel compelled to lash out at people who choose to communicate in the public forum of social media simply because he prefers longform essays in established newspapers? (An essay I only read because I clicked a link.)

Mr. Franzen also agrees with Kraus that decorative, aesthetically pleasing design should not be valued over content, as if the two were mutually exclusive. Although I work on a desktop PC myself, I’m fairly certain content created on a Mac would have the same inherent value (or lack thereof). What thoughtful, elegant design can do is eliminate the barrier between intent and action; pounding out words on a sticky typewriter will not make your writing any better, but it may be so frustrating you won’t keep it up for long. With a sleek and powerful MacBook, you really don’t have any excuses for not producing that Great American Novel. It’s not the MacBook’s fault if you don’t.

Socrates, of course, was against writing anything down, because it would eliminate the need for memory and cheapen the value of knowledge. If Mr. Franzen had been alive in those days, he probably would have agreed. In light of the fact that his personal apocalypse takes the form of Amazon and the Internet in general, I suspect he would have found some apocalypse to go apoplectic about in any age, from the time of Karl Kraus and his Viennese newspapers to the advent of the printing press. In the wise words of someone, somewhere: haters gonna hate.

For all I know the apocalypse may well be upon us. But I’m pretty sure it’s not because of my Kindle.

Category: Rant