The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Bad Book! Bad!: A Brief for “Quality Challenges”

August 9, 2007
Washington, DC

No two people ever read the same book. Partly, this is because few people ever read the same two books in a row. Every book we read, we also read juxtaposed against the book before and the one after.

For example, if you read the first 21st-century novel on the Big Read list, Tobias Wolff's Old School, back to back with Big Read mainstay The Joy Luck Club, you might come away reflecting on the ways two very different short story writers have transmuted a few rudiments of their personal histories into their first acknowledged novels. (Wolff had a rookie effort he's not real proud of.) But if you read a doubleheader of Old School and, to pick another Big Read title, Wharton's The Age of Innocence, what jumps out at you might be how two self-deceiving male protagonists look back on their lives and justify their mistakes.

The Banned Authors monument in Berlin.
Source: Flickr


I mention this because the importance of reading juxtaposition also goes for newspaper articles. Here's a quote from a piece in the August issue of The Hill Rag, a better than average neighborhood newspaper here in town, about D.C.'s retooled Southeast Branch Library:

[Some readers, like Friends of Southeast Library's] Wendy Blair, believe the Southeast collection now suffers from citywide library policies that sell readers short. "The idea that a library is a repository of the books you can't buy or keep at home seems to have been shelved," said Blair. "And the choice of which books -- lots of Danielle Steele, no Jane Austen -- seems sad."

Taken by itself, this is interesting enough. It recalls the flurry of attention in the Washington Post and elsewhere last year when it came out that a Virginia library system was weeding its holdings based on circulation numbers. (Sadly needless to add, Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms and many other American classics were taking it on the chin.)

Now, watch what happens when you read that Hill Rag graf alongside this, from a recent issue of the South Jersey Courier-Post:

"The [school] board also passed a resolution affirming the use of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club in the high school English curriculum. The vote was 6-2?A committee reviewed the novel, which details the lives of Chinese-born mothers and their American-born daughters, after a resident complained of passages described as sexual in nature."

This, too, shouldn't shock anybody who's already noticed the curriculum wars bedeviling American school districts lately. But read it within a few days of that library-weeding piece, and it gives rise to the following modest proposal:
What would happen if an American library user (or parent) challenged a book, not on grounds of obscenity, or sacrilege, or any of the other reasons usually trotted out with the best of intentions -- but because the book stinks?

Put another way, what if somebody challenged any of the widely read but unspectacular novelists whom libraries regularly stock in quintuplicate, solely because the potboiler is just flat-out not as good as the one copy of Sense and Sensibility it would displace?

Whoa, you say. Doesn't that put local boards in the position of making subjective judgments? Yes -- but that's exactly what they're already doing! Deciding whether a book qualifies as profane or blasphemous is every bit as subjective as weighing in on its literary value.

Unlike "appropriateness challenges," though, "quality challenges" would get cities and towns talking about what really matters in literature, e.g., how much fun it is, how interesting it can be to talk about, how good language can work a reader over on frequencies, and at depths, that nothing else can quite reach. That, or it'll make a mockery of book challenges altogether, which might not be so bad either. Either way, it'll get people talking about books in terms of how good or bad they are, in addition to how godless or dirty.

All I'm saying is, if somebody else gets to challenge a venturesome book because the sight of it makes them want to cover their eyes, then I should have the same privilege because a bad book makes me want to hold my nose. Whether I have that privilege, we'll find out when I visit the Southeast Library this week and try to challenge the worst book I can find?