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Attempt to ban books nothing new

Posted: August 12, 2011 4:45 p.m.
Updated: August 15, 2011 5:00 a.m.

Friday morning’s national news headlines brought this one from “School board removes Sherlock Holmes novel as derogatory to Mormons.”

That sent me to The (Charlottesville, Va.) Daily Progress, the newspaper that originated the story. It turns out the Albemarle County School Board voted to remove “A Study in Scarlet” from sixth-grade reading lists. One -- let me repeat that -- one middle school student’s parent challenged the book in May.

USAToday reported the book would remain on school library shelves for older students. Meanwhile, the Progress reported that 20 former middle school students protested the ban.

According to the paper, the parent who requested the removal, Brette Stevenson, said, “‘A Study in Scarlet’ has been used to introduce students to the mystery genre and into the character of Sherlock Holmes. This is our students’ first inaccurate introduction to an American religion.”

I read “A Study in Scarlet” earlier this year as part of a massive reread of all the Sherlock Holmes stories Arthur Conan Doyle wrote. Considering it is the first of the Holmes novels -- the one in which readers are first introduced to the character and his best friend, Dr. John Watson -- it is an odd book.

The mystery they find themselves embroiled in occurs in London, but its beginnings reach back to Utah and a very tangled plot involving Mormons forcing a girl they’ve rescued to marry one of their eligible men. The murders in London are acts of revenge on the part of one of those men. I’m vastly oversimplifying things here, but you get the picture.

Doyle does unfavorably depict that particular group of Mormons; he said he based them on what he had read and heard of the Danite Band, a Mormon militia that has historically been tied to vigilante acts.

Do sixth-graders need to read this novel? Probably not, and that was certainly the Albemarle school board’s prerogative to remove it from those shelves.

But it brings me back to not only the recent, but a former attempt to ban books here in Kershaw County.

Most recently, one parent attempted to remove a novel, “Angry Management,” from Kershaw County School District (KCSD) reading lists and high school libraries.

He partly succeeded. The district removed the book from the reading list and, temporarily, from school shelves. A committee studying the book recently concluded the book should go back on the shelves. This way, they reasoned, the book would be available to all high school students and their parents could decide, individually, whether they want their children to read it.

That’s how it should work. We are the ultimate authority over our own children, not everybody else’s. You have the right to campaign for parents to choose not to have their kids read “Angry Management.” But you shouldn’t campaign to have that choice taken away from them.

Some folks here at the C-I remembered hearing about (or being around during!) a controversy over the famous 1951 J.D. Salinger novel, “Catcher in the Rye.”

Like “Angry Management,” “Catcher in the Rye” contains curse words and other foul language. In July 1970, late Kershaw County Sheriff Hector DeBruhl mounted a campaign to have the novel removed from Camden High School’s library. Even before he had the chance to go before the school board, the district superintendent agreed to remove it at the sheriff’s request.

Calling Salinger’s novel “filthy and obscene ... takes God’s name in vain and has four-letter words in it not fit for a 16-year-old girl to be reading,” DeBruhl reportedly said he would sign a warrant under the obscenities law against whoever had placed “Catcher in the Rye” on the CHS library shelves.

Former CHS Principal Leroy W. Calder took full responsibility, but refused to apologize for its use, adding that its use was “entirely elective.”

Teachers who were part of what was then known as Area One protested the ban, not so much defending the book’s content as defending the school’s use of it in an effort to provide students with a “well-rounded education ... it is necessary to be familiar with the literary classics, some of which have very earthy language.”

I’m not saying “Angry Management” is “Catcher in the Rye,” although some could argue it serves the same purpose -- as a mirror for teenage angst in the modern world.

When DeBruhl did appear before the school board, he withdrew his challenge, but repeated his charge that the book was “not fit reading for school children.” He was backed up by a group of some 30 Baptist ministers. Ultimately, the board decided to send the book to a review committee, just like with “Angry Management.”

But that’s where the Chronicle’s stories end. Luckily, I reached Coke Goodwin, who became CHS principal after Calder. On Goodwin’s very first day on the job, July 1, 1970, DeBruhl came into his office, demanding “Catcher’s” removal. To his knowledge, the committee reviewing the book never met and it stayed off CHS’ shelves for at least the 14 years Goodwin was principal. He said he’s heard it’s back on CHS’ shelves today -- but since the committee never met, the old school board’s ban stood. Whenever “Catcher in the Rye” was returned to CHS’ library, in Goodwin’s opinion, it was likely done without official school board sanction.

Imagine that.

As you can see, attempts to ban books in Kershaw County, and across the country, is nothing new.

Let’s try to remember that banning books actually does no good. In fact, it may do more harm.

Sticking our heads in the sand is no answer -- proper parenting is.

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