May 27, 2009


Mia and I were walking through one of our local giant chain mega-bookstores the other day. We were passing table after table of supposed best sellers, Oprah picks, picks naming up-and-coming authors, apparent non-fiction blockbusters. I knew this because that's exactly what the signs over each table told me they were. Anyway, walking back to the kids section, the tables' contents slowly shifted from adult to teen to children's literature. Smack dab in the middle were a few tables devoted to local school summer reading lists and assignments.

[An aside: I always knew there were summer reading lists and assignment but I'm not positive that I actually did any of them. Occasionally, I'd end up with an English teacher who demanded two pages about one of the books in which case I'd hurry home, read the back of the book and make something up. But I don't believe I ever read any of the summer assignments. Because having assignments over the summer? That's just wrong.]

I looked over the tables and found the usual suspects - Catcher In The Rye, Grapes of Wrath, Catch-22. There was some Hemingway, some Twain, and - sorry kids - Virginia Woolf (To The Lighthouse drove me fucking nuts). Once again kids would be subjected to the symbolism of the red light and blue light in The Great Gatsby and the metaphor of Animal Farm. I did a little mental happy dance, glad to be rid of the days in which I was forced to interpret bullshit symbolism probably not intended or even thought of by the author. And that I no longer had to read lines of Shakespeare out loud. Then something caught my eye, a contemporary author I hadn't expected to see in the pile, and a title that most definitely took me by surprise. Snuff by Chuck Palhaniuk.

Now, look - I'm no prude. In fact, I'm the farthest thing you can get. I'm a pinko commie liberal who values free speech over all and hates censorship more than I hate Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter combined into one hideous conservative anti-christ like uber-beast which is really saying something if you think about it. But seeing Snuff on that pile bothered me.

I just read it so it's fresh in my mind. And how could it not be? A couple lines from the first chapter lay out the premise of the novel nicely:

Six hundred dudes. One porn queen. A world record for the ages. A must-have movie for every discerning collector of things erotic. Didn't one of us on purpose set out to make a snuff movie.

And since Palahniuk has never pulled a punch, all the gritty details are there - sex, violence, drugs, bodily functions, bodily fluids and, uh, hair removal. Call me crazy but I'm thinking that a novel about a gang bang - with so many fabulous elements such as those I've just laid out - has pretty much no place in a high school classroom. Yet the former high school student - the one that lashed out about censorship in school newspaper editorials and felt so victimized by Tipper Gore and her PMRC - feels a little guilty about that. And the liberal pinko commie side of me feels that by limiting and censoring things like this, we'll find ourselves surfing down a rather slippery slope of which there is no bottom. Maybe common sense is somewhere in between.

Are common sense, schools, and free speech mutually exclusive concepts?

Posted by Chris at May 27, 2009 6:19 AM

There is nothing wrong with having free speech in schools and I am right there with you that censorship in some areas could lead to a slippery slope, but I don't see this as a censorship issue. I don't know exactly what is on the lesson plan for the students to learn from reading the book, but I am sure there are other ways to get the students to learn the concepts involved. If a student on his own chose the book, and wanted to do a report or presentation, that would be one thing (and in my opinion, not in good taste, but should not be restricted) and having a teacher led, group discussion on the book all students are required to read is something I would not allow my children to participate in. I am not trying to create a Fahrenheit 451 situation, or anything close to that, but there are lines that need to be drawn in a high school setting. Some materials simply are not appropriate. I would not have an issue with taking my children out of a classroom that sponsored such inappropriate curriculum.

Posted by: Tess at May 27, 2009 6:45 AM

Censorship and freedom of speech applies to adults, not children/teens.

Of course, listen to some of the rap music out there and its musical snuff. "I'm gonna make it rain on those 'hos." But, the school isn't teaching it to my kids, the radio is so thats fine, I will be the censor.

Posted by: Debbie at May 27, 2009 7:12 AM

I agree with Tess. Its not a matter of censorship to exercise common sense and not choose the book. Especially when it comes to summer reading. I tended to read my summer reading at the beginning of the summer (yes, big nerd). I'm supposed to then absorb that book with no guidance from a teacher for three months? I would be very, very concerned even as a student to be assigned a book like that for my "summer reading."

Posted by: tutugirl1345 at May 27, 2009 7:25 AM

I agree with the other comments - free speech is not the same as a school assignment. Allowing adults to read whatever they choose is not the same thing as requiring still-developing adolescent brains to be exposed to drugs and sex and murder. Exposure to such things with that level of detail as a teenager could seems so damaging. I was a particularly tender teenager. I liked chick flicks and happy music. I really didn't have a dark side for the longest time. (That came in college). But they made me watch Silence of the Lambs in psychology class in highschool. And I had nightmares for a month, and some small part of me died and was never the same again. I hope that doesn't happen to the kids assigned that book. I really really do.

Posted by: Bridge at May 27, 2009 8:08 AM

I DO NOT BELIEVE IN CENSORSHIP!!!!! Having said that, there surely must be another way for the teacher to present WHATEVER message she intends. Personally I can't see what a message could be,but I'm in a debate on which is worse for a teen to read, this or The Great Gatsby. Teens are involved in a culture of sex, drugs and killing. Maybe, she's trying to open a debate on the moralities of these. I don't think many teens are into debating The Great Gatsby and certianly not Catcher in The Rye. Me, She could do Tolkin, and escape reality altogether.

Posted by: joss is boss at May 27, 2009 8:09 AM

Also, To the Lighthouse is too complicated to read in high school. The themes are hard to fully grasp even as an adult. High school reading lists ruined Faulkner for me that way. Absolom, Absolom was just beyond my sixteen year old comprehension. One of these days, I plan to try him again.

Posted by: Bridge at May 27, 2009 8:10 AM

I'm totally against censorship. Having said that, the fact that that book was on that table is just weird. Maybe one of the employees put it there as a joke, to see if anyone was paying attention? Because I really can't imagine what the teacher's intention would be...

Posted by: Fraulein N at May 27, 2009 8:56 AM

I think Tess pretty well hit the nail on the head. And as a teacher myself I'm not sure where in the world the teacher's and or administration's head was at putting that on the reading list. I'm certain that whatever is meant to be taught by that book could be taught through different means. This certainly makes me curious what the specific class is that has this on the reading list, I'd think this particular book is not even appropriate for an AP American Lit class but that's just me. I'm all for breaking the mold of normal and making kids think but this might be taking that a tad bit far.

Posted by: Jen at May 27, 2009 9:01 AM

I'm a former high school English teacher. I don't believe common sense and schools should be mutually exclusive, but they get together less than they should. As for free speech -- one of the things that sucked about being a teacher, at least where I worked, was that you had this constant chatter in your head when you were in the classroom: "Did that kid just admit to drug use, or are they really being hypothetical? Will I have to shut this discussion down if the points the students are making start to sound like hate speech or something else parents can freak out about? When I phrase the next question to the class, how can I make sure that it's clear that it's a view I want them to ponder and not necessarily *my* view, because if it is taken that way I can be accused of pushing an agenda?" If you think you were censored or stifled as a student, try being a teacher some time.

As for whether the book in question was appropriate: I'd like to meet the teacher who had the guts to assign that one. Where I worked, The Catcher in the Rye was still considered "out there", although at least it wasn't banned like in the next county over.

Any chance that the Palhaniuk was just mis-filed? Or that one of the bookstore's staff members decided to be subversive? I've noticed that in some of the local mega-bookstores the staff sometimes surreptitiously mis-file a box's worth of books to cross-pollinate readership, knowing full well that there are so many shelves and so many books it may take months for the managers to notice.

Posted by: Kat at May 27, 2009 9:13 AM

common sense has died my friend :( but seriously I feel it is our job as parents to protect our children from the BS society has to offer until they are old enough to make a well thought out decision. Other wise we might screw them up for with that said, im not sure that im old enough to make those decisions either....

Posted by: becky at May 27, 2009 9:42 AM

That is such a good example of where "common sense" should be able to guide us. Unfortunately, whose common sense? It's a sucktastic problem that we are actually lucky to have.

Posted by: MsSassyPants at May 27, 2009 10:02 AM

I don't know that school districts should be banning any books... but I also think that teachers should use some common sense when choosing their summer reading lists.

I wonder if the book was put there as a a joke or by accident.

Posted by: Hope at May 27, 2009 10:34 AM

As I've said before, I'm all for free speech and the like. But whether they like it or not, high-schoolers are still children, and there should ALWAYS be a degree of censorship when it comes to children. I'm guessing you don't sit Mia down in front of a porn flick or a graphic horror movie to broaden her cultural understanding. I think this is the same thing. There are some things that kids don't need to be exposed to until they are truly old enough to make those decisions for themselves.

Posted by: Amy at May 27, 2009 10:47 AM

No, of course not. I would never put that book next to the likes of the Great Gatsby. Do I think a teen should be allowed to read it? Yeah, sure. But is there a message in there that can't be conveyed in a less-graphic novel? Hell yeah.

I started reading Stephen King when I was in the 6th grade and no one stopped me. I'm glad. It made me smarter about life at a time when I was old enough to start hearing about it. However, it's safe to say that many kids my age were not. Subjective, you know? Still, there is a difference between violence and sex. Violence seems like crossing such a big line. I'd never kill anyone. Sex is something I wanted every minute of every day. If I had started reading graphic sex novels at that time I think it could have created a jaded sense of what's right.

Whew, big topic.

Posted by: Brad at May 27, 2009 11:18 AM

Oh BOY this is hard! I'm a fellow pinko commie free speech defender and my first reaction would be to talk to the teacher myself...what are they aiming for? How is the material being presented? Somewhere, deep inside, I know we have to take a hit every now and then for the free speech crowd and maybe Snuff is one of them. Adults/teachers/schools tend to underestimate the real lives of teenagers and sometimes, I'm all in favor of throwing them a shocking curve ball, like Snuff, to show them that yes, we are aware you have sex/do drugs/disrespect each other, etc. and maybe we should open a dialogue. But would I like it as a parent? Heck no. I'd read the book so I could discuss it with my kids.

Posted by: rebecca at May 27, 2009 11:36 AM

That's got to be a joke by some bored college student who had to put up the display. I just can't buy that someone is actually teaching that in a school.

I mean, even if they need some Palaniuk (for reasons I'm not sure I could figure out) no way would Snuff be the top of the list for high schoolers.

Got to be a joke.

Posted by: cassie at May 27, 2009 11:55 AM

Two funny things first. I'm reading Catch-22 right now and I cannot fathom where this story is going. I'm totally bored by it but I figure I have to read it because the BBC says so. Second, I wrote a paper on censorship when I was a senior in HS, and used as one of my bibliographical references an issue of RIP magazine with Ozzy on the cover. He had a "Parental Advisory - Explicit Lyrics" sticker over his mouth. I think I still have it.

I feel as you do. Being anti-censorship doesn't mean being irresponsible as parents or teachers. Just because we don't burn books doesn't mean everything has a place in a 16-year-old's classroom or home.

Posted by: Brooke at May 27, 2009 12:27 PM

I totally agree with the other commenters that I hope this is a sick joke by one of the employees. I do not believe in censorship, but seriously, there should be some kind of guideline for the teachers to use when suggesting texts!!

Posted by: Krush at May 27, 2009 1:13 PM

There's a reason you start out with Hop on Pop, move on to Cat In The Hat, then The Lorax, then Charlotte's Web, then Animal Farm, then you're released in the bookstore to do as you please.

It's what you are mentally, emotionally, and um... maturationally (??) prepared to absorb and digest. From what you're saying, Snuff ain't it for the teens, and I would agree (not having read it - just from what you're saying) It's one of the reasons parenting is so hard: YOU have to figure out when they move on to the next "chapter" [snort!] And it happens at different ages for different kids (and adults - tho they've got to figure it out for themselves then).

Posted by: harmzie at May 27, 2009 1:17 PM

When I was a boy back in 5th grade, I was cruising through the school library and found a cartoon book about the life of a girl who survived the concentration camps. There was this scene where she was sitting with her grandfather on a train, and asked him what the meaning of some sexual term was ( I don't remember the exact wording ). Instead of answering her, he asked her to carry his suitcase for him. She replied that it was too heavy for her. He replied that the answer to her question was the same as the weight of the suitcase; it was too heavy for her to carry now but that someday when she was grown then she could carry the weight. That always has stuck with me as the guidepost of censorship; not to keep someone from knowing, but to make sure that they are mature enough to carry the weight.

Now gang bang stories for high schoolers does seem a bit extreme, but you just read the book yourself: was there a redeeming message? Is there a point that can only be seen from the point of view of the characters smack in the middle of that story? Or is it just a book that has smut for the sake of it? If the latter then I agree it really doesn't have a place in the classroom ( that's what the Internet is for afterall; can you even imagine being a teenage boy with access to the Web? ), but if there is something that can only be expressed from the smut, then here is a good lesson ( although wrapped in a questionable coating; perhaps this should not be for schools with abstention only birth control programs... )


Posted by: metawizard at May 27, 2009 1:22 PM

Common sense, schools, and free speech?! How about we consider basic DECENCY.

I don't think it's censorship to keep a book about a giant gang rape out of a high school classroom, Chris. Imagine the teenage girls who already feel a fair amount of insecurity having to READ THAT because it was ASSIGNED BY THEIR TEACHER? What would be the lesson that couldn't be taught without a violent rape imagery involved?

You know I love you, but honestly. Aren't you also the Dad who bemoaned Mia's exposure to Bratz? This has no place in a school curriculum.

(and ps- "Free Speech" is a government related concept as insured by the Constitution. As in, you're free to criticize your government without fear of prosecution. "Artistic Freedom" or "Freedom of the Press" is something else entirely, though I don't think that "freedom of the Press" applies here either.)

Ok, I'm off to read comments and see what everyone else had to say.

Posted by: chatty cricket at May 27, 2009 3:10 PM

And I'm more inclined to believe that said-large-chain-bookstore just overstocked themselves on "Snuff" and tried to find a place to display it prominently in order to get rid of some of the inventory.

But, I don't believe in censorship and was always able to read whatever I want - even if it was full of sex and other stuff that maybe was conceptually over my head at the time.

I am actually JUST NOW starting to read classics that I skipped back in the day. I've been reading Count of Monte Cristo for four months now. I'm on page 25. It's pretty clear to me why I didn't read this stuff when I was younger - because I don't enjoy it NOW!

Posted by: Sarah at May 27, 2009 4:32 PM

Just as we rate certain movies, CDs and websites 18+, I think the same can apply to books.

That's not censorship, it's just common sense.

Maybe it's on some list for a college level creative writing class... or a Potty Mouthed Curmudgeon training course. Were there Bukowski and Burgess books in nearby piles? ;)

Posted by: Krystyn at May 28, 2009 1:16 AM

I think it would be censorship if the school grabbed the book out of the students hands and burnt it. Putting it on a list is encouraging students to read it when one could just be indifferent.

However, maybe putting it on the list is actually discouraging students from going anywhere near it, thereby protecting them from the gang bang?

Posted by: Heather at May 28, 2009 4:43 PM