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Banned Books Week: Go Ask Alice


Go Ask Alice

September 24th through October 1st is Banned Books Week. Last year, I blogged my thoughts on book banning. This year, I’ve picked seven books from the ALA’s list of frequently challenged classics, and will explain over the week why those books are awesome. Also, I have a copy of each book, and will be giving them away to seven lucky winners! Read to the bottom for details.

If you’ve been living under a rock: Go Ask Alice is ostensibly the anonymously published diary of a teenager in the hippie-era ‘60s who, seeking nothing more than to fit in with her peers, ends up falling into a life of drug use, casual sex, prostitution, and eventually dies of a presumed overdose. In actuality, the book is fiction, and is attributed to a woman named Beatrice Sparks.

Why it gets banned: Drug use, pre-marital underage sex, prostitution, why do you think it got banned?

Why that’s dumb: As with so many of the books in this series, the expressed desire to protect children from harmful influences in books is ridiculous. The harmful influences aren’t in books. They’re in the world. Books only reflect what’s in the world and provide kids with opportunities to explore various ideas and life choices vicariously. That is, in a safe manner. Books give kids an opportunity to think about these things and ask themselves “is that the choice I want to make for myself,” without exposing themselves to the risk of making those choices. You don’t protect anybody by banning a book. All you do is force kids to learn those lessons the hard way, with real consequences.

Why this book is awesome: Of all seven titles on this list, Go Ask Alice is easily the most personal choice for me. The others I chose largely because of their standing as works of literature or because of the issues they tackle. I chose this one because of how it has affected my life. Warning, I’m going to get personal here, and if that bugs you, you should click your back-button now.

I was a teenager in the ‘80s. On the one hand, that decade showed me a world where movie stars and musicians—the cool people—smoked a lot of dope and snorted a lot of coke. The kids in my high school drank a lot of beer and, when they could get away with stealing it from their parents’ liquor cabinets, the hard stuff. This was the decade that invented Jello shots, which were all the rage at those weekend cool-kids parties. On the other hand, the chief voice against drugs in those years was that crazy, scary-looking, First Lady and astrology maven Nancy Reagan. She was the last person I’d ever want to listen to.

Just the same, I had no interest in drugs or alcohol. None. They revolted me. But, to fit in, I would have had to do those things. At that age, I didn’t understand why I felt that way about narcotics, why my internal compass pointed so strongly in the direction most opposite to what every element of both popular- and peer-culture would have me do.

If you’ve ever been a teenager, or if you are one now, you know how strong the desire to fit in can be.

Then I found Go Ask Alice in the public library, where I had to wait every afternoon after school for my parents to pick me up for the long drive out to where we lived. I didn’t have a library card, so I didn’t check it out, but I’d read a little bit every day. I’d find it, read, and carefully re-shelve it when it was time to go.

I know, now, that the book is fiction. But when I read it then, I thought it was real. What kid reads the fine print on the copyright page to double-check who the Library of Congress credits as the author? I thought it was real, and the book spoke to me. In the anonymous Alice’s circumstances and choices, what I found was affirmation for what I felt inside me. What I found was confirmation for my own instincts that drugs were a bad deal, and if everybody else wanted to do them then I guess that was their business, but I didn’t have to make that same choice. (Note: I really do believe that. If you want to take drugs, that’s your own personal business and I’m not going to condemn you for it. They’re just not for me.)

I eventually came to understand why my compass points the way it does. It was because of some horrible shit that happened to me when I was Scout Finch’s age, stuff that happened because of drugs I didn’t even take, stuff I couldn’t even remember until several years after reading Go Ask Alice. But in some nebulous way I can’t really explain, Go Ask Alice (and later, the movie My Own Private Idaho) gave me a kind of map through the minefield I was traversing.

That book, whether fact or fiction, gave me the strength to keep myself safe through those difficult years. Of course I can never know what would actually have happened if I’d never found that book. But neither can I escape the feeling that if I hadn’t found it, I likely wouldn’t have survived. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but that’s how I feel. This book is awesome because it saved my life.

I have a copy of this slim volume tucked away on our bookshelves at home. I hope my kids never need it. But if they do, I want it to be there for them.

Win this book! Besides pontificating, what could be a more fitting response to Banned Books Week than to give away copies of these books? I’m giving these seven books, one per winner, to randomly selected people who share this post on Twitter. Just click the Tweet this! link at the bottom of the post. I will announce the winners on Monday, October 3rd.

If you’re just joining us, here’s the rest of the posts:

September 30, 2011 16:16 UTC

Tags: Banned Books Week, Anonymous, censorship

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Banned Books Week: Cat's Cradle


Cat’s Cradle

September 24th through October 1st is Banned Books Week. Last year, I blogged my thoughts on book banning. This year, I’ve picked seven books from the ALA’s list of frequently challenged classics, and will explain over the week why those books are awesome. Also, I have a copy of each book, and will be giving them away to seven lucky winners! Read to the bottom for details.

If you’ve been living under a rock: I suppose it is slightly less surprising if you’re not familiar with this book. It is not Vonnegut’s most well-known work. But, for my money, it is his best. It is ostensibly the chronicle of a writer’s quest to write a book documenting what various Important People were doing the day the A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. In the process, the writer (who is known only as “John") travels to interesting places, meets interesting people, and encounters interesting ideas. And witnesses ... well, I could tell you but that would be a spoiler.

Why it has been banned: Cat’s Cradle was banned in 1972 by an Ohio school district board, along with three other titles. This decision was later overturned by the 1976 court decision in Minarcini v. Strongsville City School District. Information on why this book was targeted by the school district is sparse, but my entirely non-expert reading of the court case suggests that it was thrown out along with another Vonnegut title, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, which one of the board members’ secretary read for half an hour and found to be “completely sick,” and “GARBAGE.” There is no particular indication that anyone on the school board, nor anyone who reported to the school board, ever even looked at Cat’s Cradle. I can only surmise that this particular baby was thrown out along with Rosewater’s bath.

Had they actually looked at it, I can guess that they might have taken offense at the depictions of sex in the book, laughably tame though they are. From a certain humorless, avidly pro-America / pro-military-industrial-complex perspective, I can also imagine that one might take offense at Vonnegut’s clearly anti-war stance.

Why that’s dumb: Banning a book you haven’t even looked at? Do I really need to explain why that’s dumb? And if it was banned for descriptions of sex that consist of people touching the soles of their feet together, then I can only ask “what, exactly, are you hoping to achieve there?”

Why this book is awesome: This is my favorite of Vonnegut’s works because, at least to my eye, its philosophy is the most interesting. The book posits a fictional religion, Bokononism, based on the sayings of its prophet, Bokonon. These sayings are savagely funny, in a way that the word “wry” can only dream of hinting at, and are self-contradictory to a nearly Zen degree. Yet, buried within them are both lovely and tragic insights into people, how people treat one another, and the deep hypocrisies therein. I have to love a book which pokes society in its collective eye with its own double-standards.

The book is also a fabulous example of the minor-character narrator technique, in as much as John does not strongly interact with the course of events in the plot. He is a witness. A chronicler. A vehicle for observations about life. In this, John stands alongside Moby Dick’s Ishmael and The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway.

Win this book! Besides pontificating, what could be a more fitting response to Banned Books Week than to give away copies of these books? I’m giving these seven books, one per winner, to randomly selected people who share this post on Twitter. Just click the Tweet this! link at the bottom of the post. I will announce the winners on Monday, October 3rd.

If you’re just joining us, here’s the rest of the posts:

September 29, 2011 17:10 UTC

Tags: Banned Books Week, Kurt Vonnegut, censorship

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Banned Books Week: To Kill a Mockingbird


To Kill a Mockingbird

September 24th through October 1st is Banned Books Week. Last year, I blogged my thoughts on book banning. This year, I’ve picked seven books from the ALA’s list of frequently challenged classics, and will explain over the week why those books are awesome. Also, I have a copy of each book, and will be giving them away to seven lucky winners! Read to the bottom for details.

If you’ve been living under a rock: Told through the innocent eyes of his six-year old daughter Scout, To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch, his defense of a black man accused of raping a white woman, and the turmoil that the case creates within the “tired old town” of Maycomb.

Why it gets banned: I could basically repeat most of the reasons why Huckleberry Finn gets banned for this book too. Language, of course. The book contains such profanities as “damn” and “whore lady,” as well as racial slurs and other such verbal barbs as were an integral part of the fabric of southern speech during the Great Depression. But to me, this reason why the book was challened at the Warren, IN Township schools in 1981 pretty much takes the cake:

[The book] represents institutionalized racism under the guise of good literature.”

Why that’s dumb: I’ve talked about offensive language more than once in this series, and won’t do so again here. As to institutionalized racism, well duh, that’s what good literature is for! Among other things, of course, good literature should represent the ugly parts of society exactly so we can talk about them, recognize their ugliness, and work to fix them. Huckleberry Finn was treated the same way and for the same reasons. The Catcher in the Rye got criticized for exposing society’s underbelly of hypocrisy. Same with Lolita, only for talking about pedophilia instead.

It’s always the same. Good literature should challenge us with the things we do wrong, so we can stop doing that. One of these days, somebody’s going to write a great novel with global warming as its theme—how we’re being poor stewards of the earth, how unfair it is for today’s generations to mess the planet up for tomorrow’s, et cetera—and I promise you that at some point, somewhere, somebody’s going to challenge that book for “representing global warming under the guise of good literature.” When that happens, it will mean the book is doing its job.

Why this book is awesome: This is a personal reason, but I love this book simply for the way it’s written. Harper Lee captures the voice of young Scout Finch so beautifully. A great novel lets you live for a while inside somebody else’s skin, and the voice of that character is the primary tool by which this happens. Harper Lee did such a masterful job with Scout Finch that she fits the reader like a glove.

I also love this book for its bittersweet, yet entirely believable ending. Having written my share of manuscripts, I know that can’t have been an easy thing to do. It took courage to write the ending like she wrote it, and I don’t know that I’d have had the courage to do the same thing. It would have been easy to reach for the happy ending, for the ending in which good triumphs over evil, and the cancer of institutional racism that yet ran strong in the 1960s was given a way to avoid looking at itself in an un-distorted mirror. I can only imagine that Harper Lee must have been tempted, at least a little bit, to end it that way.

But it wouldn’t have been the right ending. It wouldn’t have been the honest choice. I salute Harper Lee for her bravery and can only hope that if I’m ever faced with a similar choice in one of my novels, that I remember the lesson of To Kill a Mockingbird. Then I’ll know what to do.

Win this book! Besides pontificating, what could be a more fitting response to Banned Books Week than to give away copies of these books? I’m giving these seven books, one per winner, to randomly selected people who share this post on Twitter. Just click the Tweet this! link at the bottom of the post. I will announce the winners on Monday, October 3rd.

If you’re just joining us, here’s the rest of the posts:

September 28, 2011 16:38 UTC

Tags: Banned Books Week, Harper Lee, censorship

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Banned Books Week: Lolita


Lolita

September 24th through October 1st is Banned Books Week. Last year, I blogged my thoughts on book banning. This year, I’ve picked seven books from the ALA’s list of frequently challenged classics, and will explain over the week why those books are awesome. Also, I have a copy of each book, and will be giving them away to seven lucky winners! Read to the bottom for details.

If you’ve been living under a rock: Unless you got an English Lit degree in college, chances are Lolita is the only Vladimir Nabokov novel you can name without looking anything up. It is the story of one Humbert Humbert, an emotionally stunted man in his 40s who falls in love with his landlady’s young daughter. The daughter, Lolita, bears an uncanny resemblance to the one great love of Humbert’s life, the girl he was in love with when he was himself twelve years old but who died. The book is written from Humbert’s unflinchingly honest and self-appraising first person point of view.

Why it has been banned: Come on. The protagonist wants nothing more than to get freaky with a 12 year old girl. In one of the least surprising reactions to a literary work ever, the book was assailed right out of the gate as being lewd, indecent, immoral, and obscene, downright pornographic. It has been challenged ever since. France banned it in 1956, and the commissioners of Marion County, Florida, challenged the book in the county’s public libraries in 2006. How many books can boast a half-century of challenge?

Why that’s dumb: Suggesting that Lolita somehow condones pedophilia is entirely foolish, and anybody who says this to you is basically admitting that they either haven’t read the book, or else is willfully misunderstanding it. The book leaves no ambiguity that Humbert Humbert knows his proclivities are immoral, and he loathes himself for it.

A book whose protagonist is a pedophile is not going to somehow turn readers into pedophiles, any more than a movie like The Blind Side is going to turn me into a football player. Banning the book will do nothing to stop the horrible problem of child sexual abuse. It is worse than a laughable motivation. In thinking that banning a book is going to do any good, society gets to point to such efforts as examples of action being taken while the real problem goes unaddressed. And while it does, real children get hurt.

Neither will banning the book shield children from unpleasant truths: The book’s intentionally uber-literary style likely renders it all but incomprehensible to kids anyway. Unless you’re helping your sheltered child read and understand the almost paranoid level of metaphor used to convey the story, they’re not going to have any idea what it’s really about.

Why this book is awesome: I won’t say this isn’t a difficult book to read. It is, and indeed, parts of it I found difficult and distasteful to read. Which I’m sure was Nabokov’s intention. It isn’t a light and airy place, stepping however fictionally into the mentality of a child abuser. Recently, I saw this quote about the book (source):

Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert is a pedophile, a monster as vile as could possibly be imagined. Yet he still has agency, and his choices—reprehensible as they may be—never fail to provoke a reaction on our parts.

Which, I think, is exactly the point. Nabokov challenges his readers to look at Humbert’s actions, at Humbert’s motivations and the justifications for them, and make a choice. He demands we make a moral judgment. Is this right or wrong? At least for me, answering that question was not difficult. Considerably easier than reading the book itself, anyway.

The book is also awesome simply for its writing. Lolita is a great example of high literary style. I don’t honestly think this sort of writing flies in the modern marketplace (outside of rare counterexamples such as Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union). The writing is dense and difficult—a fact enhanced by Nabokov’s presumption that readers are fluent in English, French, and Latin—and I think few would argue that modern readers are looking for something a little faster to get through. Still, if you’re looking for a book to study for examples of vivid descriptions, spot-on turns of phrase, colorful and evocative metaphors, and other such devices, look no further.

In terms of story structure, it is also a good example of the extended flashback structure, in which the book starts at the story’s chronological end, then jumps back to the beginning, and we catch up from there. It is notoriously difficult to use this structure in conjunction with mysteries, because it’s hard for that opening not to give away too much. Yet, Nabokov does exactly that. Humbert labels himself a murderer in the book’s opening paragraphs, yet the story retains all the mystery it needs to keep us wondering about the murder.

Look. I know I’ll probably catch some heat for putting this book on my list. So be it. One of the jobs of literature is to confront us, both individually and collectively, with the best and worst in ourselves. Only by taking an honest, if difficult, look at ourselves can we move forward. In that light, Lolita is also awesome for having done its part to bring a traditionally hidden, taboo crime out into the light. Pedophilia is still pretty much a taboo subject, but Nabokov is to be praised for having taken a significant and early step to breach that taboo. To the extent that Lolita has done much to bring awareness, discussion, and advocacy about child sexual abuse issues into the public spotlight, the book has left the world a better place. As far as I’m concerned, that counts as awesome.

Win this book! Besides pontificating, what could be a more fitting response to Banned Books Week than to give away copies of these books? I’m giving these seven books, one per winner, to randomly selected people who share this post on Twitter. Just click the Tweet this! link at the bottom of the post. I will announce the winners on Monday, October 3rd.

If you’re just joining us, here’s the rest of the posts:

September 27, 2011 15:37 UTC

Tags: Banned Books Week, Vladimir Nabokov, censorship

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Banned Books Week: Fahrenheit 451


Fahrenheit 451

September 24th through October 1st is Banned Books Week. Last year, I blogged my thoughts on book banning. This year, I’ve picked seven books from the ALA’s list of frequently challenged classics, and will explain over the week why those books are awesome. Also, I have a copy of each book, and will be giving them away to seven lucky winners! Read to the bottom for details.

If you’ve been living under a rock: In a dystopian future of mindless television slaves, where the very act of thinking has been criminalized and firemen have been turned to the task of burning books, once stalwart party-line man Guy Montag meets a girl and has a change of heart.

Why it has been banned: The usual ridiculous reasons such as language ("hell” and “damn” and other such swears that seem laughably mild by modern standards, but weren’t so mild in 1953), but also because the Bible is among the books burned in Bradbury’s dystopia.

Why that’s dumb: Banning this book for swearing is, of course, laughable for exactly the same reasons as for The Catcher in the Rye; kids encounter these words from numerous sources well before they ever see them in a book like this. Saying that it is somehow the job of writers and other artists to put forth a version of the world that is sanitized to everyone’s liking is equally foolish. It is the job of writers and other artists to put forth the world as it is, that we may see it better, because it is the job of each and every one of us to improve the world into what it should be.

Also, no one who has actually read Fahrenheit 451 while paying attention would buy into the notion that Ray Bradbury was advocating burning Bibles. Quite the opposite: Bradbury was showing readers of the Cold War, McCarthy-era ‘50s what the logical extension of that kind of hysterical thought policing would lead. Burning Bibles represents how bad that brand of authoritarianism could get. Bradbury, quite clearly, isn’t in favor of burning any books, religious ones or otherwise.

And also, can I just take a moment to point out the ridiculous irony of attempts to censor a book that is fundamentally about the evils of censorship?

Why this book is awesome: Censorship is an attack on all of us. Each and every one. The rights to think what we like, to express what we think, and to share those ideas are the most sacrosanct and inviolable. There is a reason why the First Amendment is first in the Bill of Rights.

What do I care if someone wants to ban James Joyce’s Ulysses, a book that I will admit to having no interest in and will likely never read? I care, or I should, because if that ban is successful then I am that much closer to being prevented from reading something I do want to read. And I am that much closer to having my own ideas censored.

Fahrenheit 451 is awesome not only because Bradbury takes a stand against censorship, exposing it for the morally bankrupt concept that it is, but because in it Bradbury shows us a vision of what lies at the end of that path, once we start taking steps along it. Don’t take that route, he tells us. You won’t like what you find there.

Win this book! Besides pontificating, what could be a more fitting response to Banned Books Week than to give away copies of these books? I’m giving these seven books, one per winner, to randomly selected people who share this post on Twitter. Just click the Tweet this! link at the bottom of the post. I will announce the winners on Monday, October 3rd.

If you’re just joining us, here’s the rest of the posts:

September 26, 2011 15:54 UTC

Tags: Banned Books Week, Ray Bradbury, censorship

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Banned Books Week: The Catcher in the Rye


The Catcher in the Rye

September 24th through October 1st is Banned Books Week. Last year, I blogged my thoughts on book banning. This year, I’ve picked seven books from the ALA’s list of frequently challenged classics, and will explain over the week why those books are awesome. Also, I have a copy of each book, and will be giving them away to seven lucky winners! Read to the bottom for details.

If you’ve been living under a rock: Angst-ridden teen misfit Holden Caulfield runs away from the intolerable phonies of his boarding school, back to the Big Apple, where he spends a few days having a series of colorful experiences and trying to figure out what life is all about.

Why it has been banned: Mostly, people challenge this book over language (Holden swears a lot), and sexual scenes (like the one where Holden chooses not to have sex with the prostitute?). One of my favorite rationales comes from the Waterloo, IA and Duval County, FL public school libraries, who objected to the book’s “statements defamatory to minorities, God, women, and the disabled.”

Why that’s dumb: Holden Caulfield defames everybody. That’s the point! He’s a kid coming into awareness of the rife hypocrisy of adult society (let’s just be honest here about that), and condemns everybody for it without regard to race, creed, social status, disability, or hair color. Banning the book for, essentially, pointing out how hypocritical everybody is may make the hypocrites who ban it feel momentarily better, but won’t change the underlying fact that they’re still hypocrites. Much as with yesterday’s post on Huckleberry Finn, the whole point of the book is to challenge every one of us to do better. To raise up our ill-formed interiors to match the outer veneer of gentility we project to the world. If we want people to think we’re so good and nice, Salinger’s telling us, oughtn’t we be that way inside and act accordingly? Banning the book is just an expression of denial about the underlying problem.

Oh, and on the swearing thing? Come on. Who are they kidding? There’s no kid alive who doesn’t encounter the F-bomb on the playground or from his or her parents, years and years before finding it in The Catcher in the Rye.

Why this book is awesome: Because being a teenager is hard. A lot of the time, it sucks. The world is a difficult and confusing place to figure out, and knowing that one is on the brink of being expected to function within it as if one knew what the hell was going on can be pretty scary. These fears are, I suspect, pretty much universal to one degree or another among teenagers and yet they are rarely spoken out loud. They are kept inside, private and hidden, while we put our best face forward. But everyone else does the same thing, so the illusion of transparency conspires to make us think that nobody else shares our fears.

The Catcher in the Rye was the first book of any note to give a public voice to those hidden but universal teen fears. Holden Caulfield expresses those fears so clearly, it’s no wonder this is the book that millions of people gravitated to, read and re-read, and bought multiple copies of. In him, we can all find a kindred spirit. To me, that’s awesome.

Win this book! Besides pontificating, what could be a more fitting response to Banned Books Week than to give away copies of these books? I’m giving these seven books, one per winner, to randomly selected people who share this post on Twitter. Just click the Tweet this! link at the bottom of the post. I will announce the winners on Monday, October 3rd.

If you’re just joining us, here’s the rest of the posts:

September 25, 2011 15:40 UTC

Tags: Banned Books Week, J.D. Salinger, censorship

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Banned Books Week: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

September 24th through October 1st is Banned Books Week. Last year, I blogged my thoughts on book banning. This year, I’ve picked seven books from the ALA’s list of frequently challenged classics, and will explain over the week why those books are awesome. Also, I have a copy of each book, and will be giving them away to seven lucky winners! Read to the bottom for details.

If you’ve been living under a rock: Loveable scamp Huck Finn, in a bid to escape from his abusive, alcoholic father, fakes his own death. He runs into an escaped slave, Jim, and together they raft down the Mississippi river to leave their respective pasts behind. The book confronts issues of racism, the difference between legal and moral concepts of what is right, the true meaning of friendship, and the obligation that friendship brings.

Why it has been banned: All manner of reasons. The book—and Twain himself—received a lot of flack when it was initially published simply for the audacious authorial choice to treat a black man like an actual person. In modern times, challenges against this book stem almost entirely from Twain’s use of the word “nigger” within the narrative.

Why that’s dumb: Using the ooh-scary N-word may make people uncomfortable. I grant you that. But come on, that’s kind of the whole point, isn’t it? Twain was writing to confront both personal and institutional racism, and to do so, he chose to accurately reflect the speech of that era. And hey! It worked! Not only did it work in 1884, it’s still working a hundred and twenty-seven years later. And what does that tell us about ourselves?

We all know that people use to throw around that ugly epithet like it was nothing, with no thought or concern to how it made those on the receiving end feel. These days, we are more attuned to how the language we use affects others. Some decry this as being too “PC.” And while I do feel there’s some merit in that view (we can’t put the sole burden for how we feel about everything onto those around us; we are responsible for our own reactions), I also view the fact that people do object to the N-word as a fundamentally good sign. It points towards an increasing level of empathy for others across society as a whole, and that can only be a good thing.

But what, then, should we do with that empathetic feeling that recoils at hurting others through the use of racial slurs? Banning the slurs themselves—which is the only thing attempts to take Huckleberry Finn out of classrooms amounts to—does nothing at all about the current of racism that still flows through parts of our society. Wouldn’t it be more useful to confront the racism itself? Banning a book that is itself confronting racism seems to me entirely and Quixotically counterproductive.

Why this book is awesome: I have written critically about this book before, and I stand by everything I wrote then. But for all its faults, the book remains awesome largely for the exact same reasons that have kept it, according to the American Library Association, among the top-20 most frequently challenged books of the past two decades. It is awesome for what it forces us to confront in ourselves.

As a piece of writing, it is also awesome for its lyricism and poetry. For the masterful way Twain captures the unique voices and dialects of people living up and down Old Man River. If you are a lover of language, if the very sound of words in their infinite yet harmonious combinations stirs something within you, this book will speak to you from across the centuries as a kindred spirit.

Win this book! Besides pontificating, what could be a more fitting response to Banned Books Week than to give away copies of these books? I’m giving these seven books, one per winner, to randomly selected people who share this post on Twitter. Just click the Tweet this! link at the bottom of the post. I will announce the winners on Monday, October 3rd.

Here’s what’s coming up for the rest of the week:

September 24, 2011 18:16 UTC

Tags: Banned Books Week, Mark Twain, censorship

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My Friend the Book Doctor

Today I am happy to welcome Nathan Everett to the blog. Nathan is a fellow writer and enthusiast of printing history and technology. He is presently on a combination book-and-blog tour to promote his newest book, The Gutenberg Rubric. I remember my reaction, when Nathan first told me about this idea for a new thriller he was planning. It was pretty much, “You had me at Gutenberg.” It’s a great story, and probably the most cultured and literate thriller you’re likely to encounter. I was honored to give Nathan feedback on his early draft, and only wish I was half so clever myself to have thought up the utterly brilliant rite-of-passage trial Keith Drucker must face in the middle of the plot. Without further ado, here’s Nathan:


I was stumped, frustrated, and ready for the first time in my life to simply give up on a book I’d started writing.

I’d decided to approach this book differently from others I’d written and after nearly a year of research and note-taking, I sat down to write in a deliberate and structured manner, taking my time over each sentence. Eight months and 40,000 words later, I hated it. My carefully crafted words were not conveying the story that I had in my head. What was worse, I didn’t know how to fix it. It looked like The Gutenberg Rubric was going to be no more than a good idea that never saw the light of day. Instead of just chucking it, though, I took Jason up on an offer to take a look at it.

Good decision.

A week later, I received a carefully marked-up copy of the manuscript with another 5 pages of notes attached at the end. Jason was complimentary about the storyline and intrigue. But…

“While you’re doing a good job so far of creating a page-turner intrigue, I do feel that the motivations of all the players aren’t clear enough,” Jason said. That has always been difficult for me as I find myself falling into the same writing trap that many writers do: Characters do things because I want them to, not because they are motivated to do so or forced by circumstances to do so. Essentially, that meant that I had not developed my characters sufficiently to let them make their own decisions. As usual, once I remedied that situation, the characters took over the story. Even though it did not go exactly where I originally intended it to go, the story was better for it.

“…along with that legend, there must be theories and speculation—as well as a consensus within the guild—as to what they think is in it…. I mean, if everybody thinks that the Other Book just contains Gutenberg’s secret recipe for Spaghetti Bolognaise, then there’s a problem,” Jason continued. Ah. That’s what the real problem is with thrillers in general and mine specifically. What is it that is at risk? In over half the thrillers I’ve ever read, the problem would have been avoided entirely if the hero had given up the search. The bad guys are always following the good guys, being too dumb to figure out the puzzle on their own. The hero ends up leading the villain right to the treasure. I had to come up with something that was more dangerous if they did not pursue it than it was if they did.

“Keith & Maddie’s relationship needs to be further along at the start of the novel.” Well, that makes sense, and when it comes down to it, I’m amazed that the heroes in many thrillers risk their lives to protect a prospective mate that they’ve known for only a day. Even Jason Bourne falls prey to this. If Keith and Maddie are going to trust each other as much as they do, they have to have a relationship that has already progressed to the point of being pretty serious, even if it developed rapidly.

“Steal his shoes,” Jason said in one of his character development blog-posts about that time, and we talked about that as well. I had to deal with the fact that it was too easy for both my hero and my villain. They didn’t really have to work to be successful. They didn’t have to overcome any set-backs. They were entirely too competent and things came too easily. Once I changed my story so that Keith gets seriously injured in an explosion and has to depend on other people to dress his wounds, give him pain pills, and drive him around, the task of tracking down the mythical work of Gutenberg became much more difficult.

“And finally, I think you should re-visit the interleaving of the present- and past-storylines.” Well that was a real problem I had to deal with, and the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize the way I had handled the historic aspect was absurd. In the original draft, I had attempted to intersperse a historic chapter every few chapters that tracked what had happened to the library of manuscripts over the centuries. What I finally figured out was that all the pseudo-history I had written was, in fact, just research that I needed to know in order to write the story but that the reader not only didn’t need, but wouldn’t be interested in. This was a real problem since nearly half of the 40,000-word manuscript was this back-story. And some of it was stuff I really loved. I’d been so diligent in creating a plausible method to get [spoiler redacted] around the Mediterranean that was consistent with recorded history and really could have happened. But the truth was that it didn’t fit in the action of the story. (Maybe it is another book by itself.) It didn’t fit with the concept of a thriller. It slowed things down. It just had to go.

I put the first draft away, did another two months of research and outlining, and on November 1 sat down to write. I finished the 80,000-word novel in 30 days. It won second place in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Competition and now I’m on an author tour around the country with a novel I’m truly proud of.

Thanks for all your help, Jason.


You’re quite welcome, Nathan. It was a pleasure to read your book. May you sell out your stock, and may the road rise to meet your feet. Pick up a copy on Amazon, and follow the rest of Nathan’s book-and-blog tour at The Rubricant or on Twitter.

September 06, 2011 16:21 UTC

Tags: Nathan Everett, The Gutenberg Rubric, book tour, testimonial, thriller

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