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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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Posted by Lexi Revellian on September 24, 2011 19:39 UTC

The “ooh-scary N-word” - yes, and it’s odd that the politically-correct have chosen to give this word such power. In my mother’s day “nigger brown” was a colour, and no one meant any harm by it. There were no black people in Bournemouth back then. Race was hardly an issue.

As a woman, I could choose to make a fuss about the C-word. But on the whole, I’ll pass.

Posted by Ken Broad on September 27, 2011 02:06 UTC

This was one of the best books I ever read in High School! I was luck enough to be in the right class in the right year to get to read it before some politically correct book policeman noticed and pulled it. Thanks to Mrs Webb for having the courage to give it to us.

Posted by Rachel Huset on November 23, 2011 01:38 UTC

This book is a classic piece of literature. It is a great novel for high school students not only to be exposed to the language of the time period, but to realize what the culture was like during this time period.

The use of the “N” word is not meant to harm or offend anyone, but it is merely the way that people spoke during this time. We cannot change what people did in the past, but we can learn from them. This is a learning tool for many people and especially for high school students.

I just got done reading this book and I throughly enjoyed the story. Not only was it entertaining, but it taught valuable lessons and morals.

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