Monday, May 3, 2010

Love-hate reading relationships

An exchange in the comments of the last post got me thinking about a scene in Gone with the Wind, and I found myself almost ashamed to tell the Internet that I have any positive feelings toward that novel. There's no question that it's a deeply problematic text, portraying most of its enslaved characters as loving but lesser members of the families that enslave them, and indicting them when they don't immediately produce exactly the help the white characters need. Why should Prissy know anything about birthing babies?

But even realizing all of the above, I developed some affection for GWTW when I first encountered it at age twelve. I admired Scarlett's independence and Melanie's deceptive strength, and I thought Rhett was hilarious. It didn't make me root for the Confederacy, but I was willing to suspend my outrage and root, just a little, for these particular Confederates.

Plenty of books that are beloved for good reasons also raise objections for good reasons. Both The Indian in the Cupboard and the Little House books have faced criticism for their portrayals of American Indians, for example, and my pretty little head can't even begin to count all the sexist stories out there. And then there are the offensive throwaway lines, the stereotypical "Chinaman" in And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (later changed), the German Jew selling good old Anne the dye that turns her hair green.

Where do we draw the line? Perhaps more importantly, how do we reconcile the good with the bad? I think my answer is that if I'm reading for myself, I just need to read critically; if I'm sharing a book with a child, I need to remark upon what's wrong with it and let the child ask questions. I've also on occasion skipped or changed a line when reading aloud, but I'm not sure how I feel about that. Actually, I'm not sure how I feel about any of the above; these questions, though not new ones, are far from rhetorical. If any of you have your own answers, I'd be curious to hear them.


  1. Page 6 of this book freaked me out. It's a primer for German children mixing propoganda with traditional nursery rhymes, including one that my uncle taught me long, long ago.

    Long story short, I think it's a matter of context as much as content. It depends on (a) who's reading the book (b) the climate in which the book is being read and (c) whether the reader has the freedom to speak out.

  2. Agreed. I think kids can look at books academically and examine what might be wrong with them just as well as we can; they just need the invitation to do so. I'd be much more concerned about a child who read a book that expressed racist views if the child weren't getting any messages to contradict those views.