Celebrate Banned Books Week.
I’m going to shock you. This year I am in favor of book banning.
Yes, I want to ban.
I know, I know, you were expecting my usual response to Banned Books Week: a review of a banned ghost novel and an exhortation to be subversive and read something banned. In the past I extolled the virtues of Beloved, The Lovely Bones, and The Headless Cupid. All banned books.
But today, I want to jump on the banned bookwagon and propose we ban not just a book, but an entire series. And no, it’s not The Hunger Game series or His Dark Materials, which others have proposed. I want to ban Great Illustrated Classics.
No, it’s not time to have your eyes examined. Or maybe you do if you’re still seeing those little green men…
Where do I get off, proposing this ban? I, who have been a staunch supporter of a free press?
Here’s my problem. Great Illustrated Classics appropriates authors’ works, strips them of voice and tone and style, then drops in some cute illustrations and packages these books as legitimate classics. It’s akin to dumping a vintage wine down the drain, refilling the bottle with sugared grape-flavored water and labeling it 1947 Cheval Blanc. The bottle is beautiful, but would you serve the contents to your guests?
Case in point. Here’s one of my very favorite character sketches ever. It’s from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer:
“Shortly Tom came upon the juvenile pariah of the village, Huckleberry Finn, son of the town drunkard. Huckleberry was cordially hated and dreaded by all the mothers of the town, because he was idle and lawless and vulgar and bad — and because all their children admired him so, and delighted in his forbidden society, and wished they dared to be like him. Tom was like the rest of the respectable boys, in that he envied Huckleberry his gaudy outcast condition, and was under strict orders not to play with him. So he played with him every time he got a chance. Huckleberry was always dressed in the cast-off clothes of full-grown men, and they were in perennial bloom and fluttering with rags. His hat was a vast ruin with a wide crescent lopped out of its brim; his coat, when he wore one, hung nearly to his heels and had the rearward buttons far down the back; but one suspender supported his trousers; the seat of the trousers bagged low and contained nothing, the fringed legs dragged in the dirt when not rolled up.
Huckleberry came and went, at his own free will. He slept on doorsteps in fine weather and in empty hogsheads in wet; he did not have to go to school or to church, or call any being master or obey anybody; he could go fishing or swimming when and where he chose, and stay as long as it suited him; nobody forbade him to fight; he could sit up as late as he pleased; he was always the first boy that went barefoot in the spring and the last to resume leather in the fall; he never had to wash, nor put on clean clothes; he could swear wonderfully. In a word, everything that goes to make life precious that boy had. So thought every harassed, hampered, respectable boy in St. Petersburg.”
Beautiful, isn’t it? And bursting with pathos and irony. I often have students write an entire essay on this one passage.There’s that much good stuff.
Here’s the same passage in the Great Illustrated Classics version:
“As he neared the school, he came upon Huckleberry Finn. Huck was the son of the town drunkard and was free to come and go as he pleased. He was always dressed in cast off clothes and incredible rags. He slept in doorways or empty barns and never had to go to school or church. In short, Huck was the envy of every boy in town, but he was treated as an outcast by their mothers.”
Yuck! Gone is Mark Twain’s majesty of language. Where are the metaphors? The humor? The inherent irony in the way the boys view Huck’s life and the reality of Huck’s existence?
Gone and gone. The problem is that once children swallow this sugared concoction, they will resist the more challenging masterwork. And that will be a shame.
Okay, I know we won’t be able to ban Great Illustrated Classics for its unethical desolation of a true classic, but we could always boycott it, right?
What do you think? Is it right to dumb down an author’s work?