Banned Books Week, A Reflection


The American Library Association has been celebrating Banned Books Week in the last full week of September since 1982. The intent of the week is to celebrate the freedom to read, and to recognize those books challenged by various interest groups and those authors persecuted for their writings.
I grew up understanding the freedom that came with reading, but I never fully appreciated that freedom until I became an actual reader. In primary school, I would go dutifully to the library once a week with my classmates. The library in my school was a long room, crowded with shelves and tables. It had knooks and corners where you could hide from the teacher and the librarian, and pull books out onto the floor and look them over—as long as you didn’t get caught. Our librarian was something of a tyrant when it came to handling books, and God help you if you mistreated a book, spoke above a whisper, or laughed out loud during library time. The nearest thing in my experience to the library at that age was the local United church where my mother dragged me and my siblings. The only difference was that after a while we stopped going to church.
Funnily enough, I didn’t fully appreciate the places books could take me until after I lost my sight at age ten. As a blind kid, I suddenly didn’t have access to books in the same way, so being able to read took on a whole different meaning.
The first time I heard about books or authors being banned in other countries, I was shocked. I think that was Solzhenitsyn. When I learned that books such as Huck Finn and Lord of the Flies had been banned at various points I was still shocked, but more appalled that the banning of books could happen in North America. At some point in there I read Farron Height 451. That was an eye-opener.
The impulse to ban or to challenge books is one that goes back a long way, and it came home to me most poignantly as I began to study children’s literature. Surprise, surprise, many people in the nineteenth century didn’t want children reading Grimms’ fairy tales. Too violent, too explicit, and too gruesome for young minds. The rational moralists of the late eighteen century in England, led by such writers as Maria Edgeworth, had particular things in mind for young readers. Edgeworth’s The Parent’s Assistant, for example, included stories for kids that privileged Christian and middle-class values, and you’ve never seen the words industry and honesty appear more frequently in any text.
As a young parent with enough education to do some damage, I began to determine early on the sorts of books my kids should read. The Hobbit, The Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh, Black Beauty, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe were only a few of the books I was egar to introduce to my kids. My mother was complicit in my literacy campaign. She bought endless numbers of hardcover classics as birthday and Christmas presents. Don’t get me wrong. I always appreciated my mother’s desire to support my kids’ reading, but I was quickly learning that kids don’t always share the adult perspective on reading, or even on the best books. For one thing, what if your kid just doesn’t like to read? I was reminded forcibly of my own attitude towards books and libraries as a kid, so I quickly tried to adjust my approach with my own children.
I decided the best thing to do was to read with my kids, and not to push them in any particular direction. I think I made that decision after getting part way through Black Beauty with my youngest. She freaked out when Ginger, the horse, died. I had the same experience with my eldest reading a Children’s Classic version of David Copperfield. She cried at the treatment David received from his stepfather. We never finished reading those books.
In 1999, my kids’ mom and I had a heated discussion about this new book making its way around the school. It was something about witches and wizards. I knew nothing about it, but I agreed to read the book first, before letting the kids read it. That was my first experience of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
I have done my best to read the books my kids are reading ever since. That’s included stuff they had to read for school, such as The Kite Runner and Life of Pi, and later, those books my kids said I should read—because they’re good, and you would like them—such as The Fault in Our Stars and Gone Girl.
As a parent and teacher, I have always encouraged my kids and students to read critically—to read, think, and talk about books. You can decide what books you think are best for kids, but they usually have ideas of their own. What sort of message do you send a kid when you tell that kid he or she can’t read Harry Potter or Captain Underpants? If you don’t want a child to read something, ask yourself why, and then read the book—and by read, I mean read critically and deliberately. Too many adults approach books and information with enough preconceptions that it’s a wonder anything gets communicated at all. And kids who are told some books are wrong, bad, or not worth reading will carry that attitude into their adult reading—or, they will just read the books you don’t want them to read anyway.
Some books are bad. Some books aren’t’ worth reading. Some books offer political or subversive messages. But don’t blame books. It’s people who ban books. Its people who decide what books to challenge and what should or shouldn’t appear in school libraries. And it’s people with a vested interest in maintaining their own political or religious ideologies who represent the greatest threat to the freedom of information and the right to choose.

Le Guin, An Author for a Lifetime


The National Book foundation in America recently awarded Ursula K. Le Guin its Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. A prestigious award for an outstanding author. But Le Guin’s books and short stories speak for themselves.
Le Guin is one of those authors I discovered early in my reading life. I was already a Tolkien geek by the age of eleven, and I was so new to fantasy that I had no idea another author could transport me the way Tolkien could.
The first book I read by Le Guin was The Tombs of Atuan. I think I was thirteen, blinded in a car accident two years before, and desperately trying to adjust to life at my old school. Junior high constitutes a particular kind of hell for many kids, but mine was a hell defined by being the only blind kid in a regular, inner city school. These were kids I had known my whole life, kids I had gone to school with for five years, and who now alternatively felt sorry for me, ignored me, or teased me. The teachers were helpful and well meaning, but intervening on behalf of the blind kid in the class only made my situation worse.
Before I started getting out much on my own, my dad would sometimes drive me downtown to the Materials Resource Centre. This was the library/resource centre that produced all the stuff those few blind kids going to public school in the city needed in order to function. They provided books on tape, both textbooks and novels. They reproduced math texts in braille, and they supplied tape recorders and brailers and everything else we needed to function in a regular school.
The head librarian at the MRC was named Leslie Aiken, and I think she was please to discover a kid so eager to read. She never saw the angry, troublesome side of my character, at least not early on, and she always recommended new books and authors for me to read.
It was Leslie who introduced me to Le Guin. She gave me The Tombs of Atuan, and told me since I liked Tolkien, I might like Le Guin. Understating the case, to be sure. My imagination was ravenous for more after reading and rereading Tolkien.
The Tombs of Atuan is actually the second book in Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle, but at the time, I didn’t care. I read the book, following Arha/Tenar, the high priestess, down into the tombs beneath the Place, and, oddly enough, I began to learn something about myself. I had enough awareness at the time to realize the tombs could be read as a kind of metaphor, although I don’t know that I knew the word yet. I had my own demons crawling around the labyrinth of my own damaged psyche at the time, and somehow experiencing Arha reclaiming her name and meeting Ged, the wizard in search of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, helped me to begin thinking about those things that were turning me into an angry adolescent.
I haven’t read the Earthsea cycle for a couple of years, but I intend to read it again this winter. Le Guin is a challenging author, dence with character, inventive in her use of landscape, devastatingly clear in description, and sometimes more cerebral than I like. And I’ve returned to her again and again over the years. The Tombs of Atuan appears in a course I teach by distance, and I even taught The Left Hand of Darkness to a first-year class. That was an experience of another kind, which I don’t think I would repeat. I have no real desire to teach more of Le Guin; I just love reading her books. She will always have a place on my literary map, and I will always first remember meeting a scared and angry girl, and a strange, inscrutable wizard in the dark beneath the tombs.

The School Year, A Force of Nature


As an undergrad, I was a terrible student. I left things until the last minute, I wheedled extensions on assignments, and I had bad study habits. Maybe I was just a student.
For years, first as a kid going to public school, then at the university, and later as a parent and a teacher, September has always meant the beginning of the year. New Years has never been the beginning; it’s only halfway. The real start of the year has always been the fall.
September has become a threshold in my subconscious, characterized by anxiety, anticipation, nervous excitement, and nostalgia. It’s such a weird month. The school year is a force of nature, rising from the remains of summer to drag students and parents and teachers alike down the fall and through the winter. She inexorably plows through holidays, good days and bad, only lessening her grip with the end of exams in April, until, finally, worn out and fading, she explodes into fragments with the arrival of graduation and summer holidays.
Every August, my kids would shop for school supplies with their mom, while I found backpacks and tried figuring out lunches my kids wouldn’t hate. But before kids and teaching, I was a weird, half-terrified undergrad at university, in awe of both the campus and my professors. These were people who knew more than I could ever hope to understand, who evaluated me with an unnerving objectivity, and who I could barely bring myself to address.
In my third year, I took a children’s literature course during the spring term with Jon Stott. He was then around the age I am now—short, a little round, and full of a restless energy. The class met in the Humanities Building, and I sat at a table near the door—my preferred seat. Professor Stott would pace up and down the room, lecturing as he walked, never relying on notes, and only stopping to occasionally write on the board. Back in those days, I used a slate and stylus for note taking, and it struck me from almost the first day that he didn’t seem fazed to have a blind student in his class. I had become used to professors not quite knowing what to do with me. They were generally helpful and understanding, but I couldn’t help sensing their bemusement, as though they had discovered a talking, brightly exotic reptile in their classroom.
Professor Stott came up to me right away and asked what he could do to help, and to come and talk to him if there was a problem. That in itself was unusual.
I took children’s literature during spring session because I was short an English course, and by third year I was becoming irritatingly superior as a student. Fortunately for me, I remembered that a measure of humility wasn’t such a bad thing when it came to reading. I discovered books in that class I’d never heard of, and I read books I’d known of for years but thought myself too intellectual to bother with. Meeting gilly Hopkins was a revelation. Reading Anne of Green Gables for the first time was a surprise. Wasn’t it a girl’s book? And who the hell was Aslan?
I learned how to ask questions in that class, and I learned to be less ashamed of how much I didn’t know. I had read a smattering of children’s books, and I always loved what I read. But I had never thought about kid’s books as being important in the same way as adult books. Professor Stott showed me differently. He talked about Gilly, Anne, and Bilbo as though they were real people. He brought them out from the page and took them seriously. And then he forced us back to the books—to read and read again, and not just make stuff up when we talked about the books.
I was lucky that spring. Lucky to meet a professor who was not only a skilled teacher but a skilled reader. He had a passion I couldn’t ignore, and he opened up a world of books that I’ve been exploring ever since. And luckier still, that spring I was open to something new and open to being taught. I was able to say what I thought in that class, and I was taken seriously. The experience enabled me to take on kid’s books as something to love, to read, reread, and wrestle with, for myself, with my kids, and in the classroom.

Gollum, the Evolution of a character


A character we won’t see in this December’s release of The Battle of Five Armies, the third in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, is Gollum. His absence in The Desolation of Smaug was somewhat overshadowed by the appearance of Smoug, the dragon, played brilliantly by Benedict Cumberbatch, but I still missed him.
Many readers of Tolkien aren’t familiar with the evolution of Gollum’s character, from his first appearance in the 1937 edition of The Hobbit and through its subsequent revisions while Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings. From both the standpoint of writing and of fiction, Gollum is possibly one of Tolkien’s most dynamic characters, but he’s also one that evolves from a funny little creature who lives in the dark to a demonic ogre with hobbit ancestors who is maddened by the desire for the One Ring.
Jackson’s The Unexpected Journey (2012) brings Bilbo to the roots of the mountain, where he encounters Gollum, terrifyingly portrayed by Andy Serkis. The two engage in a riddle competition, one of the most poignantly drawn battles of wits in children’s literature. During their encounter, Gollum has moments where a different personality intrudes into his consciousness. He isn’t just talking to himself; he has two distinct personalities.
Don’t get me wrong. I love this scene from the movie. But the question becomes, why is Jackson portraying Gollum in this manner? While Andy Serkis’s performance of Gollum in An Unexpected Journey surpasses even that of his role in Jackson’s Two Towers and Return of the King, in some ways it’s a less accurate portrayal of the character.
The apparent split in Gollum’s character is the separation between the Smeagol and Gollum halves, those halves called Slinker and Stinker by Sam Gamgee in The Two Towers. These two halves of Gollum’s character say much about his obsessive desire for the ring, but Tolkien only develops this split during the writing of LOTR. Andy Serkis’s representation of Gollum in The Unexpected Journey has his character divided during his first encounter with Bilbo. Gollum appears to suffer what the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental Disorder) calls dissociative identity disorder. Gollum is an ogre, a pitiable one, but he isn’t in need of therapy. The doubling of character, and even setting, is something that happens throughout LOTR. Frodo and Sam, Bilbo and Frodo, Merry and Pippin, Gandalf and Saruman, Denethor and Theoden, Aragorn and Faramir, Aragorn and the Black riders all suggest contrasts in character and motivation. The doubling of Gollum’s character is more complex and more poignantly drawn than many others, and Tolkine uses it to further underscore the power of the ring to corrupt and destroy.
In Tolkien’s the Hobbit, Gollum talks to himself, or more accurately he talks to his Precious, but who wouldn’t, being stuck at the utmost bottom of a mountain for five hundred years. But the divide in Gollum’s character doesn’t occur here. His character only splits later in LOTR, once Gandalf recounts Gollum’s history, and after Frodo has exacted the promise from Gollum to keep ‘the precious’ out of the hands of the enemy.
cory Olsen, AKA the Tolkien Professor, claims that Gollum of the second edition of The Hobbit is the Gollum of LOTR. He says, in his excellent book, Exploring J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit:
“Thus, though the story of Bilbo and Gollum’s meeting was published nearly twenty years before The Fellowship of the Ring, I think it is fair to say that the Gollum in The Hobbit, as it now stands, is actually based on the Gollum of The Lord of the Rings.”
If this is true of Tolkien’s Hobbit, then it is equally true of Jackson’s film. If anything, it’s more so. Jackson is clearly capitalizing on Serkis’s performance, but it does the character something of a disservice as it leads movie-watchers to make certain assumptions about Gollum’s character and his development in Tolkien’s legendarium. Bear this in mind next time you watch any of the films.
Below, you can find a number of quotations, taken from John D. Rateliff’s The History of The Hobbit. The parenthetical comments are mine. Rateliff arranges parallel scenes from the first and second editions of chapter five, Riddles in the Dark, that clearly demonstrate the changes to Gollum’s character. This book is a necessity for anyone interested in the evolution of Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Enjoy.
First edition, 1937
Second edition, 1951
Third edition, 1966
First Ed.
“Deep down here by the dark water lived old Gollum. I don’t know where he came from or who or what he was. He was Gollum – as dark as darkness, except for two big round pale eyes.”
Second Ed.
Deep down here by the dark water lived old Gollum, a small slimy creature. I don’t know where he came from, nor who or what he was. He was Gollum – as dark as darkness, except for two big round pale eyes in his thin face.”
(Inserting the word “small” into this passage was Tolkien’s way of telling illustrators that Gollum was hobbit-sized, and not a troll-sized ogre.)
First Ed.
”Does it guess easy? It must have a competition with us, my precious! If precious asks, and it doesn’t answer, we eats it, my preciousss. If it asks us, and we doesn’t answer, then we gives it a present! Gollum!”
Second Ed.
”Does it guess easy? It must have a competition with us, my preciouss! If precious asks, and it doesn’t answer, we eats it, my preciousss. If it asks us, and we doesn’t answer, then we does what it wants, eh? We shows it the way out, yes!”
(The revised passage helps to clarify Gollum’s intent. The ring as Gollum’s birthday present becomes Bilbo’s cover-story to Gandalf and the dwarves, and what he sets down in his memoir.)
First Ed.
“Help me to get out of these places<” said Bilbo.
To this Gollum agreed, as he had to if he wasn’t to cheat, though he would have very much liked to have just tasted what Bilbo was like. Still he had lost the game …”
Second Ed.
Well?” he said. ”What about your promise? I want to go. you must show me the way.”
”Did we say so, precious? Show the nassty little Baggins the way out, yes, yes. But what has it got in its pocketses, eh? Not string, precious, but not nothing. Oh no! gollum!”
”Never you mind,” said Bilbo. ”A promise is a promise.”
”Cross it is, impatient, precious,” hissed Gollum. ”But it must wait, yes it must. We can’t go up the tunnels so hasty. We must go and get some things first, yes, things to help us.”
”Well, hurry up!” said Bilbo, relieved to think of Gollum going away. He thought he was just making an excuse and did not mean to come back. What was Gollum talking about? What useful thing could he keep out on the dark lake? But he was wrong. Gollum did mean to come back. He was angry now and hungry. And he was a miserable wicked creature, and already he had a plan.
(Here Gollum becomes the morally corrupt, wicked creature of LOTR, and the recognizable character of Jackson’s films.)
Olsen, corey. Exploring J. R. R. Tolkine’s The Hobbit. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.
Rateliff, John D. ed. The History of The Hobbit. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2011.

Is Listening to an Audio Book Still Reading?


Somebody asked the question on Twitter recently, is listening to an audio book still reading? I appreciated the question. My first response is an emphatic, yes. But the question itself raises other questions around accesibility and literacy that are, I think, worth asking. But perhaps later.
For now, think of your favourite book. Book lovers are lovers of books—not just the stories they discover, but lovers of the books they hold in their hands—the ones they take to bed, the ones they take on the bus, and the ones they read at every opportunity. Many people have an intense, physical relationship with their favourite books, something which I’ve always envied.
I remember spending time in libraries as a kid. They were quiet places where you never wanted to fool around. Sometimes I never got further than staring at the shelves—those rows upon rows of books. And sometimes I would get dizzy from looking at the endless spines until I finally pulled one down to leaf through its pages.
I’ve been totally blind since the age of ten, but I still have a similar experience inside a library today. I stand at a shelf and run my hand over the books, and I recapture that early sense of wonder at the endless stories and wealth of information that would take more than a lifetime to absorb. But my experience doesn’t end there. All of these books, all of this information is so much paper that I can’t access without the help of technology or another person.
Which brings me back to my opening question. Is listening to an audio book still reading?
Again, I would answer with an emphatic, yes. But I would add something else. Books are no more defined by their physicality than I am defined by my blindness. A recorded book is still a book; a Kindle book is still a book.
According to a friend of mine, as technologies go, a book is difficult to beat. They are affordable, easily stashed in a bag or coat pocket, and they always work. On the other hand, a book is more than just its physical pages. How do I know? Because a book continues to occupy your inner landscape long after you’ve read it, and long after you’ve returned it to the library or lost it in a move. Does how it get there matter?
One of the first books I read as a newly blinded ten-year-old was on an old open reel tape recorder. That was J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. These days, I download audio books from Audible and talking books from the CNIB Library. I get books from the Internet, and I download books to my IPad from Kindle. Suffice it to say that I’m operating on a number of electronic platforms.
As an instructor at a university, I use all of these formats in the classroom. And in every class I make sure somebody reads out loud from whatever we are studying. Ask yourself this, is being read to still reading?
People read audio books for many reasons. they read them while they drive, while they cook, or while they walk. I read audio books because I have to, and that has become one of the ways I define myself—as a reader. And reading is reading, however you manage it.

Summer Reading: Be a Literary Tourist


Summertime is a time to read—a time to read new books, reread old books, or finally get to that series you’ve been wanting to read for months. You can travel to half-imagined places, and never get stuck in an airport.
Summer reading comes with a freedom that I don’t experience at any other time of year. Since I teach children’s literature at a university, much of my reading during the fall and winter months is dedicated to kid’s and young adult books. But now it’s July. That means I can read what I want. My MP3 player is my mini-library, so I read where ever I am—and whatever I want.
Two summers ago I decided to read everything in the Dune series by Frank Herbert. I read the original six books by Herbert, and then I read the rest of the Dune saga written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. It was bliss. I told someone at the university what I did, and he thought it was such a good idea that he read everything by Philip K. Dick the next summer.
I spent part of last summer reading Bernard Cornwell’s The Warrior Chronicles, and I ended August with Stephen King’s Under the Dome. No offense to Stephen King fans, but I thought the ending ridiculous. Far too much like The Squire of gothos in Star Trek, the Original series.
Here are some of my picks for this summer:
Margaret Atwood, The MaddAddam Trilogy
Why haven’t I read this series? I’ve mostly been avoiding it up to now. All part of my Atwood eversion.
Trudi Canavan, The High Lord
I’ve read the first two in the trilogy, and I want to finish it. The series has a slower pace than most, but I highly recommend it.
Robert Galbraith, The Silk Worm
In case you didn’t know, this is J. K. Rowling. I read The Cuckoo’s Calling, the first of the Cormoran Strike books. The big reveal at the end was painfully convoluted, but I still liked the book.
Guy Gavriel Kay, The River of Stars
I’ve read one of Kay’s books every summer for several years now. It’s something of a tradition, so I’m happy to revisit Kay’s world. The River of Stars follows Under heaven, which I read last summer.
There are some of my summer picks. Where ever you are this summer, whatever you are doing, remember to pack a book. And if you read something good, then convince your friends to read it too. Books change people’s lives, so never deny someone the possibility of a new life by keeping your best reads to yourself. And, of course, enjoy.