14 Sep 2014
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Ban This Column. Please!

Trying to remove “Prep” and “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” from Emmaus High School’s summer reading list is a sure-fire way to improve their readership.

Ban This Column. Please! Ban This Column. Please! Ban This Column. Please!

If I ever write a book, my first promotional act will be to ask some group to ban it. Publicly. Preferably at a well-attended school board meeting.

It would be icing on the cake if it also chose to burn copies in the town square – I’d give it a discount price on the hard cover.

Few things get people more excited about a book than someone trying to stop them from reading it.

“Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie would likely have wound up in the remainder bins of bookstores had not Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa on Rushdie for writing a novel that some claimed was blasphemous to Islam. Yes, Rushdie had to go into hiding under constant threat of death but his book remains stocked, read and discussed, and I bet his royalties are pretty good. I know authors who might consider that a fair trade.

Which is a long way of saying the parents who want “Prep” and “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” removed from the Emmaus High School summer reading list probably succeeded in getting more people to read the books than would have if they remained on the reading list for 20 years.

Since those parents challenged the books, the school district is reviewing them to see if they should be kept on the list. Emmaus students started a petition to keep the books there and have 226 signatures last I checked.

First, in defense of the parents who want them removed, let’s admit that questioning whether a book should be on a school’s recommended reading list doesn’t make you a Nazi book burner.

All but the absolutists among us would draw the line at certain books for some ages of children and teens. I’d question the judgment of any district that wanted to put “Mein Kampf” or “The Story of O” on a reading list for fifth-graders, for example. Most of us just differ on where to draw the line.

I borrowed copies of “Prep” by Curtis Sittenfeld and “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” by Tom Wolfe from the Emmaus Public Library, thinking maybe I could just find the offending passages by looking for pages that were dog-eared. Alas, no luck. I had to read the whole books. 

“Prep” is a generally well-written, if sometimes plodding, coming-of-age story, full of nuances and complexity, of teenage angst and discovery. There is some sex, about three-quarters of the way through the 406-page book, but it was by no means a ringing endorsement of promiscuity. The affair ends rather badly for the heroine.  

I’m assuming that “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” is on the reading list to give students a sense of the extreme drug culture and counterculture movements of the 1960s. It turns out that reading about other people’s drug trips is a bit like listening to other people’s dreams – not all that interesting.

Anybody who can wade through that 414-page travelogue of actual travels and hallucinatory trips should be entitled to a bit of salaciousness. It’s perhaps good for portraying the hippie culture and spirit of the times but the disjointed descriptions quickly grow tiresome.

Those readers who are mature enough and patient enough to make it through both books are probably mature enough to handle the sex scenes in “Prep” and the in “Acid Test.” Hint: If a student is looking for salacious sex scenes there are many easier reads out there.

If I were making the decision on the fate of the books, I might put them on a list for readers 10th grade and up, preferably in a context where they can be discussed in class. 

But nobody should judge a book by a few pages. The John Steinbeck classic “The Grapes of Wrath” ends with a desperately poor Oklahoma woman during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s letting a starving stranger nurse from her breasts after her baby was stillborn. Now that might seem shocking if you haven’t read the rest of the 619-page book so you understand how the desperate family got to that point.

It took me a couple of weeks to read both “Prep” and “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” I’m hoping nobody tries to get rid of Tolstoy’s massive epic “War and Peace.” I don’t have that kind of time. 

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