An Intellectual Freedom Book Talk
This book talk is by a public librarian, for an audience of school librarians. One thing we all have in common is the love of intellectual freedom; many of us celebrate Banned Books Week every year. Book talks are a natural part of the celebration, and the possible approaches are endless:
But this morning, I'd like to take a different tack. Usually, when we say "intellectual freedom," we think of fighting censorship. Censorship is one obvious threat to intellectual freedom, but a worse one may be disuse. What could intellectual freedom mean to people who don't think?
Most young people in this country know that the harder you work at sports, the better you get, and the more fun you have. Do they know that the same holds true for thinking?
Thinking, like sports, can be difficult. Consider the case of Charles Darwin. He was not a brilliant student; the classical curriculum for English gentlemen of the early 19th century emphasized Latin and Greek; Darwin could not learn languages, and preferred to ramble about the countryside, collecting minerals or observing insects and birds. He recalled being "publicly rebuked by the head-master, Dr. Butler, for thus wasting [his] time on such useless subjects. . . ." His father, a successful doctor, saw no value in geology, natural sciences, nor chemistry - pursuits which would not help a young man enter a respectable profession like medicine, the law, or the church. Yet Charles did succeed in becoming a naturalist. After five years with the Beagle, a government surveying ship, he settled down to life as a gentleman scholar. Fortunately, he did not have to earn a living. As he wrote and published his books and papers, he cared about his reputation with other scientists, but he didn't have to worry so much about sales. He could take time to ponder evidence, look for patterns, and consider different possible explanations. This does not mean, however, that he could bring himself to say whatever he thought without fear of the consequences.
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, in Charles Darwin: The Life of a Revolutionary Thinker, outlines the thinking of influential writers before Darwin. There was the Archbishop Usher, two centuries earlier, who "had used the Bible to calculate the actual date of the Creation and pegged it at 4004 BC" (p. 64). There was Malthus, who in 1798 pointed out that human populations were not growing so fast as you'd expect, considering the number of children each couple had - "there were clearly checks on population growth such as war, famine, and disease," Patent explains (p.62). The idea of evolution was not entirely new; Darwin's own grandfather was one who had championed it a generation earlier. But how did it work? By what natural mechanism could a species evolve and adapt itself to new environmental conditions? "Fifteen months after he began his first notebook on the transmutation of species in October 1838," she writes, "Charles came to a great realization":
At about this time, Darwin was seized by ill health. "He suffered from heart palpitations and headaches, and his stomach also rebelled" (p. 65). Was his illness psychosomatic? There is no way of knowing for sure, but he was "worried about the consequences of revealing his theory to the world." He delayed for years, taking time to strengthen his credentials by a meticulous study of barnacles, and The Origin of Species was not completed until 1859.
Thinking was Darwin's joy, but it seems to have frightened him, too. Thought takes courage, as a girl named Donata learns in Donna Jo Napoli's novel, Daughter of Venice. In 1592, Venice is an old city. Rich in history, art, and commerce, it has limited real estate. Great nobles may have many children, but they preserve their family fortunes by allowing few to marry. Donata, as a younger daughter, knows she is destined for a convent. What seems most unfair is that, unlike her brothers, she will never even get to see what lies beyond the palazzo walls. So - with help from her unwilling sisters - she disguises herself as a fisher boy and sneaks out. A boy about her own size waylays her at once:
Rowdy boys are a danger. Splinters, driving into tender bare feet, are a danger. But kindness is an even greater danger, because it's a Jew who rescues Donata. Noč takes care of her wounded foot and gives her shoes, helps her find her way out of the Ghetto, and challenges her to work off her debt by helping him every day for two weeks:
Noč works as a copyist for a printer, and Donata, who has never learned to read or write, is seriously disadvantaged. Her work is slow and messy. But she learns. She learns to read; she learns how ordinary people live; she learns what the political broadsides she's copying say, and why they say it. She wins permission to sit in on her brothers' lessons, and learns more. Donata, who once thought that a boy's disguise would protect her from danger, finds out what dangers poor boys face, and what dangers she poses to the people who have befriended her, and what impossible love can do to a disguised girl. And by putting herself in greater danger yet, she finds a way to ensure her twin sister's happiness.
Noč has accused Donata of thinking without feeling, and it is a serious accusation. Her eager curiosity and alert sense of justice are only the beginning of a deeper, more compassionate awareness. It takes not just intellectual freedom but intellectual honesty to understand what lies behind the glittering surface of things, and that honesty has costs as well as rewards. Three hundred and fifty years later, when Robert and his mother move from Ohio to Rhode Island, to live out World War II with his father's family, intellectual honesty still has costs. Robert's father left home as a teenager, and never spoke of his family. Secrets loom just behind the surface of things in Grandpa's house; things are being kept from Robert. And in the community beyond the family, too, things are not just as they seem. Guns are mounted on the shore, ready to shoot Nazi submarines. People worry about infiltrators and spies. Fear distorts perception - and distorted perception is a central theme in Janet Taylor Lisle's work.
In The Art of Keeping Cool, Robert watches his cousin Elliot, who has always lived in Rhode Island and knows more about the family. Elliot seems bothered: "Back in the spring of 1942, when we were both thirteen years old, Elliot Marks didn't have many defenses, and I could look in his eyes and see everything he was feeling," says Robert. "When he got nervous, he had a tic of biting into the L-shaped place between his thumb and his first finger. Not a hard bite, just a sort of rhythmic gnawing. He was no coward, though" (p. 4). At the dinner table, he sits straight-backed and inaccessible, his personality tucked in as tight as his elbows. After dinner, he shows Robert a picture:
Elliot hides his artistic ability, but he needs a teacher. The one he finds is Abel Hoffman, a recluse who lives down by the shore. Elliot knows the man was a famous artist in his native Germany, and is honored to have him as a teacher. Others in the community wonder: what is he doing in Rhode Island? Why is he always sketching? Is he a spy? And Robert worries: could everything that happened to Abel in Germany happen all over again in America? One thing Grandpa's grandsons learn is that your enemy isn't always across the sea; sometimes he lives right under the same roof with you, where you're most vulnerable.
In What My Mother Doesn't Know, Sonya Sones explores teen vulnerability in a novel that's also a cycle of lyric poems. The narrator is Sophie, who is head over heels in love with Dylan. [Read "In the Girls' Bathroom," p. 9.] Dylan is a hunk. But sadly, the better Sophie gets to know him, the less she wants to kiss him. Even at the height of their romance, she catches herself fantasizing about kissing Murphy, of all people - Murphy, whose very name has become a synonym for "dork" in their school. Then she gets to know Chaz. Her girlfriend calls Chaz "the cyberstud." [Read "Litterbox ICG," p. 102.] Sophie begins to hope for a face-to-face meeting, and she breaks off with Dylan - before she finds out that Chaz's favorite thing to do is "jerk off in libraries." [Read "Chat Room Chump," p. 112.] How depressing! No boyfriend! Sophie goes stag to the Halloween dance, and that's where she finds her Masked Man. ["Masked Man," p. 137.] Who can he be? And when she finally does discover his identity, will she be able to admit her feelings in public? Again, it takes courage to see another person truly, and to admit what you see if it isn't what everybody else sees.
For Bobby Phillips, 15-year-old protagonist of Andrew Clements' Things Not Seen, what other people can't see turns out to be himself. One night he's a normal high-school boy - no more invisible than any other kid who doesn't register on the popular kids' radar. The next morning, he just isn't there. [Read opening passage, pp. 1-6]
Tell no one? Stay inside all day? His parents are giving orders, but then they go off to work. It's Bobby who has the problem. For an invisible boy who wants to avoid notice, there are two ways to venture out of the house: completely wrapped up, or naked. Bobby wraps up, makes for a rest room in the Regenstein Library, and hides his clothes over a ceiling tile so he can do a bit of research unseen. And while his parents' lives are complicated by a car crash, an unwanted hospital stay, and the suspicions of officials who want to know why Bobby has vanished, Bobby complicates them further by confiding the whole story to a blind girl. How could he? But the decision to reach out and trust Alicia is part of Bobby's solution. It isn't just that their scientist fathers become joint investigators of the problem, or that Alicia's father is quicker than Bobby's to spot the importance of Bobby's empirical observations. It isn't just that Alicia helps Bobby get to the Sears offices, where his invisibility makes it easier for him to spy out the complaints of other customers who bought the same defective electric blanket he was sleeping under. When Bobby finally traces another victim, he finds a deeper relationship between invisibility and the willingness to trust.
The exercise of intellectual freedom requires courage and honesty. What makes intellectual freedom dangerous, in all these books, is the tension between individual and community perceptions. Darwin worried about publicizing beliefs that might shock his neighbors and bring trouble on his family. Donata risked trouble to her family and to others when she roamed Venice in disguise; her ideas about the rights of women, Jews, and poor folk threatened to disrupt her world. It was fear of disrupted community - at the family level as well as the national level - that powered the secrets and misunderstandings in which Robert, Elliot, and Abel Hoffman were caught. Sophie hesitated to tell the truth she loved, for fear it might lose her the friendship and acceptance her high school happiness depended on.
Karen Hesse, in Witness, gives us another novel-in-poems. Here there are many speakers, all residents of a Vermont town in 1924, when the Ku Klux Klan was active in New England. Who witnesses what? The doctor, the town constable, and the local rum runner all have opinions, both on the Klan and on the town's tiny Jewish and African-American populations. An 18-year-old Klan member witnesses a rescue [read p. 76]. After what he sees, can he commit a racist sniper attack? Who can witness for or against him, and how will the truth affect this community?
What we see in all these books is the importance of honest perception, clear thought, and the courage to stand and witness for truths that can trouble communities. We also see that suppressed truth festers, and communities cannot be at their best when they refuse to allow individual vision. Intellectual freedom is not just the right to have an opinion; it's the responsibility to look hard and judge what we see with accuracy and compassion.