Goldie: “I can’t decide what to get my brother for his birthday.”
Ruth: “A book is always nice.”
Goldie: “Nah. He already has a book.”
— “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” ca. 1968
My father would have made a good newspaper editor. He was a knowledgeable and critical reader, consuming two or three daily newspapers, the Sunday New York Times, various weeklies and monthlies and local and national TV news.
He was smart enough not to believe every word, partly because he was just well read and partly because, as a city manager over many years in two little towns on the prairie, he was often the subject of newspaper articles and radio and TV stories. Mostly, he said, they got it right. But not always.
So, when the local theater troupe changed the lyrics to George and Ira Gershwin’s song from “The things that you’re liable to read in the Bible...” to “The things that you choose to read in The News, it ain’t necessarily so,” my dad got quite a laugh out of it.
As I pursued my career in journalism, my father had a suggestion for me. Every day, at the top of the front page, every newspaper should have a line that says, “We estimate that today’s news is XX% accurate.” You know, kind of like the weather forecast calling for a 60% chance of rain.
It should be no shame at all, he said, for a newspaper’s editors to look carefully at each day’s product and frankly proclaim their best educated guess that it was probably 75% or 87% or 99% correct, depending on what was happening that day. It would be an honest evaluation, building trust with readers, of how much of that day’s newspaper was based on its own reporting, on press releases, on anonymous sources, on dispatches from faraway battlefields, on things the newspaper’s own reporters had witnessed vs. information filtered though official sources, credible experts or semi-reliable channels of gossip.
This is not the thinking of a man who only reads one or two sources of news and trusts them fully. It is the product of a mind that has read a great deal and notices that, the more you read, the less certain you are likely to become about just about everything.
And that is apparently what really scares some people.
In schools from Virginia’s Spotsylvania County to Texas (of course) to Utah, some parents and even some school board members are firing up the ol’ book burning furnace out of a proto-fascist fear of what books are and what education is.
This is probably an offshoot of the drive to snuff out critical race theory. Because it is difficult to ban something that doesn’t exist and can’t be defined, some are turning their attention to more tangible targets. Mostly, it appears, novels by Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison, who writes about what it is like to be Black in America.
The Beyond the Books crew at Salt Lake City’s KUTV has uncovered a training video put out by group called Utah Parents United that encourages parents to not only object to books in school libraries but also to call the police if they find anything they think is offensive.
KSL is reporting that high school libraries in the Canyons School District have pulled nine books, including Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and that book by Vladimir Nabokov, “Lolita.” (Which just means that kids in those schools are even less likely to catch the reference in The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.”)
Many of the targeted tomes deal with sex, race, violence and misery through the eyes of teenage protagonists. Some of them, from descriptions in news articles, may be more than a little racy. But the whole point of education is to learn how to take in and assimilate just about every thought and emotion humans are capable of in a way that builds empathy rather than corrupts the soul.
If “Lolita” were the only book a person, especially a teenager, ever read, that might be a problem.
The right way is not to ban anything. It’s to mix every thought and argument in a strong mix of a lot of other thoughts and arguments so that no one of them pushes anyone totally askew. To be able to judge this book against all those other books.
It is the only way to be able to figure out what percentage of accuracy each one achieves.
George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, hasn’t read “Lolita” or “The Bluest Eye.” Or nearly enough novels. He did read Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” — because it was required college reading — and enthusiastically recommends it.