• Publishers Weekly asked 20 children's books editors to share some behind-the-scenes stories about their experiences editing some true classics, including The Napping House and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.
• On Buzzfeed, a whole slew of authors offer up advice on how they combat writer's block and how they got their first books published.
• As you've likely heard by now, James McBride's National Book Award win for The Good Lord Bird was a surprise to many. Vulture published this dishy history of the ups and downs of the award's 64-year history.
As you may already know, it's Banned Books Week, during which the freedom to read is celebrated by those opposed to censorship.
There are certain books that have been creating a stir since they were first published, generating fusses because of their language, obscenity, age (in)appropriateness or some other aspect deemed "offensive." One such book is Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, still controversial nearly 130 years after its publication.
We asked Benjamin Griffin, one of the editors of the Autobiography of Mark Twain (the second volume of which releases next month—read about it here) to share his thoughts on the controversy.
United States v. Mark Twain
No such case as my title implies was ever brought, of course. The United States has no banning—that is, no centralized prohibition of books. Here, a ban has come to mean any decision to eliminate a book from a library or a school reading list.
It’s true that, until fairly recently, the Postal Service exercised a censoring function by enforcing laws against sending obscene matter through the mail. But Supreme Court decisions of the ’60s and ’70s have rendered obscenity pretty ungainly to work with as a criminal charge.
Huckleberry Finn was “banned” several times in Mark Twain’s lifetime—always by librarians. In 1885, when the book was new, the public library in Concord, Massachusetts, withdrew it, citing the characters’ “low grade of morality” and “irreverence.” Huck lies, talks dialect, is friends with a black man, steals and fails to return stolen property (the black man).
Mark Twain’s response to the ban was immediate. He told his publisher: “That will sell 25,000 copies for us, sure.” The commercial blessings of banning, in this country, are well known. Howard Hughes campaigned to ban his own film, The Outlaw, in order to get it released.
The early twentieth century saw some more Huck bans. They were short-lived; but Mark Twain’s Eve’s Diary, published in 1906 and banned by the Charlton, Massachusetts, public library, was restored to the shelves just two years ago. It was the illustrations (by Lester Ralph) that offended: They depicted Eve as a naked woman—stylized, but naked.
Today, Huckleberry Finn gets challenged, not in the name of public morals, but to protect something (the student, or the classroom atmosphere, or the school) against the unpredictable effects of the word “nigger,” which makes some students—I quote from a report by the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom—“uncomfortable.”
Back in 1885, the book’s detractors feared that children would become too comfortable with Huck: with his “low” company—and, I suspect, with Jim’s. Mark Twain’s response to this criticism, in his Autobiography, was that children were already routinely damaged by a book the library kept on open shelves—the Bible:
"The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old."
It was only right, he said, for librarians to escort Huck and Tom out of that book’s “questionable company.”
In my opinion, at the core of our contemporary debate over Huckleberry Finn in schools is a confusion between, on the school’s side, encountering racism and legitimating racism; and a confusion, on the students’ side, between reading words—even heavily ironized ones—and being attacked by words.
This is certain: Mark Twain wouldn’t understand our solicitousness about “comfort level.” He might have wondered what comfort had to do with school, the discomforts of which had caused him to pack out at age twelve. No “Stay in school, kids” for Mark Twain!
• The 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction finalists were announced earlier this week: Threats by Amelia Gray, Kind One by Laird Hunt, Hold It ’Til It Hurts by T. Geronimo Johnson, Watergate by Thomas Mallon, and Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. The winner will be named on May 4. Which one will you be rooting for?
• GalleyCat has given us a peek inside the just-published children's picture book Flying Henry, a collection of whimsical images of photographer/artist Rachel Hulin's son.
• Did you know that Moby-Dick was inspired by real-life events? A ship attacked and sunk by an enormous whale, three months drifting at sea, cannibalism—and even a crew member actually named Owen Coffin! A fascinating Smithsonian blog post details the entire gruesome story.
• Dutch artist Frank Halmans' architectural book sculptures look so cozy that we wish we could pack our bags and move right into one.
• The Paris Review notes the passing of Barnaby Conrad, writer, boxer, matador, and one of the coolest guys you've probably never heard of.
• Who knew so many writers were gifted in the visual arts, as well? Flavorwire has compiled a collection of 20 self-portraits by famous authors. Flannery O'Connor, Edgar Allan Poe, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood—which one is your favorite?
• The Baltimore home where F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald lived (with their daughter, Scottie) from 1933 to '35 is up for sale, which means we get to peek inside. Also posted this week is Scott's 1921 passport application, which features a crossed-out description of his chin as "prominent" replaced with "round." And apparently, his mouth was "medium"—whatever that means.
• Finally, Book Riot has collected photos of some very impressive literarily themed Lego projects. It sounds silly, yes, but we dare you not to be impressed by the Harry Potter one, which was built with 400,000 Legos!
As another Wednesday at the office starts to wind down, we wanted to share this link to Flavorwire's gallery of delicious photos of famous writers hanging out at their homes.
How I would love to take a peek at what's on Mark Twain's desk (below)! Or eavesdrop on the conversation taking place on Virginia Woolf's porch. Or take in all of the amazing (and now priceless) art on the walls of Gertrude Stein's Paris apartment.
Which picture do you wish you could Photoshop yourself into?
• One reviewer of Lawrence Wright's Going Clear shares 10 of the wackiest, most hilarious tidbits from the Scientology exposé. Warning for those of you at work: may cause guffawing, so try to control yourself. (You can check out our review of the book here.)
• The Academy Awards are on Sunday night! Gear up for it by testing your Oscar knowledge with this fun literary pop quiz.
• The six nominees for the 2013 Diagram Prize—awarded for the weirdest book title—have been posted on We Love This Book. Will Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop or How Tea Cosies Changed the World get your vote?
• It's a magical thing when the book and art worlds collide. Enjoy this visual feast of book murals from all around the world.
• And, finally, the Fifty Shades of Grey (one of our Readers' Choice Best Books of 2012) phenomenon continues. We're not sure whether this book trailer is officially NSFW, but it certainly had us blushing!