I recently received the following e-mail from someone who appears to be a young undergrad at a large state institution -- we'll call her Judy. Beyond all the righteous indignation (ah, to be young again!) of her e-mail, I think I detected actual distress, a sort of disillusionment about this post of mine. I wanted to respond to her, but couldn't think of any way to do so without sounding mean or condescending ... so rather than just do so privately, I thought I'd enter my response here, and invite readers to help explain.
Her e-mail read:
Dear Professor Nokes,
I recently came across your blog titled, "In Favor of Banning Books" while researching for a paper in my Contemporary Mass Media class. Although as a professor of English you are more than entitled to your opinions, I find it unbelievable that you would support and blatantly promote the malicious and completely unreasonable act of banning and in your words, "burning" any piece of literature. I am surprised that a renowned professor of English, such as yourself, would fail to see the value in all pieces of literature. The blanket statements you make about "saving humanity" from "junior high poetry" clearly stand only as the naive opinions of a concretely close minded individual. Before "burning" any more literary works in the public square, perhaps you might want to take a second and analyze the deeper messages of some of the authors and works on your list of "aesthetically objectionable books". You may find that although some works may not be the most aesthetically pleasing, they may have some excruciatingly meaningful content that you have simply overlooked. Thanks for your time.
Judy [the name I made up for her]
Before I get into the meat of my response, let me just say this -- "renowned professor of English?" I'm going to clip that part out and send it to my tenure & promotion committee. Just keep repeating that adjective next to my name: "renowned."
Seriously, though, I'm not sure whether or not Judy believes I am literally advocating book burning, since she puts scorn quotes around "burning." I'm going to assume that she is referring to the post itself as the "burning," but just in case there is any confusion out there, I am not really calling for public book burnings. Really. Nor am I calling for the literal banning of these books -- though I wouldn't mind if they fell out of print and were never read again. You can relax, Judy -- no real book banning or burning going on here. In fact, if you were to borrow a book from me and dog-ear the pages, I would probably burn you on the public square. The only thing I hate worse than dog-earring the pages is laying the book face down and open, cracking the spine (ooooh, how I hate that!). I don't highlight my books, I don't write in my books, and I don't use bookmarks that are so thick that they could hurt the spine.
You see, Judy, in this post I am using a literary form known as "hyperbole."** Hyperbole is exaggerating for effect. For example, when you say, "If I've told you once, I've told you a million times..." you are using hyperbole. You don't literally mean you've said it a million times; you are exaggerating to mean something like "I've told you so many times that it seems like a million, and you should really have understood it by now." When my mother came into my room as a child and told me "This is the worst pig sty I've ever seen," she wasn't really a professional pig sty critic who had mistaken my room for a barnyard. She was exaggerating for effect. Hyperbole!
You also write that you are suprised that I "would fail to see the value in all pieces of literature." Well, guilty as charged. Do you know what makes a work literature, Judy? At the end of the day, it is people like me who decide. A professor of English literature who sees value in all pieces of literature is failing at her job. Not everything that is bandied about under the heading of "literature" is great. Some of it is not even very good. Something that is considered of great value now might not even be in print in the next generation, and visa-versa. It is my job to make that decision.
See, when you suggest that I might want to "analyze the deeper messages of some of the authors and works on [my] list" -- well, I've already done that. Nothing appears on that list if I haven't read it. You'll notice that these are not popular works on my list -- they are all works of "literature," and when reading them I approached each and every one of them with respect. Unfortunately, in each case, I not only found them lacking, but I also found something so objectionable about them that I don't think they should be assigned to anyone to read.
You are young, and full of earnest vigor, Judy. Me, on the other hand, I am old enough to be aware of my own mortality, and to despair of all the things I'll never read -- this is the bitter sorrow of all English professors (and perhaps of all thinking people). You are immortal, but for me, time is a zero-sum game. Every hour spent reading one book is spent not reading another, and that time is gone forever. When I read a book of "literature" and it is lacking, that book has stolen time I could have used to read something better. Perhaps you think that I read looking for flaws and reasons to hate. Nothing could be further from the truth. I want to like the works that I read, because I want my time to be well-used, and when I can't find anything to like about it, I'm deeply disappointed.
Friends, that is my response to Judy. I give her so much space because I think I see between the lines a struggle to understand. If any others want to contribute to helping Judy understand how hyperbole and satire work, or want to explain just what it means for an English professor to read something of poor quality, please feel free to do so below. Please do not make fun of Judy, though, as I'm hoping she'll read this post, along with your comments, and come to an understanding of what that post is about.
*No, I'm not making any of those absurd examples up.
**Which is by the way, a 4 syllable word -- the last "e" is not silent, a fact I didn't realize until I went to university and, for the first time in my life heard the word pronounced that I had read my whole life.