Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Banned Books Week 2011: The Pillars of the Earth

Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., in Texas v. Johnson , said most eloquently:

"If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable."


The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

A top ten favorite of mine, I find it hard to believe that a book such as this has been challenged.

For this book to be banned/challenged due to its accurate descriptions of life in medieval times is a travesty.  History is dark and gritty and violent.  It's a reality.  Should young adults be shielded from the realities of life, especially the realities of history?  I think not.  The Pillars of the Earth is one of those historical fiction novels that does its job well...inspiring an interest in history that a person might not otherwise have had, spurring the desire to investigate further the subject.

The Pillars of the Earth is on the ALA list of most frequently challenged books of 1990-2000 (#91).

Specific Instances:
Parents say novel pornographic

By Pete Kendall/reporter@trcle.com

Dr. Ted and Maureen Benke say it was never their intention to try to have the Ken Follett book, “Pillars of the Earth,” banned from the Cleburne High School library.

But they did want it eliminated from a reading list of a CHS senior English class of which their son is a member. And they’re gratified that Cleburne Superintendent Dr. Ronny Beard granted that desire.

“He said an alternate choice [of books] would be made,” Ted Benke told Times-Review editor Dale Gosser on Thursday. “That was this Tuesday.”

“We’re thrilled with the superintendent’s decision to remove the book,” Maureen Benke told Gosser. “We feel he made the right decision for all future students of Cleburne High School and that it was indeed worth the effort to have this kind of outcome.”

Members of Concerned Parents and Citizens, whose membership includes the Benkes, are expected to request time to speak in the public forum segment of Monday’s school board meeting. Likewise, citizens in favor of the book’s inclusion on the reading list. CPAC was formed in early October, when the Benkes filed a grievance against use of the book.

“We started out with four members,” Maureen Benke said. “I can provide you with a list of 900 names now.”

The issue began last summer when English IV dual/AP students were directed to read the Follett book.

“You will be asked to read your novel during the summer and participate in an online discussion with a small group of your peers,” a three-page typed directive from English department chairman Sherri Bell said in part. “There is no definitive timeline concerning the online discussions since everyone reads at different rates, and everyone will have different schedules through the summer. However, I expect everyone to post one entry for each assignment that is at least 7-10 sentences (more if you are so inclined) in length and to respond to two other members of the group (more if you wish).”

The directive also included a statement reading, “Alternate assignment is Edward Rutherford’s “London” if you find reading occasional sex, violence and language unacceptable.”

The Benkes say they didn’t become aware of the sexual content in Follett’s book until their son began reading it.

“We read the book and found it to be pornographic,” Maureen Benke said. “We made an appointment to meet with Mrs. Bell, and Mrs. Bell asked [Prinicipal] Monte Pritchett to be at the meeting, which was fine with nus. At the time of the meeting, we told Mrs. Bell and Mr. Pritchett that we thought the book was inappropriate for curriculum use. We asked them to please remove it from the curriculum. We gave them the reasons we thought the pornographic nature of the book made it unacceptable.”

“The key points we made were that the American Library Association did not recommend the book for anyone under the age of 18,” Ted Benke added, “that the book had no special merit and had not won any awards. It wasn’t on any special list except for Oprah’s Book Club. We checked with approximately 15 school districts in this area including Keller, Southlake and Highland Park, and none of them had the book on their summer reading lists.”

The Benkes said the reading list directive did not include space for parents to voice their objections to the books.

“There is a general belief system in place that parents are ignorant of many things that their children read because of trust,” Maureen Benke said. “We trusted [Bell] to choose reasonable material. Without our knowledge or permission, she was assigning this book to our son.”

Bell did not return a phone call from the Times-Review seeking comment. Pritchett referred all questions to school district spokesperson Lisa Magers.

The Benkes said they also objected to the directive for students to chat about the book in an online format.

“No parental control is too loose for us to be comfortable,” Maureen Benke said.

They said their meeting with Bell and Pritchett culminated “with Mr. Pritchett saying he would read the book,” Maureen Benke said. “We had sent him a list of references for pages to read if he didn’t have time to read the whole book. We understood that. It’s 1,200 pages. I don’t believe we ever got a direct answer whether he had read all the excerpts.”

“He said he had read some reviews,” Ted Benke said, “that maybe there were some racy parts. However, he thought it was okay. He said if we wanted to take it further, we would need to fill out an Exhibit A to go to the curriculum committee to appeal his decision. We started that process around October. We got the material to Dr. [Darlene] Callender [assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction] and asked her to review our grievance.”

The Benkes said Callender initially told them a curriculum committee had ruled in 1998 that the book was acceptable as reading list curriculum.

“She said the school district attorney told her the district would never have to convene on that book again because it had already done so,” Maureen Benke said. “Then we got another call from Dr. Callender’s office, telling us that it had been over 10 years, so the district had consented to form a new committee. They were in the process of forming that committee when the superintendent made his executive decision to excuse the book from the curriculum.”  (Source: Cleburne Times-Review)


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  1. I never understood why Americans are so offended by a woman's breast but have no issues showing someone's head blown off on TV.

    Great post, this book is on my short list.


  2. Hmm, it sounds like the Benke's whiny son was just trying to get out of reading a 1200 page book. And of course the parents were fine with the principal just reading the passages they had marked, because that's of course the best way to make an informed decision on whether to ban a book, by not reading it fully.

  3. Zohar--yes, I agree. Nudity is more dangerous than people getting murdered. Go figure!

    Kate--Yeah, that sounds about right. Indeed, if you're going to remove a book, you should at least read the entire book first, before passing judgement.

  4. This headline is misleading. They didn’t ‘ban’ the book. They just removed it from the required reading list.

    1. The headline is titled that way because these posts were written during the ALA's Banned Books Week (2011). If you read the entire post, I include all the information as to why it was challenged, why people wanted it removed, etc. The ALA hosts the Banned Books Week event every year, typically the last week in September. Visit http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/banned for more information.

  5. I read this book and enjoyed it as an adult. However, this book goes well beyond a reasonable description of sex in medieval times and I agree it is very pornographic and should not be on a reading list in a highschool. Rape, sex and other such subjects are fine in themselves but the level of description is so unnecessarily detailed in contrast to everything else beyond architecture. This is erotica and thats fine for an adult but for teenagers these decisions should be up to parents not schools. 5/5 book btw highly recommend it.

  6. I think the concept of banning this modern literary classic is a grweat reflection on the people challenging it... And of course, the book burners are around today, just as much as withch burners in the day of "Pillars of the Earth".

    I find trying to ban literature a LOT more offensive than a part of the human anatomy... But that's just me, call me crazy.

  7. I thought students were warned about sex, violence and language in The Pillars of the Earth and given an alternative book to read. I found some passages very brutal so I skipped over those. But the book depicts what times were like in the Middle Ages. Life had no value and especially if you were a woman. I think a student in high school should be old enough to know this. However, a student under 18 is a minor and parents still have a legal responsibility to do what they believe is best for their child. Perhaps this book is a better college pick due to the fact that most HS students are minors. Or just read the other book.

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