Sunday, February 25, 2007

Librarians and Bad Words

I'm somewhat boggled by the recent flap over The Higher Power of Lucky, the recent Newbery award winning novel which contains several repetitions of the word "scrotum." Apparently a librarian from Durango, Colorado, complained about it on, a librarians' listserv; and the whole thing blew up from there.

Mind you, it's been wonderful for sales; the book went from the 600s on Amazon to the top 40. Just for evidence, here is the (first) offending passage, about a man
who had drunk half a gallon of rum listening to Johnny Cash all morning in his parked '62 Cadillac, then fallen out of the car when he saw a rattlesnake on the passenger seat biting his dog, Roy, on the scrotum.
Apparently this incident is mentioned several times in the book, necessarily repeating the word.

Here are the things that bother me about this:

Numero uno: I think that incident is funny. It's my crude nature, or my upbringing as the daughter of a Missouri farm boy, or something. Also, I want the next sentence; I may have to borrow the book from the library so I can find out what happened to the dog.

Numero two-oh, as Molly Ivins used to say: "scrotum" is not one of those "you can't say that word in polite company" words that George Carlin used to have so much fun with. It's a scientific term, dammit; it's in Gray's Anatomy (the book, not the TV show); it's in the encyclopedia. True, it's a body part that isn't normally discussed except by men with prostate problems; which is why, if you want to refer to it, you don't have one of those handy, "we all know what it means" synonyms to use. You have to say, "scrotum."

Finally, the whole business is completely out of character for librarians; and I was a librarian for 17 years. Most of the librarians I know would rather have a kid read a book that contained the word "scrotum" than not read at all. In fact, most librarians know that the kids already know all those "bad" words, and reading a book containing them will not corrupt them any further. It's much more important to get them to read at all.

Having read the article on Yahoo News, I'm relieved to find that it was mainly this one woman in Colorado, and a few like-minded souls; and most of the library community is perfectly fine with the book, which is what I would expect. We would all be better off if we worried about genuine problems, like global warming and whether Dubya really is crazy enough to bomb Iran, and quit expending energy on the reference in a children's book to a male body part; and not even "that" male body part.


  1. Anonymous9:03 PM

    We would all be better off if we worried about genuine problems, like global warming and whether Dubya really is crazy enough to bomb Iran, and quit expending energy on the reference in a children's book to a male body part; and not even "that" male body part.

    Thunderous applause erupts over here in the amen corner.

    Anonymous David

  2. Anonymous9:12 AM

    The real fear here (to me) is if there is enough uproar then the book will become something that people are forced to read because it is so “powerful”. I had to read “Catcher in the Rye” in college and hated it. The only reason I think it is still around is someone yelled “CENSOR” and someone else yelled “CLASSIC” and the argument resulted in me having to read a dumb book.

    Hope we don’t have a lot of “Catcher” fans here… It was a lot of fun in the oral reports about the book to stand and argue with the rest of the class about it…

  3. I've always wondered whether to admit that I find most "classic" works boring. I've never read Catcher in the Rye, and frankly I don't care if I never do. I did read Catch-22, and while I found the concept useful (and still run into it regularly), the book didn't thrill me. This is an awful thing to admit if you have a degree in English literature...

    I like books that tell me a good story, preferably one where the good guys win, the bad guys lose, and the hero gets the girl. My alternative preference is detective stories, where all the violence is offstage, all the clues are given, and the detective lays it all out in the last chapter for those of us who haven't figured it out yet.

  4. Anonymous9:37 PM

    I have to admit that I am drawn to stuff that is slightly nuts, especially in proportion as it captures artistically the absurdity of whatever is its theme. Hence I enjoyed both works, and still chuckle at "Jesus probably would have puked," which is precisely what I think Jesus is doing over the carnage of choice in Iraq, especially as he contemplates things like children picking up unexploded cluster bomblets like they are little toys, toys which then go boom. For me it connects in a bit of an odd way with the cathartic value of the great dramas. I don't need them to end happily, just honestly, but I do make it a point to include works that both end happily and are honest, even if they do describe the exception, not the rule, to human existence on this planet in the span of my lifetime.

    Oh, yeah, Stephen, I meant to say I would have wanted people like you in my classes. Speaking your mind truthfully is an academic virtue in my world. I would have argued that CATCHER is not a dumb book, but I would have been intrigued by why you did not find it worthy. I do tend to agree that it was granted higher status than it can sustain, but only time can determine which works endure and which fade.

    There's a great line in MAN OF THE HOUSE in which one of the cheerleaders is bitching about having to read Shakespeare and wanting to know why he couldn't just make the point clearly and directly in language she could readily understand, and the Texas ranger guarding her says that Shakespeare could have, but then people wouldn't still be talking about the play 400 years later.

    Wish we could be around in 400 years to see which works did endure and which "classics" weren't really. Jules Verne will still be around, hedera...

    Anonymous David

  5. Anonymous8:02 AM

    Well David, I’ll admit a big part of my scorn came from the fact that everyone else in the class was raving about what a revolutionary book it was. To me it was just a book about a little punk kid that ran a way from school, went back home for a while (or at least to his neighborhood), and ended up right back were he started. I didn’t find any “transforming event” in it at all. I think the big build up might have been part of the huge let down as well.

    I had a lot of fun in college and was actually asked to attend one class because the professor wanted me to “cause trouble”. There is nothing as fun as arguing for marriage as a young newly married guy with a bunch of pretty bitter divorced women in a sociology class.

  6. I have to admit I'd have liked to be a fly on the wall in stephen's classroom, watching them all argue about marriage....

    As for "classic" books - often you have to consider the context they appeared in. Leave Catcher for a minute and go back to an older classic, Moby Dick, which I reluctantly read all the way through. The amazing thing about it is how different it was from earlier novels, almost none of which have survived. (Ever read any of Fenimore Cooper's novels??)

    Or Don Quijote, which literally had no predecessors other than the tales told by wandering entertainers. But the fact that they were unique doesn't necessarily mean they held up well.

    Actually, what you want to read about Fenimore Cooper is not the man himself; you want to read Mark Twain's critique of his literary style, which you will find in Letters from the Earth; it's one of the funniest essays I've ever read.