Friday, September 30, 2011

Literary Liberty: Some Thoughts on Banned Books

This semester, I'm teaching a section of freshman composition, and I've selected the 2010 Best American Essays as the reader for the course. Early on, my students read Arthur Krystal's contribution to the volume: an essay entitled "When Writers Speak," which presents a case for written texts as the most powerful means of conveying thoughts, ideas, and arguments. Krystal claims that he appears most intelligent in writing, "not because writing helps me to organize my ideas or reveals how I feel about something, but because it actually creates thought, or at least supplies a petri dish for its genesis." This development of thought, or so Krystal contends, does not occur when writers simply speak. The mind is the petri dish, and language, the germ growing into something larger.

I asked my students why, in addition to fostering our own ideas, we should write; a few commented that writing removes a person's fetters and allows them to move freely in an arena of thought. Unlatching our intellectual shackles gives us the freedom to move between different modes of thinking, different ways of considering and approaching information.

But all this, as I pointed out to my students, is if writing—and consequently, reading—are such open venues. Which historically, they haven't been—even in the allegedly democratic twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The problem is something that John Stuart Mill observed in On Liberty: Limiting access to books doesn't simply prevent a free and open exchange of ideas, but promotes bigotry, stunted ideologies, and stultifying social values performed by rote.

This past week was the American Library Association's Banned Books Week, meant to increase awareness of the book's importance to our intellectual way of life. The ALA's advocacy page for the week offers a gloss of the event's zeitgeist: "Intellectual freedom—the freedom to access information and express ideas, even if the information and ideas might be considered unorthodox or unpopular—provides the foundation for Banned Books Week." Banned Books Week follows Mill's belief that the only way for society to progress is to confront these issues—even if they are "considered unorthodox or unpopular"—in our personal thinking and in the public sphere.

Consider the effect a book can have on our social values. And Tango Makes Three (2005)—which the ALA ranks as the most challenged book of 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2010—relates in a delicately illustrated children's book the true story of Roy and Silo, a male same-sex penguin couple who were given an egg of their own to hatch at New York's Central Park Zoo. Parents and communities opposed to homosexuality attack the book for its depiction of—and its pronounced support for—same-sex couples as viable parents. (The book also offers readers the notion that homosexuality is natural, undermining one of the key talking points of the LGBT movement's foes.) This book, however, educates children on tolerating and accepting a group of people, of extending human rights and admiration to folks who have been denied those liberties for far too long.

"There's something about writing," Krystal notes, "that affects how we think and, inevitably, how we express ourselves." But those thought patterns (and by extension, our attempts at self-expression) depend upon the intellectual climate in which we live. Books like And Tango Makes Three ask us to engage with pressing social issues, while other books—challenged for offensive content—thrust readers into situations in which we must struggle with our own repressive and cruel history.

We have not yet reached—and perhaps shall never attain—the unfettered expression that Krystal touts in his essay. Nor have we shaken off attempts to restrict knowledge. Regardless, our intellectual evolution requires that we grapple with contentious texts and learn where we stand, a process that requires poise, consideration, and respect for others.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Shakespeare and the Infinite Monkeys, or Why Art Isn't an Accident

Some people take their clichés too seriously.

A BBC article this morning, entitled "Virtual Monkeys Write Shakespeare," investigates Jesse Anderson's project to simulate an infinite number of monkeys hammering on an infinite number of typewriters, to see how long these code monkeys take to reproduce the Bard's complete body of work. In short, this is a virtual test of the platitude that an infinite number of monkeys pummeling relentlessly on a battered keyboard can shamble together the prose of a lyrical genius. So how much value is there to this cliché?

"If you put enough monkeys in a room with a typewriter, they'll produce Shakespeare": this concept is called the "infinite monkey theorem." (And yes, there's a Wiki page on it. And no, I will not explain the mathematical proofs.) Jorge Luis Borges, in his essay "The Total Library," traced the idea as far back as Aristotle--so the idea is hardly new. Literary theory uses this concept in one of two general ways: either to argue that art is not an accident, or to contend that anybody has the ability to produce art. In the latter case, the monkey adage swings from our tongues to insinuate contempt at someone else's good fortune, or to compliment a budding talent.

But let's stop for a moment. Anderson's project provides a fun glimpse into a quirky thought experiment--can an infinite monkey actually generate Shakespeare's texts, yet alone any others? There are a few pragmatic issues that weigh down this test, like a monkey on the back. Firstly, nobody--save the titular Doctor of Doctor Who--has an eternity with which to toy around in time and space. Secondly, genuine art is a reaction to life experiences, a considered and developed response to an individual's sense of reality. The collaborative effort necessary for monkeys ad infinitum to gather in a room and produce a text are staggering. In the instance of a single monkey, an eternity could elapse before producing the opening chapter of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight.

Which would leave literature in a sorry place, indeed.

This is to say that the complete works of William Shakespeare are the culmination of the Bard's singular existence. His endeavors as an actor, playwright, father, husband, lover, etc. produces an array of influences far vaster than the random happenstance of monkeys slapping their digits across a typewriter's keys. Furthermore, Shakespeare has a certain social, historical, and political context--Elizabethan England, the rise of empire, the culture of the stage, bowing to the wants of groundlings and nobles alike. Perhaps the only context—political or otherwise—of imprisoning monkeys with typewriters is a pending legal action by the ASPCA, or a series of coy adverts released by PETA.

Let us leave literature to each other, and to our individual talents and insights. And let the monkeys keep their own interests intact. "Monkeys," as the BBC article's photo caption reads, are "more interested in throwing faeces than writing sonnets."