Just the Worst: A Celebration of Banned Book Week

In 1637, English lawyer and colonist Thomas Morton, founder of the Merrymount colony that eventually became Quincy, Massachusetts, published a book that was not very complimentary of his Puritan neighbors.

According to Morton, who had been pretty successful in establishing trade and good relations with the Native Americans in the vicinity of his colony, the Puritans were generally unfair, dishonest, abusive, and hateful. He also had some unflattering nicknames for them.

Amsterdam: Jacob Frederick Stam, publisher, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Prior to writing his book, Morton had attempted to expel the Puritans from Massachusetts with a lawsuit that rested on their alleged misrepresentation of their purpose for establishing a colony in the first place. They’d done so in a different location than originally planned as well, and in a location to which someone else technically held the rights. He won the suit.

The lawsuit had come on the tail of a particularly nasty encounter between Morton and his neighbors.  Despite his own traditional Anglican beliefs, Morton engaged in his fair share of passive aggressive paganistic behavior of the variety that would drive a Puritan mad. When he erected an eighty-foot-tall maypole and invited his Algonquin friends over for a raging kegger, the highly offended Puritans arrested him, cut down his maypole, burned down his colony, and left him to die stranded on a rocky, coastal island.

Fortunately, Morton had managed to make himself some friends by throwing the best parties and, you know, not slaughtering them, and so he survived the ordeal. If the legal decision that revoked the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter had been enforced, that might have been the end of it, but it wasn’t. And so, Morton wrote his offensive book.

New English Canaan, which today is considered a historically significant literary work of the American colonial period, consists of three parts. The first is a primarily positive view of Native American customs. The second is an account of the natural history of Massachusetts. And the third is a satirical look at why Puritans are just the worst.

Image by Pretty Sleepy Art from Pixabay

The book was originally published in the Netherlands, where anti-English books of the day tended to be published. Not all that surprisingly, most of the copies were initially seized and destroyed by the English government. The few copies that managed to circulate were quickly condemned and banned by the Puritans, making New English Canaan the first banned book in America.  

Today there are just sixteen original copies of Morton’s book in existence, though it has been republished with plenty of scholarly criticism and is freely available on the internet. I haven’t read it, but honestly, the mere fact that it was banned makes me kind of want to pick it up.

I might just do so, in honor of Banned Book Week. The annual event is celebrated this week by the American Library Association and by intelligent, thoughtful people everywhere who are not the busy-body mom crusaders across the nation that have for some reason decided they are responsible for monitoring the reading material of everyone else’s children.  

Carol M. Highsmith, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I feel compelled, too, as long as I am standing up here on my soapbox, to state that such people shout on each side of the political aisle, as is evidenced by the practice of revenge banning being attempted at a truly alarming rate.

At this point I am so frustrated by the book banners I, probably unfairly, assume that if given the chance they would cut down a maypole, burn down a school, and banish all the librarians to die alone on a rocky, coastal island. All in the noble name of keeping children safe from just the kind of intellectual stimulation and freedom of thought that could help them to develop into critical thinkers. Just the worst.

Thank heavens for the majority of parents who recognize that censorship belongs in their private homes and families, along with their noses. Thank heavens, too, for the librarians who, too often without support from their district administrators, are standing up for the freedom to read. And shame on the politicians who are not.

Happy Banned Book Week to all!

Clubbin’ with the Bookworms

In 1634, troublemaking Puritan Anne Hutchinson and her husband William boarded a ship bound for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Along the way, Anne began a group gathering she continued once she landed that September in the New World. The group consisted of women (and eventually some men, too) engaging in intellectual discussions about the weekly sermons delivered to them. As you can probably imagine, such activity made a little trouble for our heroine.

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Anne Hutchinson on Trial for having the audacity to think. Book clubs are dangerous. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Though not exactly a book club, scholars often point to Hutchinson’s gathering as an early example of such. It was at least a precursor to similar groups that grew up at times under the likes of 18th century essayist and women’s rights advocate Hannah Crocker, 19th century African American freedom fighter Sarah Mapps Douglass, and 20th century media queen Oprah Winfrey.

Some of these clubs focused primarily on the discussion of writings presented by the group members themselves, while others turned their attention to upscale fiction with questions in the back and memoir of a somewhat dubious nature. But they all had the same goal: to stimulate intellectual growth. And they haven’t always been just for women, either.

Plenty of prominent men, including Benjamin Franklin, Ernest Hemingway, and at least one of my uncles have been known to participate in formal book discussion gatherings. It’s true (or at least it says so on the Internet) that somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of American book clubs have an entirely female membership, and about 93% of all book club participants are women.

Still, according to the New York Times, more than 5 million Americans belong to a book club. Even if the menfolk only make up 7%, that’s still a fair number of men gathering to discuss books. At least in the US. And that estimate doesn’t include the clubs that exist online, which is an ever-growing number of both guys and gals.

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Clearly cartoon men participate at a higher rate than their live action counterparts. Image courtesy of Pixabay

So why do all of these readers get together to talk about what they’ve read? Some of the earliest women’s groups did it because it was a way to become better informed, better educated people when for them to do so wasn’t exactly encouraged by society. And I suspect that’s not so different than the reason any book club has decided to meet.

Sure, for the clubs of today, part of the motivation might be more social—to share a cup of coffee or a glass of wine with friends. Or we might dive into Oprah’s latest pick because we know everyone else will have read it and we don’t want to be left out of cocktail party conversations. We might even join in simply because there are more than a million books published every year in the United States alone and it’s nice if someone will please tell us which ones we should read.

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If you’re having trouble, might I make a suggestion? It even comes with questions for discussion, suitable for book club gatherings.

But I also think people who read a lot tend to understand that there is value in forming and articulating deeper thoughts about the words we pour into our brains. I’ve had the great honor of attending a few clubs that chose to read my books and invite me into their conversations, and I am also an active member of a monthly book club. I don’t always like the books we read. In fact, most of them are in a genre I never sought out before joining and probably wouldn’t were I to quit attending.

I don’t go because I love every book, though I happily admit I have fallen in love with quite a few of the selections. I participate because to do so forces me to read outside my comfort zone, which expands my knowledge base, challenges my assumptions, and stimulates my curiosity.

It’s also good for me as a writer (the lone representative in my club of that peculiar breed of human) because I can tend to fall into the trap of reading in a particular way. I pick apart books to see what makes them tick. I incessantly analyze (and sometimes harshly judge) the use of adverbs, the pacing of scenes, the development of themes and subplots. Sometimes I get so concerned with craft that I forget to just let myself get swept up in the story.

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It’s fun to read with friends. photo credit: State Library of Queensland, Australia Group of children sitting on the grass reading books, 1900-1910 via photopin (license)

Then I go to book club and I am reminded that readers don’t read just for deep intellectual stimulation or for controversial learning or for engaging in theological debates that could one day get them excommunicated from their Puritan communities. They also read because they like to gather with friends and enjoy a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and talk about what they liked or didn’t like about a book—how it made them feel, or think, or grow in surprising ways. And I think that’s a pretty good reason.

Are you part of a book club?