Banned book club a real-time lesson in censorship

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Chicago Tribune metro editor Angela Rozas and Printers Row Journal editor Jennifer Day discuss the controversy over whether to pull graphic novel 'Persepolis' from Chicago Public School curriculums.

Repp said, “I love banned books and have made an effort to read banned books for a while now, because, for some reason, there is something genuine in a lot of banned books, which is what probably scares adults.”

“Yeah, but you're not in 451 Degrees,” Todd said.

“Yeah I know, weird,” she said. (Indeed, when I asked senior Katie McDermott, Repp's friend and fellow Lane protester, if she was a member of the Levi Todd banned-books club, she said, “What's a Levi Todd?”)

Todd told me that when the group started, the members researched where books were banned and what books were banned. “One that kept coming up was, oh, I forget, from a Russian writer, man falls in love with a child …”

“‘Lolita,'” I said.

“‘Lolita,'” he said. “We didn't start with that. We thought we'd spend the first year playing it safe, so the first book was Sherman Alexie's ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,' which has some random controversial elements but also had an instant talking point because the Lane Tech mascot is a Native American, which you are either for or against, but it's something. Also, there's poverty, American culture. … The next book was less banned than controversial (‘Skinned' by Robin Wasserman), and the concept was basically, it's the future, your brain can be scanned and inserted into a robot — you would like it, actually,” he told Repp.

“I'm writing a paper on trans-humanism, actually,” Repp said.

“Animal Farm” didn't go as well, Todd said, because “everybody kind of knows communism doesn't work by now, so there's not a lot to discuss anymore. But ‘Fight Club,' the book, there was a lot to talk about.”

I asked why.

“Because — ”

“Because,” Repp interrupted, “the first rule of Fight Club is to not talk about Fight Club.”

Todd sighed. “Yes,” he said. “But no — the writing style is just so different, and the character is having this mental downward spiral, and he talks about how it feels better when he can destroy something beautiful.”

“I think that's a recurring thing in banned books,” Repp said. “The whole destroying something beautiful. I'm rereading ‘The Fountainhead' and this daughter, she buys a sculpture in Italy and throws it down the stairs.”

But deeper themes rarely lead to banned books, I said, it's usually a single objectionable passage or image.

“It's one page of ‘Persepolis'!” Todd said.

“Because people who object to this stuff don't read entire books,” Repp said. Still, the group has received nothing but support from Lane Tech, Todd said, “no push-back.” (Their adviser, English teacher Brian Telles, told me response from the school and himself has been “only enthusiastic.”)

In fact, Todd expects membership to spike slightly because of the “Persepolis” controversy, though he is a realist: He understands that the life span of a controversy is a blink, and that 451 Degrees is no easy sell.

He told me a story: “When we were talking about ‘Fahrenheit 451,' the same day they were pulling the book, we did this exercise. I asked everyone to pretend we're the world, it's a utopia/dystopia, let's figure out if we can create a society where everyone is happy. Everyone had to finish the sentence: ‘In my ideal world there is …' We went in a circle. If anyone was opposed to anyone's ideal world, they could raise their hand, that idea would not be adopted. And you couldn't argue. Anyone is opposed — that's it, not included. But, of course, everyone started arguing — because you can't create an ideal world and you can't make everyone happy all the time.”
Twitter @borrelli
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