In Fight Over ‘Beloved,’ a Reminder of Literature’s Power

By Molly Young

Every day I’m alive is a day I’m thankful that my parents were too busy to supervise my reading as a child. Or too bored by the idea of it. As long as I was relatively clean and not punching my younger brother’s lights out, I pretty much had the run of the house and a one-mile radius surrounding it. Included in that roaming zone was Green Apple Books, a cherished San Francisco institution packed to the beams with new books, old books, blue books and paperbacks from the 1970s that reeked so powerfully of Menthol cigarettes and camphor that I often emerged with that same scent wafting from my stretchy purple turtleneck.

Like my parents, the employees at Green Apple were unconcerned with the reading habits of the 12-year-old in their midst. With laser focus I absorbed Carl Sagan and Charles Dickens and the diary of Anne Frank, along with NC-17 titles by Iceberg Slim and Charles Bukowski and multiple volumes of a series titled “Truly Tasteless Jokes.” Every session at Green Apple was a roller coaster, with the classic readerly emotions of wonder and discovery interlaced with titillation, fear, shock and repulsion.

I didn’t get to Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” until a decade later, but I like to think my early exposure to sex and violence in print had laminated me with a cognitive resilience that meant I could “handle” Morrison’s masterly brutality. (The book, which won the Pulitzer Prize and is widely considered one of the great modern novels, takes place in the antebellum South and focuses on a woman who is haunted by the ghost of her dead infant. Part of the book’s achievement is its visceral summoning of slavery’s horrors.) However you come by it, this kind of resilience is a useful tool. It’s the internal assurance that difficult books will not fry your hard drive upon impact; a confidence that it’s fine to be frightened or upset or baffled by books, that it won’t kill you. That it may, in fact, enlarge you.

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    On Monday, the Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin released a campaign ad featuring Laura Murphy, a woman whose son had been assigned “Beloved” in his A.P. English class. The student complained to his mother about the book (“It was disgusting and gross”). Murphy went on to lobby the county school board, and then the Virginia State Legislature, to remove the book from commonwealth school curriculums. In 2016, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (running again now as the Democratic candidate against Youngkin) vetoed what became known as the “Beloved bill,” which would have given parents the right to block books with sexually explicit content.

    In Youngkin’s ad, Murphy sits before a flickering fire, twisting her hands in her lap and recounting her son’s ordeal. “When my son showed me his reading assignment, my heart sunk,” she says. “It was some of the most explicit material you can imagine.” The ad’s framing is that Youngkin, unlike McAuliffe, would allow Virginia parents to have “a say” in their child’s education. Murphy, the ad argues, was acting only out of love and protectiveness for her son, who had experienced “night terrors” after reading “Beloved.”

    But, as my husband pointed out — he grew up in rural Virginia — getting night terrors from “Beloved” in your senior year of high school might be possible only if you have little previous awareness of the book’s subject, which is American history. (He knew plenty of kids whose parents monitored their media assiduously. One girl’s parents, he told me, pre-read her assigned texts and redacted any troubling words, sometimes stapling together pages whose content they deemed questionable.)

    Youngkin insisted that the bill was about the prerogatives of parents to oversee the education of their children, not about “Beloved” specifically, which wasn’t named in the ad. But the fact that it was “Beloved” might be what is colloquially referred to as a “self-own” — a suggestion that the book’s depictions of slavery were so bizarrely unfamiliar and vivid to the student that they simply could not be assimilated.

    Did those visits to Green Apple warp my character? Probably. But whatever mental disfiguration occurred was outweighed by the profound insight delivered by such reckless reading, which was that an object made of pulped wood covered with printed text could, as if by magic, evoke impossibly strong emotions and ideas. It did not matter that some of the books were superb and some were junk. Or that I could understand perhaps 6 percent of Philip K. Dick’s “Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said,” which I chose because the cover featured an illustration of a policeman shooting what looked like bacon out of a gun. The point was that I felt empowered, not menaced, by my ability to extract meaning from words on a page, even if it left me feeling temporarily liquefied.

    A second objection to this kind of intervention in curriculums is that it’s pointless. Now that the internet exists, getting worked up about “explicit material” in one of the 20th century’s best novels is a losing game. More important, it’s foreclosing a core truth of education, which is that it can be — it should be — unsettling, destabilizing and mind-altering. The kids can handle it.

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