The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Mark Twain Next Year!

July 13, 2007
Washington, DC

I hate to deluge the Communications office with yet another post, but by the clock on the wall, it's time for Uncle David to dip into the ol' mailbag and see what you blog fans out there in cyberland are exercised about. Turns out there's a fascinating letter from someone who writes:

?I am curious of your stance on books which constantly battle censorship in schools and the public realm, such as Huckleberry Finn. Will you push to raise awareness of certain books which parents, or communities may deem inappropriate for the way they describe slavery, war, sexuality, inequality??

Good question. As it turns out, there aren't a whole lot of books out there that haven't been deemed inappropriate by ?somebody.? Here at the Big Read, at least three of our books reliably rank pretty high on the American Library Association's annual list of challenged books: The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, and A Farewell to Arms. I'd guess that the mystical elements in A Wizard of Earthsea and Bless Me, Ultima make them frequent targets, too.

But as for whether we'll ?push to raise awareness? of these or other potentially controversial books, my instinct is not to do any more pushing than our Readers Circle already did by putting them on the list. None of us would choose a book because it's been banned, any more than we'd choose a book because it's innocuous.

Our principal criterion is and always will be literary excellence. If that means ruffling a few mockingbird feathers, we'll just have to live with it. Certainly Dashiell Hammett, author of our list's Maltese Falcon -- and nobody's schoolmarm -- isn't going to be getting any posthumous medals from GLAAD any time soon.

As for Huck Finn, Big Read aficionados may have noticed that among our announced new additions for Fall '08 will be The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. In the first place, Tom Sawyer is an unalloyed gem, and I'd argue a much deeper book than many smart people give it credit for. While more people may know a set-piece or two from Tom Sawyer -- painting the fence, etc. -- I suspect that more people have read Huck Finn, and one of things the Big Read endeavors to do as it hits its stride is to enlarge people's ideas about
what is or isn't canonical.

Second, Tom Sawyer is, on its own terms, a more successful book than Huck Finn. By that I don't mean better, or deeper, or more worth reading. I only mean that Tom Sawyer realizes its own modest ambitions more completely than its sequel. The ending of Huck Finn just plain doesn't work, as Big Read mainstay Ernest Hemingway was not the first to point out. The ending of Tom Sawyer, while perhaps less memorable, unquestionably delivers.

Third, as I've suggested, there's more to Tom Sawyer than meets the eye, as there usually is to less-read books by great writers. Here, after all, is a book set in the antebellum South that begins with a scene about a fence--that is to say, a border -- being painted white -- that is to say, the opposite of black -- as a result of somebody getting other people do his work for him. As Tom Lehrer once remarked, you don't have to be Freud to figure that one out.

Mark TwainWe do our best around here, but we need questions like this one to help keep us honest. So please, keep that correspondence coming. And in the meantime, check out the Big Read Blog's maiden foray into the age of streaming video: some footage that Thomas Edison shot of Mark Twain ?