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A novel idea: Read 'Owen Meany' before judging it

July 09, 1999

Sodomy. Lust. Rape. Orgies. Mutilation. Murder. Perversion. Decapitation. Adultery. People roasted alive, drowned en masse, fed to wild animals. Men willing to slaughter their own children and kings sending men off to die in front battle lines in the interest of snagging their wives.

Sicko stuff.

And yes, you could take a pair of tweezers and pull selected passages from the Bible and weave them together without explanation or context to form a pretty frightening literary tapestry that would doubtless offend many a parent of a school-age child and have them marching on the School Board, demanding it be removed from high school reading lists.

Such was the case with the campaign against "A Prayer for Owen Meany," John Irving's acclaimed missive on faith that stirred the ire of would-be Washington County book-banners.

Fortunately, a committee of Washington County citizens, under the auspices of curriculum director Frank Finan, has recommended to the board that Owen Meany be approved for use in high school English classes.

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(Paradoxically, of course, the Bible has never been as fortunate. Civil libertarians, in what I personally believe to be their darkest hour, have swept religious books from the schoolhouse shelves. How one explains the history of mankind without factoring in religion I have no idea).

As with any number of works, opponents of Owen Meany could easily pick and choose a few choice passages that, to say the least, would raise eyebrows. And, supplied with no other information, a board member or anyone else might be excused for thinking such material unfit for school children.

Just as if shown a photo of Gabriela Sabatini's liver, a space alien might conclude humans to be a rather unattractive species. Supplied with the whole picture, however, the conclusion would doubtless be something more positive.

Here, as always, three words apply: Read the book. Anyone who has not read the book and is going on hearsay or a crib sheet of scandalous passages has no business judging, or offering up opinions on Owen Meany.

I know that some of Owen's opponents have indeed read the book and still find the work on the whole to be unfit for their kids. But Owen Meany is complex. Scanning it for the primary purpose of ferreting out every reference to sex and glazing over the far more frequent observations about Owen Meany's steadfast faith in God seems suspect.

Reading with a book in one hand and a notebook on which to jot down bad words in the other is no way to appreciate a novel.

That said, if parents read a book and believe it to be too disturbing for their children (after all, not all kids are intellectually or emotionally equal and some parents might feel as if their kids aren't up to the challenge) they should have the final say.

For their own kids. But they should absolutely not have the right to tell other parents, other teachers and other children what they are, and are not, to read and study.

Because of the fuss, lots of kids in Washington County have taken to reading Owen Meany, on their own if not in class. Mark Twain, told that one of his books had been banned in the Northeast, said "that ought to be good for 25,000 copies."

That's always been the conundrum for book banners: Far more people read the book because of the hubbub than ever would have if nothing had been said. Would anyone have read "The Satanic Verses" if not for the Ayatollah?

If they really wish to do damage to Owen, book banners would do better to prod the School Board into requiring high school students to read it.

The continued success of both the Bible and Owen Meany ought to make one thing clear: Attempts to control knowledge in a free society do not work.

And while the School Board's committee members did the right thing - and presumably the board will honor their months of hard work and debate - the thought that a book has to "make the list" to be taught in Washington County schools is repugnant to the cultivation of fertile young minds.

In Washington County a book is presumed guilty until proven innocent. The quintessential book on mind control, "1984," could easily be kept off the approved book list by one or two controlling minds.

And the fact that there is a "yea or nay" approach to literature makes you wonder who will be targeted next. Twain? Maya Angelou? Cal Thomas? All it takes, apparently, is one or two people to point an accusing finger at an author and cry "Witch!"

Unlike in Salem, however, the Washington County Board of Education is to be congratulated for giving Owen Meany a fair trial.

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