Thursday, September 5, 2013

In Defense of "Looking for Alaska"

This letter was originally published in today's issue of the Verona Cedar Grove Times. 



An Open Letter to the Parents of Sophomores at Verona High School:

Dear Parents: 

            I have heard that there has been some controversy surrounding the inclusion of John Green’s Printz-award winning first novel Looking for Alaska on the summer reading curriculum. I would like to point out that this controversy is, quite frankly, ridiculous. 

            There is a lot to say on the topic of book banning and censorship and why these are never a good idea. I could discuss how, in his YouTube video “I Am Not a Pornographer,” John Green explains the existence of the controversial sexual portion of his novel.

 “There is one very frank sex scene. It is awkward, unfun, disastrous, and wholly unerotic… the whole reason that scene in question exists in Looking for Alaska is because I wanted to draw a contrast between that scene, when there’s a lot of physical intimacy but is ultimately very emotionally empty, and the scene that immediately follows it, when there’s not a serious physical interaction, but there’s this intense emotional connection… it doesn’t take a deeply critical understanding of literature to realize that Looking for Alaska is arguing against vapid physical interactions, not for them.”

Novelists write the scenes they write for a reason. In this case, the sexual content of Looking for Alaska exists to showcase something much more valuable: emotional intimacy. It is not there for shock value, or for the purpose of corrupting its teenaged readers. It exists for the same reason that everything in literature exists: to further the themes and the plot of the work in question. 

The author’s own words aside, there are a great many more arguments in favor of Green’s book. I could argue that it is absurd to hold more recent literature under such censorship and scrutiny, when students have been learning about Shakespeare’s dirty jokes for centuries. I could argue that hiding these things from your children will not keep them innocent, but rather leave them to face the world unprepared and perhaps more likely to make the dangerous decisions you don’t want them to have to face. I could argue that banning a book, or even removing it from the curriculum, might just have the opposite effect to the one that was intended and send teenagers to the library in droves. 

            But the argument that is most important, in this context, is one of empathy. 

            Looking for Alaska is a novel about Miles Halter, a boy who is obsessed with the last words of famous people and who decides to attend a boarding school one state away from his hometown. There, he meets Alaska Young, a beautiful, fascinating girl who lives next door to him and about whom he knows absolutely nothing. Miles spends the rest of the novel trying to understand Alaska, to really know her, but all he can see is his idea of her (except, perhaps, in the scene following the sex scene in question). He cannot fully comprehend her as the complex, problematic person she truly is, instead seeing her as the wonderful, perfect girl he wants her to be. It isn’t until the novel’s tragic ending that he even begins to understand his mistakes. 

            Miles learns to be empathetic throughout the course of Looking for Alaska. He learns that people are not what he makes of them, that the world is not only what he sees through his own narrow perspective. 

            Verona is a town of tradition. It is a small town where nothing has changed in years and where half the people, if not more, that you see walking down the street are people you know. It is a perfectly nice town, and I am happy that I grew up there. 

            But it is also a town that can, very easily, provide a child growing up there with nothing but a very narrow perspective on the world. Things don’t change in Verona. People grow up and come back instead of moving on. 

            Literature is one of the best ways to learn to be empathetic. When we read, we are being asked to connect intimately with the novel’s characters, to care about their lives and their problems as though they were our friends. Literature asks us to see beyond our own narrow perspectives, to understand other people as they really are, rather than how we want to see them. A novel like Looking for Alaska is perfect for students at Verona High School. It is a novel that has empathy as its central theme, that expresses the idea that imagining other people complexly is perhaps the most important and kindest thing that we as humans can do. 

            I would like to ask you, parents, to imagine things more complexly. 

            Imagine Looking for Alaska not as a novel with a Controversial Sex Scene, but as a novel that realistically portrays teenaged life with all its pitfalls and mistakes and bad ideas and wonderful friendships and exciting adventures. 

            Imagine your children not as innocents who need to be locked away in the tower of Verona to protect them from the outside world, but as people capable of reading critically and understanding the themes of the books they read in class. 

            I am trying to imagine you complexly. I know that you are reasonable people; I know that I did not grow up in a town of evildoers happy to throw controversial books on a pyre in the town square, and I know that is not what you are suggesting. I know that you are merely concerned about the things your children are reading, and whether or not the material is appropriate for them. 

            Allow me to leave you with this advice: do not ask the school board if the material is appropriate. Ask your children. Talk to them about the things they read, the things they see on television or at school. Discuss your concerns, and see if they are shared. The world is indeed a scary place, with a great many things we want to keep our loved ones safe from. But some monsters are only shadows on the wall, and the only way to find out the truth is to communicate. 

            Imagine your children complexly. And keep Looking for Alaska on the syllabus.

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