Banned books are good for you!


Huck FinnHere’s good news: A new study of Texas teens finds no connection between reading “edgy” books and mental health issues or delinquent behavior. By “edgy,” what the researchers meant was books that contain “violent, sexual, or occult” elements (would that include Peter Pan? The Wizard of Oz? Cinderella?)—books that typically are banned in school and public libraries across this great nation, including the great state of Texas.

But wait, there’s more! Here’s what the researchers also said: “Consuming edgy material … may provide teachable moments to discuss ethical issues between parents and children. Banning such material may be counterproductive in removing these teachable opportunities.”

The new research, conducted by Stetson University psychologist Christopher Ferguson,  and published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, suggests these “edgy” books may indeed have an impact on impressionable young minds.

A positive impact.

The study showed that South Texas teens who read “banned books” were more likely to be engaged in civic activities such as volunteer work. “[T]he influence of banned books on behavior are not worrisome, and may be positive overall,” Ferguson wrote.

Ferguson surveyed 282 students, aged 12–18, who live in a small, predominantly Hispanic Texas town. He gave them a list of 30 books that the American Library Association have identified as “commonly challenged…over the past decade because of content.” These books ranged from the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The youngsters read the books and responded to questions that were designed to reveal antisocial personality disorders about how they felt toward friends and family. The kids were also asked about whether and how frequently they engaged in three civic-minded activities: volunteer work, charitable giving, and elections/electoral processes. Their primary caregivers filled out a survey describing the student’s behavior and reported his or her most recent grade point average.

The results: “Reading banned books did not predict nonviolent or violent crime, or contribute to school GPA,” Ferguson reports, but was “positively associated with civic and volunteering behaviors.” Furthermore, “…reading challenging books may be eye-opening and move individuals to help others.”

Such works can prompt readers to ponder ethical dilemmas, or—better yet—to discuss them with parents or teachers. In this way, he writes, the books “may foster higher-level thinking about these issues and promote more civic mindedness, even if the material is dark.”

Furguson noted that a few kids showed a correlation in both the consumption of banned books and mental health symptoms. “It may be possible that youth with higher levels of mental health symptoms may select books that speak to them, offer them a chance for introspection, or a release from their symptoms,” he wrote. Although this correlation “may serve as a red flag for parents,” the study suggests that for the vast majority of kids, reading banned books isn’t harmful and may even contribute to emotional and moral growth.

I tried to find the list of 30 books that Ferguson used for this study, but could not—well, I’m sure the list is in the original study paper, but I couldn’t get past the abstract page in the database. The ALA publishes a new list of “commonly banned books” every year and bases its choices on a historical time line of challenges. This is the list I found, starting in 1982. It looks like it might be the one Ferguson used, or at least it’s close:

Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou (nominated, National Book award)

The Color Purple, by Alice Walker (winner, Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction)

In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak (winner, Caldecott Medal)

Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson (winner, Newbery Medal)

Forever, by Judy Blume

The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier

The Satanic Verses, By Salman Rushdie

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, by Alvin Schwartz

Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck (Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962)

Sex, by Madonna

Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous

The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison (Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012)

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (winner, Pulitzer Prize. Lee was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007)

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

All But Alice, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Daddy’s Roommate, Michael Willhoite

Fallen Angels, by Walter Dean Myers (winner, Coretta Scott King Award)

Captain Underpants, by Dav Pilkey

Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

Harry Potter (Series), by JK Rowling

The Giver, by Lois Lowry (winner, Newbery Medal)

King and King, by Linda De Hann

It’s Perfectly Normal, by Robie Harris

And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell, and Henry Cole

The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman (winner, Carnegie Medal)

Gossip Girl (Series), by Cecily von Ziegesar

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

TTYL, by Lauren Myracle

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie (winner, National Book Award for Young Peoples Literature)

Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire


Seventy-seven cents

The Women's Union Label League parades for women's equal pay in San Diego's Labor Day Parade, 1910. Women have been at the equal pay thing for a while.

The Women’s Union Label League parades for women’s equal pay in San Diego’s Labor Day Parade, 1910. Women have been at the equal pay thing for a while.

I can’t believe we still have to talk about this crap, but evidently, we do. Seventy-seven percent. That’s how much money a woman earns compared to a man: seventy-seven cents of every dollar.

Today President Barack Obama signed an executive order that makes it easier for the employees of federal contractors to find out what their colleagues earn and to discuss wages. So Jane can stand on the line and ask Joe what he makes, and if he tells her, she can find the boss on her break and ask for a raise. That’s not revolutionary, but it’d be good.

But remember, only if she’s employed by a federal contractor. If she works at Home Depot or Dollar Tree or some other non-federal-government job, fugeddaboudit.

The presidential event honors National Equal Pay Day, and the event is a cheap political shot by Democrats to woo their constituents before an election. I’m all for it. Women’s median earnings are lower than men’s in nearly all occupations—even in jobs that are predominantly taken by female workers.equalpay-final-208x300

Women often suffer in competitive occupations because they take time off to have children. When working women have small children at home, employers say they take too much time off, they aren’t loyal to the company, they can’t perform at the highest level, and they don’t deserve a raise. When working men have small children at home, employers say that they have a family to take care of, so they deserve the extra money. That disparity needs to stop.

Women need to learn to ask for more money and negotiate for higher wages, but employers—and society at large—needs to shift its attitudes and reward results gained and not hours worked.

Today’s executive order does not give any female employee one red cent. It just makes it easier for her to find out what somebody else at her company earns. It’s a small step to raising that seventy-seven cents to a full buck. And that’s long overdue.


Recreating the Old Masters

"The Music Lesson" by Johannes Vermeer

“The Music Lesson” by Johannes Vermeer

The other night, I was dragged kicking and screaming to Tim’s Vermeer, a documentary film about Tim Jenison, an inventor who had an idea that Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675, “The Music Lesson,” “Girl with a Pearl Earring”) must have used an optical device of some type to paint his pictures. Jenison developed this theory after looking at Vermeer’s finely detailed and proportioned paintings. How could Vermeer do it, he wondered.

Sounds boring, right? You couldn’t be more wrong.

Jenison was spurred by an idea that the British painter David Hockney suggests in his 2001 book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters. Hockney’s thesis is that the realism in Western art that developed after the Renaissance was primarily due to painters using optical aids such as the camera obscura. Hockney argues that the photographic quality of detail represented in the work of the Old Masters is impossible to create without some kind of optical aid. Jenison sets out to demonstrate that Vermeer could have used such an optical device by recreating “The Music Lesson.”

Jenison examines the harpsichord he built as part of the recreation of the room for his experiment with "The Music Lesson"

Jenison examines the harpsichord he built as part of the recreation of the room for his experiment with “The Music Lesson”

First Jenison visited The Netherlands. He learned Dutch. He studied the architecture in Delft, where Vermeer lived and worked, and the old Dutch masters. He learned how to mix paints the way they did it in 1650 and then mixed the paints for his own work using those techniques. He learned how to build the furniture that people used in mid-seventeenth century Holland and then built replicas of the furniture you see in “The Music Lesson.” He commissioned a pot that exactly matched a pot in that painting. He learned how to make glass using mid-seventeenth century techniques, and then made his own lenses using that glass for his camera obscura. He met David Hockney and Philip Steadman, a professor who wrote Vermeer’s Camera, which supports Hockney’s thesis.

Jenison built a studio that replicated Vermeer’s. In it, he recreated a room exactly like that pictured in “The Music Lesson.” He built the furniture for it—both the harpsichord and the blue chair. He searched for rugs that matched. He built the windows and recreated the ceiling and floor. Everything matched exactly, to the inch.

He experimented with the idea of the camera obscura. First he built a black box. Then he found that a mirror worked better. Then he discovered that a curved mirror worked better still. Using this setup, he could reflect the image of the room on the canvas, one small area at a time. He then painted under the mirror. When the color on the canvas exactly matched the color in the mirror, he knew he was on the right track. The image emerged. In the most delicate areas, he couldn’t paint for more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time before the closeness of the work caused his back and hands to cramp. But dot by dot, painstaking line by painstaking line, he painted an exact replica of Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson.”

He showed his painting to Hockney and Steadman. They agreed: the result was remarkable. And it showed that at the very least, Jenisen’s technique would have enabled Vermeer to achieve the level of detail that he did.

How long did Jenison need to get from idea to execution? 1,825 days. Five years.

So, I can hear you thinking, now I don’t have to see the movie. You’d be wrong. Jenison was probably more than a little obsessed, but he was likeably obsessed. He had an idea, and he explored every avenue until he accomplished what he set out to do. He faced failure and tried again. He got bored and kept going. He had accidents and started over. At one point, after he’s been painting the dots on the rug for about a month, he looks into the camera and says that if they weren’t making a movie, he’d quit. He even held a public rant when he couldn’t see the original “Music Lesson,” which hangs in Buckingham Palace.

But sometimes he had a stroke of luck. A brilliant idea. An experiment panned out. And the Queen relented and let him have a private, 30-minute viewing of the painting.

And he doesn’t quit. He keeps working, and at the end, he’s got his painting, and he’s answered the question to his satisfaction.

For those of you who’ve read Malcolm Gladwell and believe his concept that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert, you’ll have noted that the time Jenison spends on his painting pushes him to the 10,000 hour mark. Is Jenison an artist, an art historian, an art expert? No. And he doesn’t claim to be. He had a question about technique and he worked until he demonstrated that his idea of technique could have been used in 1650.

It’s an awesome movie—a lesson about perseverance, following your dreams, and answering your questions. It’s a testament to the imagination and a celebration of it. In theaters now or on Netflix. Or, no doubt, a streaming something near you.


On this day in history: the movie


China SyndromeToday was a pretty uneventful day for me. I ran a free promotion on Amazon, which did okay. I went to the pharmacy and picked up some generic pain relievers, went to the bank, came home, worked, saw a friend. Pretty typical. Not exactly the stuff of an action-adventure film. Or a romantic comedy. Or even an indie literary adaptation.

But I got to wondering what else had happened on March 28 in years gone by. I like history. So I looked it up.

As it happened, a lot has happened at the end of March. On March 28, 1979, the worst accident in the history of the U.S. nuclear power industry occurred. At the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, a pressure valve didn’t close, contaminated cooling water drained away, and the core overheated. Then human operators, misreading confusing and contradictory readings, shut off the emergency cooling pumps. Within four hours, the core had heated to more than 4,000 degrees, just 1,000 degrees shy of meltdown, which would have released radiation across the country. As it was, the plant itself was contaminated.

One hour short of total meltdown, operators got the emergency cooling pumps working and the core temperature dropped. However, an explosion of hydrogen gas resulted in a radiation leak, and the Pennsylvania governor recommended a limited five-mile evacuation. As a consequence, 100,000 people fled the area. President Jimmy Carter, a trained nuclear engineer, had helped dismantle a damaged Canadian nuclear reactor while serving in the U.S. Navy. His visit to the plant calmed fears.

The unharmed Unit-1 reactor at Three Mile Island, which was shut down during the crisis, did not resume operation until 1985. Cleanup continued on Unit-2 until 1990, but it was too damaged to be used again. In the time since the accident at Three Mile Island, not a single new nuclear power plant has been ordered in the United States, although four new reactors at existing nuclear power plants have been commissioned but not completed.

So that was a big day for everybody in the country, really. In a life-imitates-art moment, the film China Syndrome, a thriller about the cover-up of safety violations at a nuclear power plant, was released on March 16, 1979, just 12 days before the accident. In one scene, a character says that a nuclear meltdown would render “an area the size of Pennsylvania” permanently uninhabitable. Spooky.

Other big days in March? On March 29, 1973, the United States withdrew from Vietnam. And on March 30, 1981, John Hinckley, Jr. shot president Ronald Reagan. Of course there have been a million movies about the Vietnam War, but even Hinkley’s assassination attempt has a film tie-in—his defense claimed that Hinkley was obsessed with the film Taxi Driver and tried to re-enact portions of the movie in his own life. The film, starring Jodie Foster, has a scene with an attempted shooting of a senator.

But those are stories for another day.



Your Title Here

BookBub's mystery category word cloud

BookBub’s mystery category word cloud

BookBub's historical romance word cloud

BookBub’s historical romance word cloud

BookBub, an ebook promotion services company, published a blog post about words that are trending in book titles. Using data from the last six months, BookBub analyzed 3,850 books from multiple fiction categories to see which words turn up most frequently in titles and then turned their results into word clouds.

Which word was used the most often? Love. Love appeared in the titles of religious and romance novels, but also horror, historical fiction, women’s fiction, and mysteries. Pious turned up in the titles of action-adventure novels, but not religious. (Religious, however, had Couponing. How inspirational is that?)

Murder and Death were huge for the mystery category, as you might guess, but some mysteries also used Dumpty (but not Humpty, as far as I could tell). Thriller titles used Justice, Blood, Black, and Blue the most (I guess there’s a lot of bruising going on in thrillers). War was the word used most often in historical fiction titles, and Destiny and Deadly—but also River—in action-adventure. Zombie and Dead turned up most frequently in horror titles, but historical fiction by a huge margin went with Bride. Historical fiction titles also used Sourdough and Bushwhacked. (I don’t know about you, but I’ve always wanted to use “Bushwhacked” in a title. Or anywhere.)

Contemporary romance titles included the words Audubon and Shopper. Children’s books went with Amazing, Treasure, and Princess. Religious books used the word Heaven most often in their titles (and let’s not forget Couponing).

Women’s fiction went big with food words: Ate, Pickled, Chocolate, Coffee, Shelled, Shucked, Fried, and my favorite, Geoducks.

Lots of words in book titles seem to be possessives. Everybody’s got one — God and the Devil, as well as normal people: Anne, Darcy, Doctor, Else, Gasparilla, Horatio, Jacob, Nefertiti, and Nobody. Tough guys get their time on the cover—Assassin, Hunter, Monster, Pirate, Rogue, Shooter, Warrior—as well as royalty: Emperor, King, Knight, Duke, and Lady. Abstracts that own things: Heaven and Freedom. Places that own things: Chicago and a Kingdom. Things that fly that own things: Bird and Fairy.

I couldn’t resist: I made up a few titles of my own using trending words. Ready?

The Assassin’s Princess Treasure (action-adventure)

Darcy’s Zombie Love Bride (historical romance)

Couponing on the Dumpty River (women’s fiction)

Deadly Destiny: Bushwhacked Justice (thriller)

Nobody’s Sourdough War (historical fiction)

Life just doesn’t get any better than those trending words—as long as you’re not bushwhacked.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Yawn


tinkerTailorI like spy stories, mysteries, caper plots, and thrillers, and a friend had strongly recommended this six-hour television mini-series from 1979. It stars Alec Guinness and Ian Richardson, and it looked great. I love those guys. Tonight I settled down to watch. The first hour: not much happenedWe got some backstory that had one pretty exciting scene, but it was backstory. When the credits rolled at the end, I thought I had misunderstood how the disk was set up, and I was getting intro credits really late into the show. Really late. Like an hour late.

But no. I needed to click again to get the second hour to start. Okay, so the producers/directors like long set-ups. The mini-series has a lot of characters, and they’re all white British men who wear trenchcoats, so maybe the producers thought we needed a long intro to get everybody straight. The second hour started. And again…waiting for something to happen. Waiting. Waiting. Then I fell asleep. When I woke up, five minutes before the end, I learned that Alec Guinness has been called out of retirement to find a mole in Britain’s secret service. Okay.

I plan to watch this mini-series to the end: the disks are here, after all. I think what’s making me yawn is the way the story is unfolding, in way too leisurely a style for what we’re used to these days. This mini-series was filmed 35 years ago, and I don’t think this story would be scripted this way today, no matter how John Le Carre had written the book. These days, most spy films seem to lead with a car chase or a scene that leads to a car chase–something that is big, bold, noisy, and fast—something that producers think will hook the viewer and make them sit up and pay attention. Just think of the recent Bond films with Daniel Craig, for example. A slower build doesn’t work that well any more.

That’s true for books, too. We’re taught that contemporary fiction, especially genre fiction, should begin in medias res—the beginning of the action. And that usually means literally—like the middle of an argument or a fire or burglary or some other central problem for the characters. Then the beginning of the problem—like the why of the argument or the fire—is layered in later as backstory, and then, writers hope, the ending will take care of itself.

I’m a big fan of old movies and old TV—and by “old” I mean from the 1930s and 1940s for film and 1950s for TV—and a lot of technique from those days looks dated today, even though the stories might still be fun. So I’m willing to cut Tinker, Tailor a lot of slack for what I think is a style convention of 35 years ago. Even with not a single car chase, Ian Richardson is deliciously evil, and Alec Guinness carries off his part brilliantly. Now in the next episodes, I know we’ll start to get some action. Even if it’s not car chases. Or fires.