Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Book Review: Obscene in the Extreme by Rick Wartzman

I read this book for Banned Books Week, and sadly did not quite finish it in time. Like most straight nonfiction, it was a little dry, which made for slower reading. But a topic I was very interested in helped immensely. I should say that not only do you not need to have read The Grapes of Wrath to enjoy this book, but personally, I didn't like TGoW, which didn't detact from this at all. (I'll bet a large part of why I didn't like it was that I was 16 when I read it, but no one's going to convince me to give it another try.)

The book was published in 1939, and the county supervisors in the California county where most of the book takes place, voted to remove the book from the local library system. Unlike most book bans, this one wasn't about obscenity, language, sex, drugs, or those kinds of things. It was banned because it made Kern County look bad. Yes, obscenity was the ostensible reason, but it was plainly obvious that wasn't the true reason for the ban.

Mr. Wartzman uses this example as a jump-off point to give a history of book banning. He goes into great detail about all the characters involved in the fight, the ramifications of the book and of the banning around the country. It was fascinating to read all the parallels between the Great Depression and what's going on right now in America with the Great Recession. The book was almost more about The Grapes of Wrath itself than the banning. In fact, the rescission of the banning isn't even addressed until the concluding chapter as almost an aside. This is an excellent example that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Banning The Grapes of Wrath completely backfired, as it normally does, by giving the book even more publicity, and probably helping spur sales. A thorough and detailed history of a small moment in history which illuminates larger issues that resonate today.


Elaine said...

Hi Carin,

Just wanted to drop by to let you know that Rick also did a brief interview with Penguin Classics On Air about this novel. If you're interested, check it out: http://penguin.com/pconair

(Rick's interview is after Nancy Pearl's discussion on banned books and libraries)

(Also, my apologies for not being able to send this in a personal email. I couldn't find a contact address on your site, which may be deliberate on your part! You can email me at elaine.broeder@us.penguingroup.com for more info if you'd like--we'd rather like to add you to our book blogger database if you have any interest in that sort of thing)

Hoping you're well,

Carin said...

What an interesting way to celebrate Banned Books Week. Non-fiction! Sometimes I do think it would be more interesting to read all about why a book goes on a list like that (a detailed account of course) rather than the book itself. You always read the most interesting books!