A reader recently sent an e-mail which opened with this question: "Has St. Ignatius High School never heard of Ignatius Press?"
The institution in question is a Jesuit preparatory school
in Cleveland, Ohio. I know very little about it (I'm told that tuition
is around $11,000 a year), but I see that the school's website features
the following quote:
"The purpose of
our education is to give a young man the tools whereby he can answer the
question What does God want from me?" -- Rev. Robert J. Welsh, S.J.,
Very nice. But, having read the school's required summer reading list,
I wonder, "Does God really want teenagers to be reading books filled
with numerous vulgarities, sexually-explicit language and references,
and perspectives that are amoral and hedonistic?"
For example, the novel, The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
by Sherman Alexie, which is required summer reading for "English I" and
"Honors English I", contains the following passage, uttered by the
book's central character, Junior, a teenage boy growing up on the
Spokane Indian Reservation (warning: sexual language):
I spend hours in the bathroom with a magazine that has one thousand pictures of naked movie stars:
Naked woman + right hand = happy happy joy joy
Yep, that’s right, I admit that I masturbate.
I’m proud of it.
I’m good at it.
If there were a Professional Masturbators League, I’d get drafted number one and make millions of dollars.
And maybe you’re thinking, “Well, you really shouldn’t be talking about masturbation in public.”
Well, tough, I’m going to talk about it because EVERYBODY does it. And EVERYBODY likes it.
And if God hadn’t wanted us to masturbate, then God wouldn’t have given us thumbs.
Yeah, yeah, I get it: this is real teen talk written to engage teens who live in the real
world and who want tough, straight, honest fiction that takes on
controversial and difficult topics. That's the usual line trotted out in
defense of such overrated pieces of fiction. Junior also expresses his
anger at God and Jesus (after the death of his grandmother) by doodling cartoons that
are stupid at best and certainly offensive. There is also the dubious
revelation that Indians, according to Junior, used to be supporters of
gay marriage--until their open-mindedness was corrupted:
My grandmother had no use for all the gay bashing and homophobia in the world, especially among other Indians.
she said. "Who cares if a man wants to marry another man? All I want to
know is who's going to pick up all the dirty socks?"
ever since the whites showed up and brought along their Christianity and
their fears of eccentricity, Indians have gradually lost all of their
If it was just one Catholic school, I might simply
say, "Unfortunately, there's usually going to be a bad apple in the
barrel." But Alexie's novel (based in large part on his own life)
appears on the reading lists of numerous Catholic schools across the
country. See for yourself.
Why? Is it because it won the 2007 National Book Award for Young
People's Literature? If so, then why not have the young teens read the
2004 winner, Godless,
by Pete Hautman, in which the the main character says, "Why mess around
with Catholicism when you can have your own customized religion? All
you need is a disciple or two...and a god.'" (To be fair, Hautman's book
is not, from what I can tell, actually antagonistic to religion; it
might even be quite the opposite.)
And what to make of the inclusion of The Privileges,
by Jonathan Dee? I read parts of it online, along with some reviews. It
appears to be both repulsive and forgettable, filled to the edges with
foul language and disagreeable characters, many of them seemingly hoping
to be in a Camus novel but lacking the depth or focus to make the cut. I
suppose it passes for what is now considered "sophisticated", what with
the "f" bombs and narcissistic chatter. Goodness.
Looking at the
summer book list for St. Ignatius High School, I noticed that none of
those required for English classes was written before 1970, and all but
one--The Hollow Hills, by Mary Stewart (1973)--were published
in the past eighteen years. Do schools even bother with the classics anymore? Or has the push for being "relevant" gotten to the point that any book written before iPhones existed is relegated to the outer darkness?
It got me thinking of the books that I had
to read for English classes when I was high school (a public school) in
the mid-1980s. They included several plays by Shakespeare (Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Hamlet), For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ivanhoe, My Name Is Asher Lev (a personal favorite), 1984, A Tale of Two Cities, and Tess of the D'Urbervilles.
I cannot recall reading a book that had been published in the just ten
or twenty years before. Which is not to say that good fiction for teens
isn't being written in the 21st century. Not at all. But I have serious
doubts about The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. If I
was a parent whose child was required to read that book, I would have
some questions for the English teacher, beginning with this one: "Have
you never heard of Ignatius Press?" And, as a follow-up: "Or of the Ignatius Critical Editions?