Thursday, August 20, 2009

"Books Should Be Used. That's Why We're Buying Them."

The New York Times' blog City Room discusses the Brooklyn Public Library's policies for dealing with books deemed to be offensive for one reason or another, and its decision to leave Alan Moore's Lost Girls on in its shelves with other general-circulation graphic novels, despite concerns about its sexually explicit illustrations. Tintin au Congo, by the Belgian cartoonish Herge (with whom every introductory-level high school French student is familiar) wasn't so lucky; it ended up in a special section of the library, to which access is granted by appointment only.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should state that I am a huge fan of the Brooklyn Public Library, and am inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt on close judgment calls such as this one. Lost Girls isn't a comic book, it is a graphic novel aimed at adults, who are unlikely to be scandalized by the graphic nature of its sex scenes. Tintin, on the other hand, is a children's comic, and its depictions of Africans in the Congo, originally drawn in 1930, are regressive stereotypes. Even if you believe that it is generally good for people to read books that push their buttons - and I do - the redeeming artistic or literary merit of Tintin's artistic choices probably isn't great enough to justify their continued circulation, when (presumably) a significant portion of Brooklyn's population finds them to be offensive.

Racist stereotypes in children's entertainment aren't anything new - five years ago, when Warner Brothers released Looney Tuns on dvd, Jake Taylor and I were shocked at how offensive the Mexican, French, and even American southern stereotypes were. It was the Great Depression; people's views on race weren't as sophisticated as (I would like to think) they are today. Admittedly, those Looney Tunes shorts were so skillfully done that they are worth watching - even worth showing to children - despite their potentially offensive content. People can still read Tintin au Congo at the Brooklyn Public Library, they just have to specifically ask to see it, thus ensuring that somebody won't come across it accidentally and take offense at it. In a way, its no different than a bodega's decision to keep Hustler and Penthouse behind the counter, instead of on the newstand next to Time and Sports Illustrated. The BPL seems to have arrived at a compromise that allows Tintin's fans (of which there are undoubtedly many, even in Brooklyn - that comic is an institution in the French-speaking world) to read it, while avoiding as much unintentional exposure as possible. In a public library system that has to cater to the tastes of a diverse population of 2.5 million people, that seems to me to be about as good of a compromise as one can hope to strike.

Thanks to my blogmigo Ellen Wenecke for finding the article.

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