Literary pick for week of Jan. 29 – Twin Cities

Teachers and librarians are contemporary heroes, caught in the crossfire between challenges of books from the political left and the right.

To teach or not to teach “Of Mice and Men”? If it’s taught, how do teachers do it? What about trigger warnings, in the news recently when a Muslim student complained about seeing a picture of the Prophet in an art history class at Hamline University? Do we handle “cancel culture” by simply making challenged books disappear? And what is all this anger about books doing to our young people’s abilities to learn from literature?

These are the big questions that Deborah Appleman tackles in “Literature and the New Culture Wars” (Norton, $19.99). In just 141 pages of a small-format book she raises these and other tough issues and offers ways to continue to teach troubling texts without doing harm. But none of this will be easy in this nation that she admits has become tribal in our differences.

“Therein lies the challenge,” she writes. Teachers of literary texts need to find some way to strike a balance between excluding texts that are demeaning, offensive, and downright harmful and retaining texts that include some problematic elements such as language, dialogue, and representation but have important value — aesthetically, historically, developmentally and circularly.”

Appleman is Hollis L. Caswell professor of educational studies and director of the summer writing program at Carleton College in Northfield. After receiving her doctorate from the University of Minnesota, she taught high school English for nine years. Her most recent book, co-authored with Michael Graves, is “Reading Better, Reading Smarter: Designing Literature Lessons for Adolescents.”

One of the most contentious topics Applebaum explores is “cancel culture,” part of which is eliminating books because of the authors’ behavior. She cites charges of sexual impropriety against Sherman Alexie, a Native American author whose books have inspired many young people. How to separate the artist as a person from his or her work?

“Perhaps there is a way that we can retain some of our literary treasures, both classic and contemporary, and still make all of us accountable to some kind of reasonable moral standard,” she writes. “As good as its original intentions might have been, cancel culture will not get us there. Teachers will have to decide for themselves whether to continue to teach Sherman Alexie or Junot Diaz or recommend the Harry Potter series or the adolescent novels of some now-shunned authors. Let’s at least have a conversation about it before we reflexively respond in a way that does nothing to promote critical thinking and offers no room for redemption or forgiveness. Do we really want a society like that?”

Appleman argues throughout her book that literature must be taught in context, helping students look at the text through the lens of history and mores of the time period in which it is set.

Although this book is aimed at teachers, it is a thoughtful (and ambitious) attempt to tamp down the strong emotions that people bring to literature. It would make for interesting book club discussions.

Appleman will discuss the book at 7 pm Monday, Jan. 30, at Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Ave. S., Mpls., in conversation with Artika Tyner, University of St. Thomas law professor, author, speaker and advocate for justice, and 6 pm Tuesday, Feb. 7, at Next Chapter Booksellers, 38 S. Snelling Ave., St. Paul.

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