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Comstock vs. Newbery

Anatomy of Censorship
Scrotum Hokum

I must admit that for the longest time I had no precise idea of the meaning of the word. I knew that it referred to a back-alley neighborhood in the body, most likely the male body, but it’s not as if anyone ever told me what the word meant and where it usually hung out. I’m glad my Catholic priest didn’t have occasion to explain it to me. But I can think of a couple of third or fourth (or fifth or sixth or seventh) grade teachers, including an unusually luscious nun among them (Soeur Pascale, I think in third grade at the Petit Collège in Beirut: lanky and lovely, and a total waste to Jesuit chastity) who should have. I don’t remember hearing the word when I only spoke French, for the first decade and a third or so of my life, and just now I had to look it up in the dictionary to discover that its French equivalent is the same as the American, although the dictionary’s definition in French (“peau des bourses,” in the Robert dictionary, or “stock pouch”) is certainly more lyrical than its veterinarian-waiting-room equivalent in English: “in most male mammals, the pouch of skin holding the testicles and related structures.” Related structures? Leave it to Noah Webster’s progeny to associate one’s stock pouch with the engineering of a suspended bridge (the Williamsburg Bridge between Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn somehow comes to mind). But then Noah Webster is also the guy who, as Bill Bryson once told us, “produced a sanitized version of the Bible in which Onan doesn’t spill his seed but simply ‘frustrates his purpose,’ in which men don’t have testicles but rather ‘peculiar members,’ and in which women don’t have wombs (or evidently anything else with which to contribute to the reproductive process).” [“The Mother Tongue,” p. 157.]

Noah Webster’s progeny runs and ruins more than a few dictionaries: it runs and ruins libraries too. Scrotums are in the news not, for once, because Fox News and Nancy Grace are again staggering us with their fixations on back-alley anatomy, but because the Times has front-paged the story of the controversy over the appearance of the word on the first page of “The Higher Power of Lucky,” a children’s book by Susan Patron and the winner of this year’s Newbery Medal, Pulitzer of children’s literature. Librarians are banning the book north, south, east and west, from public and school libraries, and the issue has “reopened the debate over what constitutes acceptable content in children’s books.” When, I wonder, will we have a debate over what constitutes acceptable librarians?

I’ve just ordered the book so I can have my twelve-year-old read it to my three-year-old as part of their religious instruction next Sunday, so I rely for now on other summaries and critiques to sum it up: Lucky’s mother is electrocuted when Lucky is eight. Her father’s ex-wife Brigitte is summoned from France to take care of Lucky in a California desert town of 42 people and regular 12-step meetings on the other side of Lucky’s wall, on which she eavesdrop in her attempts to gain her own Higher Power. Here’s how a couple of reviews on Amazon describe the book: Character-driven, quirky cast and local color, fascinating desert setting, totally contemporary, Lucky teeters between bravado and fear that she’ll be abandoned again, “a true heroine, especially because she’s not perfect.”

To librarians all over the place, it’s nevertheless a book to be banned because Lucky hears the word “scrotum” while eavesdropping, and the author dares put that word in the book: “Scrotum sounded to Lucky like something green that comes up when you have the flu and cough too much. It sounded medical and secret, but also important.” Funny: This morning I had my 12-year-old daughter, who had not yet read the article, look up the word’s definition in the old Webster’s and write about it. This is what she came up with in part: “Scrotum sounds more like scram or a bad word that means get out. But it would have probably been heard before at school or in a movie. The real word’s definition would probably not be very freely used considering what it means, or what it covers.” Or what it covers! The James Joyce of “Portrait” would have appreciated those last words. I can think of a couple of things the word should cover, including the mouths of idiotic librarians, censors and dismal moralists, all of whom would have more usefully served us had their mealy mouths more freely visited the nether-zones of scrotums (John Updike’s directions are as good as Google maps in that regard) to discover that there’s nothing there to get all shriveled up and spastic over, although there’s plenty there for wordy imaginations, if not worldly tongues, to roam over.

Dana Nilsson, a teacher and librarian in Durango, Colo., is quoted as saying that “This book included what I call a Howard Stern-type shock treatment just to see how far they could push the envelope, but they didn’t have the children in mind.” Who are those they she has in mind? Another Comstock wannabe condescends to the book’s author: “I think it’s a good case of an author not realizing her audience,” said Frederick Muller, a librarian at Halstead Middle School in Newton, N.J. “If I were a third-or fourth grade teacher, I wouldn’t want to have to explain that.” But why the hell not? What is it with words like penis, condom, scrotum, breast, aureole, clitoris, testicle(s, hopefully), vulva, Vista that differs them in any way from knee, toe, shoulder, ears, nose, or for that matter cloud, tree, grass, book? We’re not dealing with the seven dirty words here, nowhere close, in impression or intent. We’re dealing with anatomy—of body and mind, of curiosity. What a shame that it should all be once again so revealing of idiocy, of the impulse to repress and regress. What a shame that it should give one more victory to the single-most revolting word in the English language in this neo-puritanical age of grand inquisitors and morbid crusaders—a word more revolting to me than Shit, Piss, Fuck, Cunt, Cocksucker, Motherfucker, and Tits put together: inappropriate.

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