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Can novel’s content match 9/11 horrors?

Can a book’s content really be too troubling?

It’s an age-old question in our nation’s public schools:

What content is so objectionable that high school students shouldn’t even be exposed to it? Sex? Violence? Profanity? The ideas in a book? Its view of American history? The science it discusses?

For the second time in the past 15 years, the Richland School District has been wrestling with how to handle parental concerns about a novel on a supplemental reading list used in the 10th grade, when most students are 15 or 16.

Herald reporter Sara Schilling takes a look at the issues, the concerns and the opinions surrounding the issue in Sunday’s Herald.

At the center of the current fuss is an award-winning novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer. It’s “the story of Oskar Schell, a young boy whose father died in the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. The book contains profanity, sex and descriptions of violence,” Sara’s story reports.

If the novel, which I have not read, has any truth to it, I can’t imagine that its elements, however concerning, can be any match for the horrors of 9/11.

No, I was not there, but for days, weeks and months on end, as a newspaper editor, I read hundreds of thousands of words about the attacks. And none of what I read was more distressing than the several hours of fear that engulfed me while I waited to hear whether my 19-year-old son, who was attending New York University, was safe.

Nor did any of what I read upset me more than his descriptions of what he saw, tasted and smelled as the Trade Center and nearby buildings collapsed into ruin and the rubble burned for days on end.

His description of the endlessly sickening aroma that smelled like burned barbecue roils my stomach still as I write this nine years later.

And his first-day report that appeared in the next day’s Herald still leaves me breathless:

I had never seen New Yorkers so quiet ... and we all stared as the antennaed top of the trade tower fell in on itself, dust and ash breathing up from both sides, a kind of reverse mushroom cloud of debris sifting through the skies.

The antenna was visible for a few seconds before collapsing into the smoke, the building disintegrating beneath it, streamers of ash trailing in all directions.

A few women in front of me began crying soundlessly.

Two thin metal spires stood, wavering, no more than a third the building’s original height, then dropped, leaving nothing but empty blue.

In a matter of seconds, 110 stories fell.

It had been frightening to watch, but then the sound hit us, not like thunder or a jet engine, but more like a thousand trees being snapped at once, and I was glad the man next to me was touching me, if only for an indication that yes, this was real, the World Trade Center was gone, the southern skyline devastated, too surreal to even consider whether anyone had been inside.

I’m sure it’s even harder for my son to look back at what happened to a city he had fallen in love with.

And I can’t imagine how much more difficult it is for our troops who’ve fought in the years since 9/11 in the wars it incited. Nor for the families who lost loved ones when the towers fell or in the ensuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Put into that context, it’s hard for me to imagine much in a historical novel that could be more troubling than the historical facts.

Yes, a 15-year-old or a 16-year-old high school student might be reading the novel. But as an 18-year-old or 19-year-old that same student might well be one of our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some reality might help the transition. Our students won’t be inheriting a world without sex, violence, profanity and disturbing ideas. Let alone incredibly trying times.

-- Ken Robertson: 582-1520; krobertson@tricityherald.com


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