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The Lens: Would you read an NC-17 book?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 2, 2009 - About a year ago, I read a profile of a best-selling author who is nearly as well known for her religious views as for her novels. As an example of her commitment to her faith, the article said she never watched R-rated movies. Besides illustrating just how distorted the ratings system has become, her admission raises an interesting point: If the point of the ratings system is to distinguish work intended for adults from that which might be too mature for a younger audience, what does it mean for an adult to say that they would never see a movie solely because they knew it was made for adults?

I tried to picture a similar attitude being expressed toward this woman's chosen field, one of the last areas to have safely avoided any kind of rating system. Imagine trying to apply something like the movie rating system to books. Would anything aside from picture books get a “G”?

Let's assume that the same factors that affect the film ratings – language, sex and violence – are treated in the same manner? If our imaginary ratings board followed the model of the real MPAA, it's probably safe to assume that nearly every major novel of the last century, from Hemingway and “Catch-22” to the typical John Grisham/Dan Brown best seller would be rated “R.” Some books, like “Lolita” or “Portnoy's Complaint” may even be branded with the dreaded NC-17.

Would it make you discourage a teenager from reading “Moby-Dick” (probably a PG)? Would you appreciate being told that your 15 year old could read “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” as long as an adult was in the room with them?

Now imagine someone like the above mentioned author saying with pride that they would never read a book like “The Executioner's Song” or “The Godfather” or “A Clockwork Orange”? Would this be seen as proof of spiritual strength ... or of someone willfully wearing blinders?

Sadly, there are many censorship-besotted people out there who would gladly apply the bludgeon of the MPAA not only to movies (and TV shows and video games and music and art galleries), as we are reminded as the American Library Association holds its annual “Banned Books Week .” The ALA reports us that every year libraries face challenges from short-sighted parents and small-minded Babbitts who would gladly rid their shelves not just of licentious teen novels but of Harry Potter (occult material), “The Golden Compass” (atheism), “The Kite Runner” (rape), “Huckleberry Finn” (racial language ) and “Uncle Bobby's Wedding” (gay guinea pigs).

The “I Read Banned Books” campaign does a great job of building support for the librarians - and readers and authors – who stand up for our right to read or publish even the most unpopular ideas. Visit your library, check out their annual report, or just exercise your right to read the books of your choice. Without having to worry about what they're rated.

The Lens is the blog of Cinema St. Louis.  hosted by the Beacon.

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