The Freedom to Read–and Listen

Our culture seems to grow increasingly attentive to monitoring youthful family members’ personal lives—baby monitors set to eavesdrop on the napping 4-year-old who has no incipient medical issues to warrant vigilance; scheduling every free chunk of time with organized activities to eliminate those precious moments of freedom and independent pursuits; parental insistence in maintaining control over teens’ school assignments. Library ethics acknowledge parental rights to monitor their own children’s access to information; parents who choose to exercise that right should be informed about the diminishing effects this has on human development as children (hopefully) mature into their own individuals.

We do have the freedom regardless of  age to expose ourselves to information and literary experiences. We do not–and should not–have to accept everything we read, hear, or may be assigned to consider. We all do, however, have the right to give our own permission to what we ourselves care to consider through reading and through listening. It is through that exposure that we learn for ourselves what to accept, or reject, in the way of ideas.

For decades, experts in child psychology, education, and literacy have been clear that kids are darn good self-censors and don’t need protection from ideas, concepts, and even vocabulary presented in books. If the material is developmentally beyond them, kids simply tune it out. And if they aren’t tuning out, then they are deriving something of personal use and value from the material in question. As famously popular (and just as famously the focus of would-be
censors) author Judy Blume has noted, people worry too much about what their children read or might read, and want to control kids so that exposure to ideas, words, and concepts with which the adult struggles falls beyond the child’s awareness.

Teens, especially those living in places other than 19th century Missouri, have struggled for decades with apprehending passages written in dialect in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (a high school assigned reading staple). Hearing Mark Twain’s writing of dialect can be much more quickly grasped than trying to parse it by eye. Twenty years ago, in that age before private listening equipment had become ubiquitous courtesy of inexpensive earbuds, however, some parents (usually white) spoke up in dismay at hearing Twain’s language. Reading it with the eyes, of course, had caused some stirring across the years; however, hearing vocabulary which was deemed crude brought out a new group of regulators: parents who viewed themselves as liberal.

Hearing language is immediate, yes, and can be visceral. More to the point, in the well-performed audiobook, it reflects a realism that could be put aside by the visual reader struggling just to get through the passage containing an objectionable term among its odd spellings, heaping doses of punctuation marks indicating a speaker’s oversight of letters, word endings, and the like.

Adults who can’t quite let go of protecting their own young in a bubble wrap of ignorance about the power of words are still with us. Hearing a narrator who sounds young enough to be a teen (although she isn’t; she’s an adult who is a professional actor) curse like a sailor seems to fill these parents with the fear that their own 14-year-old might be hearing such words for the first time (unlikely) and from a voice that sounds like an otherwise admirable peer (or, at least, from a peer who speaks fluidly, unlike the monosyllabic person in the passenger seat of the family car). What’s changed, however, is that many of the teens with such parents can now tune into audiobooks of their choice (and, yes, even assigned material that comes salted with the verisimilitude of crude terminology) in relative privacy.

This is particularly true when audiobooks are in digital format: no giveaway boxes lying around on which the overcautious parent might find the blurb that tips him off to another adult’s judgment of word choices or included dialects, accents, or characterizations. Digital has brought the privacy many teens need to listen to what they want or maybe should (for a school assignment).

And it’s through the exercise of this right to read, with either eyes or ears, that the capacity to think critically grows. Critical thinking is a particular value, controversial as it may be in some circles, and needs exercise in order to mature in youth and for youth to mature to responsible adults.

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