27 September 2010

Banned Books Week: Slaughterhouse-Five

Note: This week I am breaking my no-politics policy by talking about Banned Books Week, and what it entails, and why it is important. I beg your indulgence and thank you for it.

From the American Library Association's list of banned and/or challenged books, the following:

Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut
Challenged in many communities, but burned in Drake, ND (1973). Banned in Rochester, MI because the novel "contains and makes references to religious matters" and thus fell within the ban of the establishment clause. An appellate court upheld its usage in the school in Todd v Rochester Community Schools, 41 Mich. App. 320, 200 N. W 2d 90 (1972). Banned in Levittown, NY (1975), North Jackson, OH (1979), and Lakeland, FL (1982) because of the "book's explicit sexual scenes, violence, and obscene language." Barred from purchase at the Washington Park High School in Racine, WI (1984) by the district administrative assistant for instructional services.  Challenged at the Owensboro, KY High School library (1985) because of "foul language, a section depicting a picture of an act of bestiality, a reference to 'Magic Fingers' attached to the protagonist's bed to help him sleep, and the sentence: 'The gun made a ripping sound like the opening of the fly of God Almighty."' Restricted to students who have parental permission at the four Racine, WI Unified District high school libraries (1986) because of "language used in the book depictions of torture, ethnic slurs, and negative portrayals of women:' Challenged at the LaRue County, KY High School library (1987) because "the book contains foul language and promotes deviant sexual behavior” Banned from the Fitzgerald, GA schools (1987) because it was filled with profanity and full of explicit sexual references:' Challenged in the Baton Rouge, LA public high school libraries (1988) because the book is "vulgar and offensive:' Challenged in the Monroe, MI public schools (1989) as required reading in a modem novel course for high school juniors and seniors because of the book's language and the way women are portrayed. Retained on the Round Rock, TX Independent High School reading list (1996) after a challenge that the book was too violent. Challenged as an eleventh grade summer reading option in Prince William County, VA (1998) because the book "was rife with profanity and explicit sex:"  Removed as required reading for sophomores at the Coventry, RI High School (2000) after a parent complained that it contained vulgar language, violent imagery, and sexual content.  Retained on the Northwest Suburban High School District 214 reading list in Arlington Heights, IL (2006), along with eight other challenged titles.  A board member, elected amid promises to bring her Christian beliefs into all board decision-making, raised the controversy based on excerpts from  the books she'd found on the internet.  Challenged in the Howell, MI High School (2007) because of the book's strong sexual content.  In response to a request from the president of the Livingston Organization for Values in Education, or LOVE, the county's top law enforcement official reviewed the books to see whether laws against distribution of sexually explicit materials to minors had been broken. "After reading the books in question, it is clear that the explicit passages illustrated a larger literary, artistic or political message and were not included solely to appeal to the prurient interests of minors," the county prosecutor wrote.  "Whether these materials are appropriate for minors is a decision to be made by the school board, but I find that they are not in violation of criminal laws.

***

I would like to draw your attention to the first sentence, in particular the segment I bolded and italicized. For those of you too lazy to scroll back up, here it is:

Challenged in many communities, but burned in Drake, ND (1973).

Think about that.

Now, here's the story behind it:

To these people, most of them now dead or in their dotage, I would just like to say:  No. No. NO. I don't have to ask why -- I know why, and perhaps I even sympathize with your desire to "protect" the minds of your children from ideas that you find alien, upsetting, and disturbing. But I would also submit to you that you would accomplish more by actually reading these books yourself, and discussing them, and outlining why you dislike or disagree with them. Because what happened in Drake is unconscionable. Those books could have been sold, or donated to libraries, or given away on the god damn street. Instead these cowards burned words on the printed page because they were too frightened to confront them, all in the name of "protecting" their children. And the children refused to go along with it. Bravo to them. I hope they still have their copies. I know I would have saved mine.

There is little I can say in the face of this kind of thing. There is little I can say that would describe the white hot rage that flows through my veins and burns in my heart when I hear of Americans engaging in this kind of primitive, Dark Ages-worthy buffoonery. This kind of cowardice. This kind of shameful behavior. Perhaps there are no words I can say that will matter. None that will sway. Perhaps there is nothing I can add to this week that will not entail me pointing my finger in an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-esque pose and screaming. And we've had enough screaming in this country over the last two years, God knows.

In the absence of my own words, however, here are the words of Kurt Vonneguit, in a November, 1973 letter to Charles McCarthy, the man behind the burning:

Dear Mr. McCarthy:

I am writing to you in your capacity as chairman of the Drake School Board. I am among those American writers whose books have been destroyed in the now famous furnace of your school.

Certain members of your community have suggested that my work is evil. This is extraordinarily insulting to me. The news from Drake indicates to me that books and writers are very unreal to you people. I am writing this letter to let you know how real I am.

I want you to know, too, that my publisher and I have done absolutely nothing to exploit the disgusting news from Drake. We are not clapping each other on the back, crowing about all the books we will sell because of the news. We have declined to go on television, have written no fiery letters to editorial pages, have granted no lengthy interviews. We are angered and sickened and saddened. And no copies of this letter have been sent to anybody else. You now hold the only copy in your hands. It is a strictly private letter from me to the people of Drake, who have done so much to damage my reputation in the eyes of their children and then in the eyes of the world. Do you have the courage and ordinary decency to show this letter to the people, or will it, too, be consigned to the fires of your furnace?

I gather from what I read in the papers and hear on television that you imagine me, and some other writers, too, as being sort of ratlike people who enjoy making money from poisoning the minds of young people. I am in fact a large, strong person, fifty-one years old, who did a lot of farm work as a boy, who is good with tools. I have raised six children, three my own and three adopted. They have all turned out well. Two of them are farmers. I am a combat infantry veteran from World War II, and hold a Purple Heart. I have earned whatever I own by hard work. I have never been arrested or sued for anything. I am so much trusted with young people and by young people that I have served on the faculties of the University of Iowa, Harvard, and the City College of New York. Every year I receive at least a dozen invitations to be commencement speaker at colleges and high schools. My books are probably more widely used in schools than those of any other living American fiction writer.

If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don't damage children much. They didn't damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.

After I have said all this. I am sure you are still ready to respond, in effect, "Yes, yes–but it still remains our right and our responsibility to decide what books our children are going to be made to read in our community." This is surely so. But it is also true that if you exercise that right and fulfill that responsibility in an ignorant, harsh, un-American manner, then people are entitled to call you bad citizens and fools. Even your own children are entitled to call you that.

I read in the newspaper that your community is mystified by the outcry from all over the country about what you have done. Well, you have discovered that Drake is a part of American civilization, and your fellow Americans can't stand it that you have behaved in such an uncivilized way. Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.

If you and your board are now determined to show that you in fact have wisdom and maturity when you exercise your powers over the education of your young, then you should acknowledge that it was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books–books you hadn't even read. You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive.

Again: you have insulted me, and I am a good citizen, and I am very real.


Vonnegut never received a reply from Charles McCarthy.

The insult, however, continues. Slaughterhouse-Five is challenged in and banned from libraries to this day, mostly by people who object to the language and the sexual imagery, who likely have never read the book or who have read only portions of it, and who think that they are the guardians of morality for all of us, not realizing that this country was originally settled by those who came to this continent to escape a very similar type of tyranny. And those who object to this book are unlikely to understand what Vonnegut was trying to say about the horrors of war, because they never knew it as intimately as he did, and will never understand that to call Montana Wildhack obscene in the face of the firebombing of Dresden is the true obscenity.

And of such people I can only respectfully ask:

Why don't you go take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut? Why don't you take a flying fuck at the moooooooon?

So it goes. 

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