Banned Book Awareness Week 2014

This week is Banned Book Awareness Week and typically during this week each year, I read a banned book in celebration of my freedom to discern for myself what I will read or not read.  I actually have two books that I plan to read; however, due to an extra busy work schedule, I’m fairly certain that neither will get read completely this week.  So look for future posts about these books that have been found on banned book lists during the last few decades:

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

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Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited

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I also have two more wild cards in my Deal Me In 2014 Short Story Project and whenever one of those pops up, I plan to read a short story by Salman Rushdie, one of the more extreme victims of book banning that I can think of in my lifetime.  I would also recommend Rushdie’s literary thriller of a memoir Joseph Anton,  an entertaining thriller if it wasn’t for the fact that it was true.  I posted about it here.

So maybe October will be Banned Book Month for me.  In the meantime, celebrate your freedom to read!

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J. D. Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye (and ramblings about banned books)

I first read J. D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye when I was sixteen and I’ve been cussing like a sailor ever since.

No, I haven’t.  I’m just kidding. (Really – I don’t).  But in honor of Banned Book week, I thought I would reread it.  It’s been a long time since I was sixteen and I was curious whether the novel would hold up as well now that I’m an adult – and a much older adult.  I have teenagers of my own, now.  I even read the same copy that I had bought at a Walden’s Bookstore when  I was sixteen.

The Catcher in the Rye

I think my passion for being free to read the books that I want to read comes from having read a few books like The Catcher in the Rye that are surrounded by controversy.  When I read them, I found the novels to be significantly deeper than their critics gave them credit. Sometimes the expression “missing the forest for the trees” comes to mind when I hear why some would want to ban books.  For some reason, when I was sixteen, I could see passed the profanity to find the character of Holden Caulfield and Salinger’s writing style fascinating.

In the case of Salinger’s novel, the protagonist was the same age as myself when I read it the first time.  I have no doubt that much of the novel’s ability to resonate with people has to do with the fact that we were all teenagers once – struggling to figure out our place in the world when the world doesn’t always seem to make sense.  I remembered Holden’s siblings D.B., a writer in Hollywood, and Phoebe, grabbing for the gold ring on the carousel.  I didn’t even remotely remember that he had a younger brother, Allie, who had died.  All these years later, Holden’s attempts to deal with his brother’s death brought a new sense of depth to his musings.

I’ve been thinking about books that high school students read.  The Catcher in the Rye may or may not still be on the reading lists, but, in my opinion, it’s a novel that has all the makings of great literature in a way that allows teenagers to relate to it.  I recently read George Eliot’s Silas Marner and discovered it to be fantastic; however, I don’t think I would have had the appreciation for the story and Eliot’s writing when I was sixteen.  I’m not  sure I would have been able to put forth the effort to read it the way I could now that I’m a more mature reader.

I’m probably rambling as much as Holden does in the novel.  One of his traits that I’ve remembered over the years is his dislike of movies.  When I was a teenager and even for most of my adulthood, I’ve enjoyed movies, but in recent years, I’ve discovered that I’ve become less and less interested in them.  I was a little surprised that this gave me more of an affinity with Holden than even when I was a teenager.

And I can’t finish this post without a few words about the banning of books.  I fully support the right of parents to monitor what their kids read – especially younger kids.  At the same time, when I think about how much I enjoyed Salinger’s story (and it was the story I enjoyed, the profanity was part of Holden’s character – but it wasn’t the story), I can’t imagine not letting my  16 or 17 year-old read The Catcher in the Rye.  I’m grateful to my public high school for including this and some other banned books on our reading list. Nobody was forced to read these books, but they were available for anyone who wanted to. I believe in the freedom to read and I believe in the freedom not to read.  I’m fairly comfortable in my ability to make that decision for myself.  I don’t need any “governing body” making it for me.

Slaughterhouse Five and more ramblings on book banning

I’ve never been a black and white thinker.  Most issues in life seem to fit into gray areas for me.  It’s why I rarely discuss politics with friends.  I’ve come to be perfectly fine with that.  I have a feeling many people who advocate banning books somehow do not see the world in these gray areas.

I wonder if Kurt Vonnegut was a gray thinker.  I saw him once on a talk show where he defended Salman Rushdie at the time when religious zealots were trying to kill Rushdie for a novel he wrote – book banning at it’s extreme.  I also read a letter he wrote to politicians reminding them that the United States (including Vonnegut, himself) has fought wars against countries who burned books.  I probably would not be as much of a book fan if I did not appreciate the power of storytelling and the written word.  At the same time, books seem significantly less threatening than weapons – like guns.  What is there to be afraid of about a book?  Apparently, there’s something.

I finished re-reading Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five today although it seemed like I had never read it.  I didn’t remember much of it.  I remembered it being a fictional account of Billy Pilgrim, an American POW in Dresden, Germany when the Allied Forces bombed Dresden toward the end of World War II.  I also remember that Vonnegut, himself, had been an American POW in Germany.  I did not remember that Vonnegut makes himself a background character in the novel.  Billy becomes unstuck in time due to an extraterrestrial encounter on the planet Tralfamadore.  He jumps back and forth between childhood, adulthood, parenthood, marriage and soldier.  I recently read a description of Vonnegut by his son who said that his dad was an optimist trying to be a pessimist.  The humor in each paragraph of this book combines with Billy Pilgrim’s depression to provide more than adequate evidence for his son’s observation.  One sentence that struck me as both hilarious and sad describes Billy’s mother when he was a kid during the Great Depression on a trip out west:

Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.

In regards to books, on Tralfamadore, one of its residents beautifully explains to Billy how they view books:

There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects.  What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.

If I had to explain to someone what I love about books, I would probably use this quote.

Finally, in a hospital conversation between Billy and a retired military professor, Rumfoord, I think Vonnegut gets to the heart of the matter about his views on his war experience which do not seem as black and white as many of his critics would try to paint him:

“It had to be done,” Rumfoord told Billy, speaking of the destruction of Dresden.

“I know,” said Billy.

“That’s war.”

“I know.  I’m not complaining.”

“It must have been hell on the ground.”

“It was,” said Billy Pilgrim.

“Pity the men who had to do it.”

“I do.”

“You must have had mixed feelings, there on the ground.”

“It was all right,” said Billy.  “Everything is all right, and everybody has to do exactly what he does.  I learned that on Tralfamadore.”

On the banning of books…

I appreciate my local Half-Price Book Store for reminding me each year of Banned Book Week.  They display a number of books that have been or still are banned somewhere.  Last year, it came as a surprise to me when I saw Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House On The Prairie on display.  After some research, I learned that this children’s book sparks some controversy over the portrayal of Native Americans.

This year, I’m floored again when I see Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones and the Stupid, Smelly Bus on the lower shelf of the display.  Out of curiosity, I research this book to find that Park’s Junie B. series occasionally comes under fire because of the misbehavior of the six year-old protagonist and the poor grammar she uses.

I will clarify that I do not consider parents limiting and guiding their children’s reading selections (especially for younger kids) to be censorship.  I believe that’s where the responsibility of limiting and guiding lies – not with governments or other governing bodies.

I read Wilder’s books when I was a kid and then read at least some of them to my kids.  Park’s books ranked among the first chapter books my kids read.  My kids did not like the Little House books as much as I did.  I didn’t care for Junie B. as much as my kids did.  However, the fact that certain governing bodies have targeted these books as inappropriate, brings up some questions about how literature and art should portray life, even in children’s literature.  Should good literature portray our world as it is or as it should be (or as we think it should be)?  Should a book about a six year-old girl show her behaving perfectly and speaking with the utmost articulation?  Should an author portray her life as a pioneer girl in the 1870’s as it really was, fear of Native Americans included?