Ban This

It should be a scarlet letter week. In honor of Banned Book Week, I’ve started to re-read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Somehow I made it through high school and college without having been exposed to Vonnegut. A friend started me reading his works when I was about ready to start my Master’s degree, and I’ve always enjoyed coming back to him. When my daughter asked me why Slaughterhouse-Five had been placed on The List, I honestly couldn’t guess. Banning books, of course, is a scheme chiefly intended to keep children unexposed to ideas that adults find uncomfortable. We can’t go around telling other adults what not to think (although that hasn’t stopped many a religious tradition from trying), so some individuals figure that we can protect our unthinking young by putting in the corner literature that asks awkward questions. More radical conservative elements suggest destroying them. These are the true grapes of wrath.

Ideas can be wonderfully dangerous things. We now face a brave new world of internet access where ideas float lightly on the web and unless we watch our children constantly, we can’t control what they might see. Ideas as traditionally expressed in literature go through a tremendously long and convoluted birth process. We even use the language of conception to describe how they begin in one’s mind. Ideas implant, gestate, and grow. For the writer this might represent weeks, months, or years of writing, erasing, re-writing, and yes, parenting the idea. The written book has to meet the approval of publishers and only after yet another editing process are they pronounced fit to see the light of day as books. Having passed through many hands, many heads, such ideas become part of their culture. If we find them objectionable, well, isn’t that just part of life? Perhaps that is the largest message to be gleaned from the world of books: no one will be pleased with them all. Even the diary of a young girl will raise alarm.

Some of the finest literature to escape human minds has been challenged or banned. Ironically, in the land of the free and the home of the brave fear of books runs at a fever pitch seldom encountered elsewhere. Afraid of mice and men. What has made this country such a wonderful experiment—the embracing of diversity—has somehow morphed into a neighborhood where nobody feels safe if there are objectionable words on the bookshelf. Ironically Ray Bradbury’s critique of banning books, Fahrenheit 451, is itself a banned book. What most proponents of stopping literature probably don’t realize is that according to OCLC, the source for library data, the most banned book of all time is the Bible. To be honest, those who’ve read it know that it has sex and violence and many other adult situations. In the original languages there are even “swears.” Maybe it’s time people just grew up. The best way to accomplish that is to read a book. Hey, it’s a jungle out there.

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