Ban Ban Go Away

I always seem to discover banned book week in retrospect. With the insane amount of time put into getting to and from work, and actually working, my daily bus ride is my main vehicle (literally) for reading. For eating forbidden fruit. Historically speaking, the first literature was religious literature. Much of it, if anybody bothered to read it, would end up on banned book lists, I’m sure. The Bible is granted a special amnesty, given its reputation as a divinely penned parchment, but it too has its share of unseemly topics. Sex is there almost from the beginning. Violence too. We could go further, but sex and violence are usually sufficient to land a book on the list. And the choices are always so period specific. Catcher in the Rye seems downright tame in the new millennium (or, indeed, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening), and yet we still find new books to condemn. I wonder if such books aren’t forming a new kind of scripture.

There was a time when religion challenged social convention rather than championed it. Religions have been co-opted and domesticated by political interests. Can you imagine the man who overturned money-changers’ tables in the temple on the floor of the stock exchange? We have quantified everything, even—especially—human beings. That which can be quantified can be measured and that which can be measured can be sold. Religions, but only those upholding the status quo, grease those wheels nicely. If we had a chance to know religious founders personally, I suspect we would have found banned books in their libraries. Ideas can be dangerous things.

Despite my generally kind words on this blog, I do read books that I don’t like from time to time. I would never challenge the right of the author to express his or her ideas, nor the publishers (no matter how misguided I think them) for promoting them. I am not the one to quantify. Looking over the American Library Association’s list of banned and frequently challenged books, however, I realize that my fiction-reading hours would be slim indeed. We tend not to ban non-fiction, challenging though it may be. It is the imagination that offends. Such is the power of fiction. Last week was banned book week. Time to look over the list of latest condemned editions to find what to read this week. I am always looking for future scriptures.

The usual suspects...

The usual suspects…

Imagine Thanksgiving

Although mildly jetlagged and slightly incoherent, a promise is a promise, so I took my family to Manhattan to see (the upper half of) the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Commercial and flashy, it is difficult to conceive of a more American expression of holiday wonder. It kicks off the secular Christmas season and the parade forms the background noise to many a feast preparation in the United States. Not living in the city proper, there are limits to how early public transportation can get one into town, so by the time we reached the Upper West Side, the crowds were pretty intense. We met our friends at West 72nd Street and tried to see the floats and balloons over the heads of a sea of humanity; if you could glimpse the flashing tip of a tuba, we counted that as seeing a marching band. The weather was cool but nice and in the dense crowd I kept my hands shoved in pockets, not always sure they were my own pockets, and waited for the next tall or hovering parade feature. In-between times I stared at the building to our left until a friend informed me that it was the Dakota. The site of John Lennon’s slaying and the exterior used in Rosemary’s Baby, where, presciently, a murder victim was laid out on the sidewalk not far from where Lennon fell. Suddenly the parade took on a profundity that betrayed the levity of the gas-filled characters floating by.

Mark David Chapman, a delusional, born again Christian, had spent many hours waiting about where we were suspended in the crowd. Thinking himself Holden Caulfield of the Catcher in the Rye, he murdered Lennon creating a saint and a demon simultaneously. Perhaps John Lennon’s ashes are still floating about Central Park, and as we walked through, the exterior of the Teutonic Dakota took on a haunting quality. Lennon was a lover and a protestor and an experimenter, and scenes from Rosemary’s Baby of Satanists smoking cigars also hung in the air. The shop window displays on Fifth Avenue drew great crowds, but as we drifted toward 51st Street, we decided to stop into Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, along with the surging mass of the faithful.

Cathedrals are best enjoyed in quiet solitude. Nevertheless, we followed the pilgrims through the long nave, stopping to glance at the numerous chapels with statues along the way, each with a collection box, securely locked, asking for donations. And people say Christmas is commercial! Want to pray through your favorite saint? Please deposit a quarter. Preferably two. Or more. Their budget in candles alone would support many a smaller church throughout the nation. Advent begins this weekend, so the crèche was set up at the front with life-sized figures of the usual players: holy family, shepherds, wise men. And collection box. There was no baby Jesus and when my daughter asked why I said, pointing to the collection box, apparently they were saving up to purchase one. Keeping Christ in Christmas? Indeed. All those bronze, life-size Pope head statues can’t be cheap. John Lennon was cremated and his ashes scattered, leaving no trace. Popes are cast in bronze. Yes, John Lennon was wealthy, and once quipped that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. What is the truth of the matter? Looking at the façade of the Dakota, I know where I would rather light a candle.

The Gospel According to Caulfield

When one is asked to cite her or his favorite theologian, J. D. Salinger isn’t likely to be in the running. He might not even make the top ten. My personal introduction to Salinger, however, took place in a theological context. While in a Cambridge (Massachusetts) bookshop with a grad school buddy, I pointed out Mircea Eliade’s classic The Sacred and the Profane, insisting that my friend read it. Never to be outdone, Dave pointed at Salinger’s Franny and Zooey and said if I bought and read it he would do the same with Eliade. The Catcher in the Rye had not been part of my high school curriculum, so I was curious what all the fuss was about. I took him up on his dare. I’m not sure Dave ever read Eliade, but I read Salinger. My first impression was, “I don’t get it.”

Now my daughter’s school does require The Catcher in the Rye, and I’ve always tried (not always successfully) to keep up with her required reading. It gives us something to talk about – I’ve read several great books I’d otherwise have missed by this exercise. So I picked up the Catcher and plowed through. Salinger, I’m sure, requires no introduction. What is noteworthy, however, is that Holden Caulfield, while avowing himself an atheist, does make subtle but pointed comments about religion. (One of the occupational hazards of being a religionist is a constantly humming radar looking for any god-talk that might otherwise blend into the haze.) Holden, in chapter 14, points out the idiotic behavior of the disciples while Jesus was alive. He admits to thinking Jesus is okay, but his favorite character is the demon-possessed man who lives among the tombs. “I like him ten times as much as the Disciples, that poor bastard,” he says.

Who is as honest as Holden?

There is true religion in this statement. The “lunatic” running about in the tombs, rejected by society and even as far from God as you can get (demon possessed), is an image of humanity. Living a life of desperate alienation, the man in the tombs appeals to angst-ridden teenagers and displaced adults alike. He is likeable because he is like us. Holden scores bonus points on that observation!

With Salinger’s recent death, a renewed interest has sprung up about his novels – books that have changed the literary landscape. I read Catcher with more inherent appreciation than I did Franny and Zooey, but I’ve grown up a little since then. As an adult I can better appreciate the honest appraisals of Holden Caulfield.