This is Banned Books Week sponsored by the American Library Association. It is a time for us to think about books that have been banned, or attempted to be banned, over the years. You know, really, really bad books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Kite Runner.
My first experience with a banned book was Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. I was already a fan after reading Player Piano. I was in junior high (middle school for the younger generation). I had no idea it had been banned in some places. I only knew three things. I knew Vonnegut had quickly become my favorite author. I knew there was a moving coming out based on the book. And I knew there was nudity in the book because Valerie Perrine’s nude scenes were featured in Playboy, a magazine to which I surreptitiously had access from time to time.
As I read the book, I realized that the nudity was a necessary part of the storyline (as an early teenager I was disappointed that it was just there, and not more gratuitous). I also realized that, even though I was not a frequent user of profanity (at least at the time), the profanity was a necessary part of the dialogue.
Even in junior high, I knew this book was about ideas, about pain, about struggle, about war and its profound effect on the human psyche. Its out-of-sync narration was jarring. But also necessary to its idea.
Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.
Vonnegut was present during the WWII firebombing of Dresden, Germany. That may have been our military’s first, true, shock and awe campaign as countless planes dropped thousands of bombs on this city. That real-life event forged Vonnegut’s views on war, politics, religion, and so much more. It created a depression that comes out in nearly all of his writing. A sarcastic humor that touches the soul. A hopeless resignation to the events that shape our lives. And so it goes.
Books are generally not banned because of words. Language is almost always secondary. Books are banned because people don’t like the ideas presented in the books. Books make us think. OK, important books make us think. They bend our minds. They warp our perceptions. They fundamentally change our worldview. They shake us out of the doldrums of the life to which we’ve become comfortable.
And nearly every book that has been banned, or attempted to be banned, has turned out to be an important book for these very reasons.
Authors, good authors, carefully choose their language. They carefully choose what stays in a story and what gets thrown out. They remove anything that doesn’t progress the story. Anything that doesn’t help explain the story. As an English teacher I understand the difference between using words and using the right words. Sometimes the right words are the very ones that jar our souls and awaken in us the need to really pay attention to the idea.
Limiting access to books based on age-appropriateness is not the same as banning a book. A parent asking teachers to provide his daughter with an alternate text because of personal, family, or religious objections is not banning a book. Its called acting responsibly.
Trying to be the parent of every individual in a city, a town, a community, or a school is an obscene attempt at mind-control and a power trip no single human being should ever be allowed to complete.
You cannot stop an idea whose time has come.
Not even if you burned every book on the planet.
Books are not about language. They are about ideas. And ideas live in the minds of people.
You can’t stop ideas.