Monday, September 23, 2013

Celebrating Banned Books Week

Here at Nerds of a Feather, we're especially big nerds about reading. For most of the contributors, I think it is fair to say that the printed word and the deeply personal effects certain books have had on our lives have shaped who we are and what we are now doing with those lives. But it is also a sad fact that if a book has something important to say that challenges the status quo — especially when it comes to race, sexuality, gender relations, or if it deigns to use "bad" words — somebody somewhere has tried to ban it.

And they have too often succeeded.

I wanted to write a post to call attention to Banned Books Week (www.bannedbooksweek.org) which is going on right now. Book banning is, sadly, not a thing of the past, however. There are still those who crusade against writers and against people's right to read certain writers. Me, I say read everything you can and make up your own mind. Here is my tribute to some of the books that have landed on the chopping block of people who are trying to keep impressionable children from reading things that will make them better critical thinkers and less malleable by those who would prefer that with "banners flying and with drums beating we'll be marching backward, backward through the glorious ages." (Inherit the Wind)

Leave in the Comments section below anything you'd like to say about controversial or banned books that have influenced you.

The Great American Novel
Whatever your personal nominee for "The Great American Novel" might be, you would find many allies if you chose To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, or The Grapes of Wrath. All of them are essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the United States and its struggles in the 20th century. The Grapes of Wrath was the earliest profound experience I ever had with a book. I probably read it for the first time when I was 12, and the world was immediately and forever changed for me.

Advocates for Conscience
Two of the books that most influenced me and made me feel through their staggering emotional impact the real power of what writing can do were also pulled from schools because of concerns that teens might read in print words that they say out loud daily — Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five. That World War II is popularly regarded as the last "noble" war is partially because people like Kurt Vonnegut, who witnessed how ignoble human beings murdering each other en masse really looks up close, wrote books like these in that war's aftermath. Their lessons have permeated the culture ever since, changing how we perceive the very essence of wars. As the saying goes, nobody wins a war.

Advocates for Racial Harmony
The lesson of books like Richard Wright's Native Son and Ralph Ellison's inimitable Invisible Man are that there are unnecessary societal barriers placed between people of different races that are detrimental to all of us. It's an ugly problem with ugly ramifications, but writers who call attention to it have routinely been shouted down by people who would rather make denials and claim that these problems have been left in the past, and often they couch their objections to these works in terms of explicit language or mentions of sexuality.

Advocates for the Possible
Notable sci-fi writers like Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and the above-mentioned Kurt Vonnegut have come under attack repeatedly, again usually for language. The greatest irony probably belongs to the repeated challenges to Bradbury's anti-book banning novel Fahrenheit 451, which has been allowed in some classrooms only in a bowdlerized version.

And Finally, Advocates for Innocence
Maurice Sendak had a way of communicating the primal relationship to reality that most children have that has not been matched. But one time he drew a penis on a little boy (little boys do have penises, much to the chagrin, I'm sure, of people who got In the Night Kitchen banned), and he had the audacity to write a book where an angry little boy didn't know how to deal with his feelings and dreamt of running away to someplace where he could be in charge (Where the Wild Things Are). I proudly read my children books by Maurice Sendak, and it gives me endless pleasure to imagine them one day doing the same for their children.
And finally, a picture of an adorable kid wearing an
"I Read Banned Books" shirt.

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