42 years ago today, one of the news stories of the day was the burning of Slaughterhouse Five. Residents in North Dakota had enough of this book and had decided to burn it in anger–protesting because they thought it was too strong for children to be reading.
Of all stories I could have picked today, this one stood out to me starkly. You see–I am a lover of words. I believe words have the power to make you feel, convince you, take you to a new place, help you escape, and can express some of the inner workings of our souls if crafted and used just right. Words have always had a special place in my soul.
As a young child, I read voraciously. Anything I could get my hands on, I’d read for hours and hours on end. Every year growing up, books were my presents. We’ve since hauled said books on many moves–much to the complaints of those hauling them–but you couldn’t convince me to give up a single one of my treasures!
Even in today’s day and age of electronic forms of reading, which I have wholeheartedly embraced, I will still always love my books of paper and cardboard and ink.
One of my favorite books is about words. Powerful, powerful words. And the freedom they give you. “Somewhere inside her were the souls of words. They climbed out and stood beside her.” “She was holding desperately to the words who had saved her life.” –Markus Zusak, The Book Thief.
Over the years, words and I have had our standoffs. I love words–but I love the mechanics of words. That is the path I headed down for my career. On my way down that path, however, I had to face down other kinds of words in the form of great literature. I had always been told I was wrong, that I couldn’t see things in literature, that I couldn’t analyze it. So I never wanted to. But, I stood there and faced down something I’d failed at–only to find out I didn’t fail. I did see different things in literature than the person next to me, but I was just as right as them! It’s amazing how different college professors are than your average high school teacher. Over the course of several years, I grew a new love of words from all different eras. I began to understand more of their POWER.
Today’s post caught me off guard. We have all heard of book burnings. They are of days gone by, but we still know about them. I’m sure we are mostly correct in assuming it was a way of protesting the message that was in a particular book. I, for one, am glad that we don’t really carry out book burnings anymore!!!! Words! You are destroying WORDS!
I have not read Slaughterhouse Five. Here is some information for those like me that have not had the privilege (yet) of reading this book.
- Slaughterhouse Five is a novel by Kurt Vonnegut that is about WW2 experiences and time travel.
- It was published in 1970 to mixed “love it” or “hate it” reviews.
- The novel is partially historical because the author writes about the bombing of Dresden that he witnessed in person.
- The novel is an interesting mix of current events to the narrator and time travel to other places including another planet. Due to this, the timeline of events becomes “disjointed.” According to the Wikipedia article Slaughterhouse Five, this is common in Vonnegut’s works.
- The novel contains graphic scenes of the bombing of Dresden, sex scenes, profanity, and Nazi events from WW2.
After having sat down and explored a little about this book, I can see why parents would have been hesitant to let their children read this. It makes me wonder if this book was school reading material which then led to the parents protesting?
The Wikipedia article on this book also states the following (which is said much better than I could):
“Slaughterhouse-Five has been the subject of many attempts at censorship, due to its irreverent tone and purportedly obscene content. American soldiers use profanity, his language is irreverent and the book depicts sex. It was one of the first literary acknowledgments that homosexual men, referred to in the novel as “fairies”, were among the victims of the NaziHolocaust.
In the USA it has at times been banned from literature classes, removed from school libraries and struck from literary curricula. In 1972 it was banned from the public schools of Oakland County, Michigan. The circuit judge described the book as “depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar and anti-Christian.”
The U.S. Supreme Court considered the First Amendment implications of the removal of the book, among others, from public school libraries in the case of Island Trees School District v. Pico, [457 U.S. 853 (1982)] and concluded that “local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to ‘prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.'” Slaughterhouse-Five is the sixty-seventh entry to the American Library Association‘s list of the “Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–1999” and number forty-six on the ALA’s “Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2000–2009”. Slaughterhouse-Five continues to be controversial. In August 2011, the novel was banned at the Republic High School in Missouri. The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library countered by offering 150 free copies of the novel to Republic High School students on a first come, first served basis. “
I had to share this post for a few reasons. The first is that I reacted in horror at the thought that words were destroyed. It made me flashback to a documentary I watched on Alexandria, in which so many words were lost having been burned. I didn’t even know what these words in Slaughterhouse Five were, but if they were powerful enough for a city to burn, well…you know the saying about curiosity and cats.
The second reason is a little more theoretical. I had to write about this because it seems, to me, that the more someone tries to stop an idea, hold something back, censor it, ban it, etc., the more it thrives. “Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.” Think back in your memory of all of the things societies and people have tried to quash. Have they succeeded? Did it work? Did the burning of this book in 1973 work? Did it stop the book from going forward? Did it get pulled from libraries? As we see above, many, many tried. It’s one of the most challenged books of all time. One of the most controversial. Yet…it still stands. I think, in some ways, the fact that this book lit so many people on fire defeated the fact that some people lit it on fire trying to stop it. The very nature that led men to want to destroy it is what has given it its staying power.
And that is why I pay such close attention to the power of words.