CAUTION: Some People Consider These Books Dangerous . . .
By Sam Johnson
The display read "CAUTION: SOME PEOPLE CONSIDER THESE BOOKS DANGEROUS," and on the table were books with covers torn, burned, or crossed out with red slash marks.
Some of the books so boldly condemned included Grapes of Wrath, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Brave New World, Mother Goose, Farewell to Arms, The American Heritage Dictionary, Lord of the Flies, Flowers for Algernon, Catcher in the Rye, Alice in Wonderland, To Kill A Mockingbird, Are You There God? It's Me Margaret, Of Mice and Men, Ordinary People, Raisin in the Sun, Death of a Salesman, Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-Five, Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, and believe it or not the Bible.
Scattered among the books were newspaper clippings and headlines from papers around the nation claiming many of these books to be immoral, vulgar, indecent, and containing "dangerous ideas." Some of the articles described community book burnings and the banning of these books from classrooms as well as public and school libraries.
The display was rather startling, and one of several I've seen at libraries and bookstores during "BANNED BOOKS WEEK." The purpose of these displays is to draw attention to "BANNED BOOKS WEEK" which is sponsored jointly by several organizations including the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Association, National Council of Teachers of English, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and the Center for the Book Library of Congress.
The list on the poster is surprising, to say the least, and is only a small sample of the 650 some titles found in the annotated list that comes with the poster and is available to the public. (The complete packet of posters, lists, and a resource booklet on banned books and censorship is available from the American Library Association, 50 E. Huron, Chicago, IL 60611, www.ala.org/bbooks).
Whenever I hear the words “banned” or “censored” in connection with books, I shudder and think back to a time in1973 when I was teaching freshman literature and composition at the University of North Dakota.
Images come to mind of an event I saw televised on national news. It was an event that left me aghast and shaking my head in dismay. It was an event now permanently recorded in my memory with other events that have shocked or startled.
It was an event that seemed archaic and completely out of place in our modern times; something from a movie perhaps or the "Red Scare" of the McCarthy era, or the witch hunts of Salem.
And there is no question but the event dealt a blow to the character of North Dakotans, at least in the eyes of the nation: “What do you expect from those farmers anyway?”
The event televised nationwide was of a fire in the small community of Drake, North Dakota.
It was a fire fueled by books.
It was an actual honest to God book burning, and included a bonfire of books thought to be "unfit for students to read." Several of the books were critically acclaimed, including "Slaughterhouse-Five" by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and "Deliverance" by James Dickey.
Later, the U.S. District Court ruled that teachers should be allowed to use these books in the eleventh and twelfth grade English classes.
But no matter, the damage had been done. The flames of the fire had been seen across the nation and the heat felt throughout North Dakota.
Personally upset by the incident, Kurt Vonnegut wrote to the chairman of the Drake School Board. Here is part of what he wrote excerpted from the collection of his letters and essays called Palm Sunday:
"I am writing to you in your capacity as chairman of the Drake School Board. I am among those American writers whose books have been destroyed in the now famous furnace of your school . . . .
"If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men, and even our most sheltered children know that . . . .
"I read in the newspaper that your community is mystified by the outcry from all over the country about what you have done . . . . Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to flow freely in your community, not merely your own.
"If you and your board are now determined to show that you in fact have wisdom and maturity when you exercise your powers over the education of your young, the you should acknowledge that it was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books --books you hadn't even read. You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive."
This, it seems to me, is what "Banned Book
Week" is all about.