Saturday, September 25, 2004

Ban This, Bub

It's more day left in Banned Books Week. I made it!

Keith sent me an email a few days ago, informing me of Banned Books Week and asking me if I'd like to contribute something on the subject to the blog. So I checked out the list. It included more than a few of my favorites. Trying to decide which one of these books I wanted to write about was difficult. Which one had the biggest influence on me, and which one would conjure up from within me something substantial to say?

As usual, I couldn't decide, so I'm going to pick two and just write the things that come to me.

Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade, by Kurt Vonnegut.
I read this in high school, and it changed the way I thought about literature.
My father is an electrician. My mother works for the government. Neither went to College. The language used in the types of books we were forced to read for school--from Ethan Frome to The Fountainhead--was as alien to me as Chinese. But with Vonnegut it felt like he was talking to me. Reading him felt like having a conversation with my wise (and wise-cracking) grandfather. And still he managed to put me in Billy Pilgrim's shoes, so vividly, without reams of description or encyclopedic exposition--or language like an overstuffed vase. And then he did something, stylistically, that would violently throw open the doors of fiction for me, breaking the locks and suddenly making everything seem possible: "An American near Billy wailed that he had excreted everything but his brains. Moments later he said 'There they go, there they go.' He meant his brains. / That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book."
That was when I learned that literature could be Punk. You could stretch the formats, break the rules. I have been very difficult to satisfy, lit-wise, ever since.

Catcher in The Rye, by J.D. Salinger.
Everybody loves this book. Everybody worth knowing, anyway. You are either one of the people who get it, right away, or you aren't, and you don't.
A sad but elucidating story, by way of example:
When my grandfather was sick with lung cancer, we were visited by my great-uncle, a school teacher from Atlanta. (Despite the 'Great', he is only in his mid-fifties.) I had always secretly admired this uncle, because he was the literary jet-setter of the family. He sat on golf courses with millionaires and sipped mint juleps--that kind of thing. But once he self-published his first novel, and I tried to read it, the clouds rolled away and I was able to see the man my uncle was.What he wrote should not have been novelized. It is the kind of story best told at cocktail parties to sycophants. (Would I ban it? I really doubt I'd have to...)
At any rate, he once asked me what my favorite novels were, and Catcher was among the first.
"I never understood that novel," he said. "People make such a fuss over it, but there's really nothing to it."
I was somewhat baffled. I thought he was an English Teacher.
"But, it's a generational expression of rage. It's about the disillusionment of reality meeting the dreams of youth. It's about people up the fight."
"What fight?", he snorted, "It's more like whining, to me."
It was the 'to me' that spelled it out. He would never understand Holden Caulfield, any more than he would understand Nelson Mandela or would have understood Galileo or Newton or Jesus. He is the archetype of solipsism and intransigence, and that makes him a poor writer and a fool and the exact type of person who would band together with like-minded fools and decide which books are "unsuitable" for the masses.
Thank Sophia, he's retired now, so we can all relax a little.

But not too much. There are always more like him. We have one running the country right now, as a matter of fact. And there is another war, besides the one on terrorism, that people like this are not going to be able to win. There are billions of people out there, and every one harbors at least one thought that, to you, is "rogue" and "dangerous". You can burn every book ever written but you can't stop that. You can raze the earth from one end to the other and you can't kill that. Holden Caulfield's rage is diffused throughout the entire planet. Promises broken, comeuppance dawning. You think it's hard to eradicate every ideology you don't like?

Try every idea.


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