You Can’t Read That!

You Can’t Read That! is a periodic post featuring banned book reviews and news roundups.

I’m starting with an essay on censorship by Chris Crutcher.  Crutcher, an author whose books are frequently challenged and banned from school libraries and reading lists, is coming around to the same conclusion I’ve drawn: that parental book challenges are no longer isolated incidents, but are increasingly the result of organized action on the part of religious conservatives.

The state college professor who home schools his children but nevertheless successfully campaigns to have books removed from high school libraries in Republic, Missouri, on the grounds that they are not Christian?  I don’t believe for a minute he acted in isolation.  I believe he was plugged into one of the many organizations of religious conservatives who challenge and ban books.

One of the books he had pulled from the shelves, of course, is a perennial target of book banners, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.  What did Vonnegut have to say about book banning?

All these people talk so eloquently about getting back to good old-fashioned values. Well, as an old poop I can remember back to when we had those old-fashioned values, and I say let’s get back to the good old-fashioned First Amendment of the good old-fashioned Constitution of the United States—and to hell with the censors! Give me knowledge or give me death!

The good news?  In the spirit of Vonnegut’s “to hell with the censors,” the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library announces it will mail a free copy of Slaughterhouse-Five to any student from Republic, Missouri who requests one.  Righteous!


You Can’t Read That! banned book review:

Kurt Vonnegut

Let’s start with a brief history of prior Slaughterhouse-Five banning, compiled by the American Library Association:

Challenged in many communities, but burned in Drake, ND (1973). Banned in Rochester, MI because the novel “contains and makes references to religious matters” and thus fell within the ban of the establishment clause. An appellate court upheld its usage in the school in Todd v Rochester Community Schools, 41 Mich. App. 320, 200 N. W 2d 90 (1972). Banned in Levittown, NY (1975), North Jackson, OH (1979), and Lakeland, FL (1982) because of the “book’s explicit sexual scenes, violence, and obscene language.” Barred from purchase at the Washington Park High School in Racine, WI (1984) by the district administrative assistant for instructional services. Challenged at the Owensboro, KY High School library (1985) because of “foul language, a section depicting a picture of an act of bestiality, a reference to ‘Magic Fingers’ attached to the protagonist’s bed to help him sleep, and the sentence: ‘The gun made a ripping sound like the opening of the fly of God Almighty.”‘ Restricted to students who have parental permission at the four Racine, WI Unified District high school libraries (1986) because of “language used in the book, depictions of torture, ethnic slurs, and negative portrayals of women.” Challenged at the LaRue County, KY High School library (1987) because “the book contains foul language and promotes deviant sexual behavior.” Banned from the Fitzgerald, GA schools (1987) because it was filled with profanity and full of explicit sexual references:’ Challenged in the Baton Rouge, LA public high school libraries (1988) because the book is “vulgar and offensive:’ Challenged in the Monroe, MI public schools (1989) as required reading in a modem novel course for high school juniors and seniors because of the book’s language and the way women are portrayed. Retained on the Round Rock, TX Independent High School reading list (1996) after a challenge that the book was too violent. Challenged as an eleventh grade summer reading option in Prince William County, VA (1998) because the book “was rife with profanity and explicit sex:”  Removed as required reading for sophomores at the Coventry, RI High School (2000) after a parent complained that it contains vulgar language, violent imagery, and sexual content.  Retained on the Northwest Suburban High School District 214 reading list in Arlington Heights, IL (2006), along with eight other challenged titles.  A board member, elected amid promises to bring her Christian beliefs into all board decision-making, raised the controversy based on excerpts from  the books she’d found on the internet.  Challenged in the Howell, MI High School (2007) because of the book’s strong sexual content.  In response to a request from the president of the Livingston Organization for Values in Education, or LOVE, the county’s top law enforcement official reviewed the books to see whether laws against distribution of sexually explicit materials to minors had been broken. “After reading the books in question, it is clear that the explicit passages illustrated a larger literary, artistic or political message and were not included solely to appeal to the prurient interests of minors,” the county prosecutor wrote.  “Whether these materials are appropriate for minors is a decision to be made by the school board, but I find that they are not in violation of criminal laws.”

And now, my own review:

The simplest way to convey the essence of Slaughterhouse-Five is to quote Vonnegut’s long title:

Slaughterhouse-Five; or, The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., a Fourth-Generation German-American Now Living in Easy Circumstances on Cape Cod (and Smoking Too Much) Who, as an American Infantry Scout Hors de Combat, as a Prisoner of War, Witnessed the Fire-Bombing of Dresden, Germany, the Florence of the Elbe, a Long Time Ago, and Survived to Tell the Tale: This Is a Novel Somewhat in the Telegraphic Schizophrenic Manner of Tales of the Planet Tralfamadore, Where The Flying Saucers Come From

This is a war novel, like Catch-22, that everyone in my college generation read. Everyone. It remains widely read today. In addition to being widely read, it has also been widely challenged and banned, from its publication in 1969 right up to the present day. I hadn’t read it in a long time, but hearing that it had been banned again — this time from high school libraries and reading lists in Republic, Missouri, on the grounds that it isn’t “Christian” — prompted me to re-read it.

Vonnegut’s writing style is simple and sparse, even repetitive. Many readers are put off by Vonnegut’s repetition of the phrase “And so it goes” when characters die, but it is part and parcel of Vonnegut’s quietist philosophy. As for the science-fiction aspects of the novel, I personally think the best way to interpret the Tralfamadorians and their way of perceiving time and death is as a manifestation of Billy Pilgrim’s post-traumatic stress … Vonnegut strongly hints at that himself.

Many books on high school reading lists contain salty language and some address sexuality, two elements present in Vonnegut’s story, but few exude as strong an air of existential fatalism as Slaughterhouse-Five. Man will always make war. People will always die, horribly. You can’t fight it. It is what it is. Best to look at life in its entirety, all times visible and occurring at once and forever, and to focus on those times that make us (or made us, or will make us) happy.

Vonnegut’s good-natured fatalism is a direct challenge to Protestant Christianity as it is practiced in America, and though I deplore it, I fatalistically accept the fact that zealots will continue to attack this gentle, peaceful, wry book. It is what it is … and so it goes.

Would I want my high-schooler to read Slaughterhouse-Five? Absolutely. Everyone should read it.

© 2011, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.


2 thoughts on “You Can’t Read That!

  • Actually, in reprising Season Seven of “Buffy,” I noticed one of the characters reading, what else?, “Slaughterhouse Five.” I, too, read the book several times in college and grad school, but what I remember from it isn’t the language or sexuality (there was sexuality?), it was the fire-bombing of Dresden, a city with no military depots, artillery dumps, or defenses of any kind, a city of such exquisite beauty that its loss is still lamented as one of the great tragedies of the war. And so it goes.

  • I was surprised, on re-reading it decades later, to see how very little actual description of the Dresden firebombing Vonnegut offered. But he did a hell of a lot with just a few words.

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