Why an unburnable book is a symbol of our times

During my freshman year of high school, my contemporary literature teacher, Mr. Kuklinski, offered the class two reading options: A clockwork orange by Anthony Burgess or Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.

I didn’t realize at the time that either choice could potentially lead me down a path of ruin, a path I’m fairly certain I could have fallen on my own with a little effort. But still, it’s nice to know that educators once cared.

So, thinking we were mature enough to decide for ourselves, Mr. Kuklinski, who was also the high school hockey coach, choose one of two novels to read and discuss during the first nine weeks of class.

Published in 1969, Kurt Vonnegut’s anti-war novel “Slaughterhouse-Five” has been in the crosshairs of book banning efforts ever since.

I first chose A clockwork orange because the bright orange cover caught my eye. I hadn’t yet fully understood the concept of “don’t judge a book by its cover”. After about ten pages of struggling to understand the protagonist’s teenage slang – a mix of Russian and Cockney English – I negotiated a book swap.

Although a large part of Slaughterhouse-Five was lost on me, with all the sci-fi time jumps, alien abductions and heavy philosophy stuff, I was smart enough to know this was an anti-war book. Along with three older brothers who narrowly avoided the Vietnam War for various reasons, war was an integral part of my life.

What I didn’t know then – something that would have made my reading experience even more exciting – is that Vonnegut’s WWII classic has been variously challenged, banned and even burned across the United States almost since its first publication in 1969. am I missing it? A clockwork orange undergone the same examination.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Speaking about the censorship of his work, Kurt Vonnegut once said “…words really don’t hurt children much. They didn’t hurt us when we were young. It’s the bad deeds and the lie that hurt us.”

When Slaughterhouse-Five was stripped from public schools in Oakland County, Michigan in 1972, a circuit judge called him “depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar, and anti-Christian”. Another New York school district called the book “just plain filthy.”

The sixteen-year-old self would have been excited by this revelation.

What better time to experience all of this than your freshman year in high school? Keep in mind that I grew up in a small town before the advent of cable TV, the internet, or smart phones, so vulgarity and depravity were hard to come by.

I don’t remember being shocked or damaged while reading Slaughterhouse-Five. Apparently, without the adults telling me, I had brushed the “dirt” without getting dirty – a major disappointment in retrospect. But I got an “A” on my Slaughterhouse-Five book report, so contemporary literature was not a total loss.

Over the years I have read several Vonnegut novels. Some I liked more than others. But never once, even stumbling across the finish line on the last page, did I have the urge to set the books on fire the way a public school board in North Dakota did with thirty – two copies of Slaughterhouse-Five in 1973.

That was almost fifty years ago. Thank God we are much more enlightened today…

In early June, a fireproof copy of by Margaret Atwood Maid’s Talesold for $130,000 at Sotheby’swith proceeds going to PEN America’s efforts to fight the book ban.

The Handmaid's Tale

A fireproof copy of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” sold for $130,000 at Sotheby’s. Proceeds from the sale went to the fight against the book ban.

The battle needs all the help it can get as the number of attempts to ban books from schools and libraries has increased over the past year. Among the conclusions of the recent report “Forbidden in the United States” PEN America has tracked more than 1,586 individual book ban cases in 2021 and that book bans “occurred in 86 school districts in 26 states.”

Atwood’s book is a favorite among those who fear the written word. The dystopian novel about misogyny and other dangers of oppression has become a bestselling novel, an Emmy-winning TV show, and a regular on banned book lists.

“I never thought I would try to burn one of my own books…and fail,” Atwood, 82, said in a statement ahead of the auction.

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood failed to burn the unwritable copy of her book, “The Handmaid’s Tale”.

I was far too oblivious to know if Mr. Kuklinski was making a conscious effort to challenge my high school teenage mind with his list of books. And I don’t know if the school board in my small town was so enlightened that they let it do its best while staying on the sidelines.

What I do know is that I was given a choice, a choice that lit a fire under me, not under any book.

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