Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Notes For November 10th, 2009

This Day In Writing History

On November 10th, 1973, copies of Slaughterhouse-Five, (1969) the classic novel by legendary writer Kurt Vonnegut, were burned by administrators of a high school in Drake, North Dakota, as per the orders of the Drake School Board.

An English teacher at the high school had assigned Slaughterhouse-Five to his students for classroom study. One student complained to her mother about the profane language in the novel, and the disgruntled parent contacted the principal, who then brought the issue to the attention of the board of education.

The Drake School Board decided not only to ban Slaughterhouse-Five from the classroom and the school library, but also to confiscate students' personal copies of the novel and burn them. Most of the students refused to turn over their books, so school officials searched their lockers and took them. All the seized copies of Slaughterhouse-Five (and other books banned by the Board, including James Dickey's classic suspense thriller Deliverance) were tossed into the school's furnace and burned.

When Kurt Vonnegut learned that copies of his novel had been burned, he wrote the following to a member of the Drake School Board:

Dear Mr. McCarthy:

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.

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, then 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.

Again: you have insulted me, and I am a good citizen, and I am very real.

Nine years later, in the case of Island Trees School District v. Pico (1982), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment limits the authority of school boards to remove books from middle and high school libraries. Students had sued the Island Trees School Board over their decision to ban Slaughterhouse-Five and other books, which the Board had declared "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-[Semitic], and just plain filthy."

Public burnings of books still take place in the United States. Most recently, church groups have conducted public burnings of J.K. Rowling's series of Harry Potter fantasy novels, which they accuse of encouraging children to practice real witchcraft and dabble in devil worship.

Quote Of The Day

"Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae." - Kurt Vonnegut

Vanguard Video

Today's video features Kurt Vonnegut in a 2005 interview on the PBS program NOW, talking about Slaughterhouse-Five. Enjoy!

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