September 22, 2014

Banned Book Week

Uncle Wildcat reading the kids a book under my portrait of Don Quixote
It's Banned Book Week, which for me is an invitation to revisit some of my favorite pieces of literature of all time.

If your reading list is running a little low, consider adding these to the to-read pile:


1. The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood

Starting off the list, this was maybe the most important book I read during my teen years. It's not just a feminist manifesto, it's a dystopian future of the world we find ourselves perilously close to achieving.

It's no surprise to me at all how often this book has been banned. It's critical of a world that sees women as tools for the production of children, rather than human beings. And the more radical the religious elements in our country become, the more we see women treated as just that.

Every time a male politician makes a horrific, asinine statement about, way, women being the same as livestock, I want to smack them in the head with this book.

2. Howl, by Allen Ginsburg

I've never understood why Kerouac got all the Beat glory. If you want an adolescent to understand that poetry is moving, and that words have power, give them this book.

There are so many reasons people have given to ban this book. But it all comes down to one thing- this book? It scares the crap out of them. It has managed to remain so relevant and so deeply real that it feels like it could have been written today.

"To recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose and stand before you speechless and intelligent and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head..."

It could be about Tumblr.

3. Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo

This is a World War 1 protest novel. And probably the most fundamentally human book I've ever read.

The main character has survived the war, but barely. He's blind, and he can't speak, and his arms and legs have been blown off. But he's alive.

He's a living consciousness, unable to communicate, trapped with his own thoughts. He's just a boy. This book haunts me. And as tragic and beautiful his bittersweet remembrances of a girl back home, or a life where he could see the sky and stand and run, it's the last lines of the book that haunt me the most.

The message that civilizations create strong, healthy boys to blow into pieces, for no other reason that to blow each other into pieces... that's a story that still needs telling.

4. Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling

Yeah, Harry Potter has been banned. And not because it's an addictive substance.

Some people like to claim that it promotes Satanism. Those people have obviously never read it. Some people like to claim it's anti-Christian. They've also obviously never read it- every wizard and witch in these books celebrates Christmas.

What it really promotes is imagination, individualism, and a sense of adventure. And those three characteristics together can be pretty dangerous.

5. Steal This Book, by Abbie Hoffman

Here's the thing about some banned books. I get it. I get why somebody didn't want people reading it. I get that some books, like this one, have genuinely dangerous information in them.

But banning them doesn't get rid of the information.

For those who haven't read it, "Steal This Book" includes instructions on how to make bombs and LSD.

It also taught me how to make yogurt, furniture, build a trap to catch the animals in my garden (although not the mice in my house), and dozens of other useful life lessons.

The whole point of the book is that information should be available to you, readily. And in a pre-internet age, it was hard to find this kind of how-to manual for off-the-grid living. Now, it's easier to google bomb making techniques than it is to find this book.

6. The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss

Yes, even the good doctor has been banned.

This story is so good. And still so relevant. We need to face up to what we've been doing to our planet since the beginning of the industrial revolution. And facing that is terrifying, because it we acknowledge that maybe not all progress has been good, maybe we'll have to abandon some of the modern conveniences we love so much.

The Onceler is every captain of industry, from Andrew Carnegie to Steve Jobs. And we need to recognize that our coal plants and our iPhones take a real toll on the world around us.

7. Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Oh, how I love this book.

It's got all sorts of things in it that people love to ban, too. It mocks religion, it has sexual themes, there's the end of the world...

You know, it's a Vonnegut book. They pretty much all share those elements in common. And they're pretty much all brilliant.

The thing I love so much about this book in particular is that those elements are AT THEIR BEST. The end of the world is our own fault. The fake religion is probably one of the best religions in the history of humanity. And the sex?

I say this as somebody who has a lot to say about rape scenes: best rape scene ever. Why? Because the victim is immediately humanized, and has an opportunity to respond to her assailant- shaming him. And the whole scene is a paragraph long. There should be more books like that.

8. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

One of the greatest novellas ever.

I'm one of those obnoxious know-it-alls who hates hearing people confuse "Frankenstein" with "Frankenstein's Monster." If you're dressing up for Halloween by painting your face green, attaching bolts to your neck, and grunting... you are Frankenstein's Monster.

If you're dressed up for Halloween as a Victorian gentlemen carrying a heap of journals and science textbooks, you are Frankenstein.

And the brilliant thing about the book that the people who haven't read it don't understand... it's the doctor who's the really scary one.

9. Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein

Everything about this book, from the delightfully happy grasses that are supposed to be stepped on, to the cannibalism...

Everything in this book is wonderful.

When you have to invent a word for your story to be told, a word that means at once to understand, to accept, to learn and to love, that's a story that might be worth sharing.

Or banning, if that's your thing, I guess.

10. Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes

I can't for the life of me imagine why this book is banned. It's hilarious, and poignant, and sweet, and romantic. Especially romantic.

And funny. Did anybody ever tell you how funny Don Quixote is? Because it is.

I read this book while M was going through chemo and radiation. At the time, I just wanted a big heavy book to read, I figured I'd be sitting in a lot of waiting rooms so I should have something that would DEFINITELY keep me occupied. It wasn't until much later I realized how incredibly appropriate the choice was.

It's one of my all time favorites now. I keep an illustration of Don Quixote framed in my living room.

My kids and I read banned books right underneath it.

You remember that facebook meme going around a few weeks ago? People listing ten of the books that stayed with them through the years?

How about everyone shares their favorite banned book this week, instead?

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