Banned Books Week: Recommended Reads #6 & #7

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BANNED

As some of you might already be aware, this week (21st – 27th September 2014) is Banned Books Week. Held annually (usually in the last week of September), this event celebrates our freedom to read and to express ideas, even those books which are considered by some to be unorthodox, offensive and/or unpopular.

To mark this occasion, I thought it would be appropriate to spend some time this week taking a look at a few of the most important, influential, beautiful, and controversial books that, at some point in history, have been banned. My intent here is not necessarily to endorse these books (although, there are some on this list that I believe everyone should read at some point in their lives), but to simply celebrate the fact that we now live in a world where books no longer need to be burned. After all, as Mary Jo Godwin once said, “a truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone”.

So, on to my sixth and seventh considerations of the week so far…


Book #6: Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

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Chances are, you’re already familiar with this particular book – if not, then you’re in for a treat. Published in 1963 (the year after the Cuban missile crisis had brought humanity closer to annihilation than ever before), Vonnegut’s text is a darkly comic exploration of humankind’s ‘condition’, in an age when the world had quite literally gone MAD. The reasons for its censorship in certain Ohio schools in 1972 remain unclear to this day – some believe that its clear anti-war stance was a contributing factor, whereas others believe it was simple blind ignorance and that, in fact, those banning the book hadn’t even bothered to read it (same old story, eh?).

So, why read it? Apart from the fact that it is a literary classic, it also manages to strike the perfect balance between the comic and the bleak that defines an age overshadowed by nuclear anxiety. The phoney religion that Vonnegut cooks up (Bokononism, and the corresponding Books of Bokonon) show how keen human beings are to give over themselves to ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’, even when they are fully aware that such forces are a figment of their imagination. Furthermore, the book makes an increasingly relevant point regarding mankind’s responsibilities in the face of a God that either doesn’t exist, or doesn’t care – that no one is coming to save us, and if someone presses the big red button, BOOM! That’s the end of everything. In Cat’s Cradle, the world ends in ice instead of fire, but this too can be understood as a metaphor for nuclear winter – the consequence of setting off nuclear bombs.

Vonnegut also makes some rather interesting points about the nature of scientific exploration – that, often, it is devoid of morality. The deadly substance in this novel, ice-nine, was created to solve a relatively mundane military problem (i.e. how to solidify mud so that troops can easily pass over it, instead of getting bogged down), and the other uses for it were all-but-ignored in the quest for knowledge – the fact that the substance, if misused, would contaminate the world’s water supply is considered irrelevant to the puzzle at hand. That ‘knowledge’ brings about the end of the world… so, as you can see, the metaphors for nuclear war are multitudinous here.

The book does have its critics:  some have described Vonnegut’s characters as no more than caricatures, and think his disparaging portrayal of a greedy, selfish, thoughtless human race is too harsh and polarised to be fully believable. For instance, his Dr Hoenikker – the archetypal nuclear scientist – is devoid of any conscience whatsoever, even when faced with the consequences of his creation. His three offspring – Frank, Angela and Newt – are also used to demonstrate just how easily an individual’s morality can fail. All three characters barter away their portion of ice-nine for a governmental position, attractive husband and a week on Cape Cod with a Russian midget respectively, then reassure themselves that the decision was a good one, because they themselves benefitted from the transaction. They, too, fail to take responsibility for placing the ice-nine in the hands of those who will bring about the end of all things.

However, I think Vonnegut manages to capture the absurdity of the situation quite well – that these people are, effectively, squabbling over the right to own the planet’s doom… they will kill, lie, cheat and steal for it, because it represents power and, really, what does humankind desire more than life? Power. And the squabble for this power, dear friends, may one day be what kills us all off. For this reason, if for no other, the novel remains relevant as ever, in my opinion.


Book #7: 1984, by George Orwell

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What can I say that hasn’t been said already? If you’ve never read Orwell’s 1984 before – READ IT! It is quite simply one of the greatest, well-crafted, most devastating books you will ever read in your lifetime. It takes a long, hard look at some of the most important issues of our time: surveillance by the state, class divides, linguistic limitations, power/control, domination/submission, and war. As time passes, the novel seems to get closer and closer to the truth – which, actually, is the most terrifying thing about it.

For instance, Orwell adeptly demonstrates how language is used by those in authority to control its users, and just how easily we surrender that control. Those in power in Orwell’s novel have complete control over all of the information the population is given. This is a pertinent point, given our own reliance on the media for information in reality, and the increasingly digital nature of our communications and records of history. In 1984, Big Brother exploits the temporary nature of the Internet by effectively re-writing Oceania’s history again and again in order to fabricate an eternal war. So, when going into war with Eurasia, history is re-written to declare that Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia.

The public are encouraged to hate their enemy by watching visual propaganda at scheduled times each day. Any deviants from the political and behavioural norms approved by the Ministry are rooted out by the ‘Thought Police’ – with children being some of its most fervent soldier – and taken to Room 101. There, they are broken; they will abandon their own logic and reason; give up on love, hope, and defiance; believe that two plus two does not make four.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is now the language used by those in the novel has begun to shrink, into something known as ‘Newspeak’. Unnecessary and undesirable words are eliminated from the language and, by proxy, are also eliminated from the collective consciousness (a fascinating theory – see Sapir-Whorf’s hypothesis of linguistic relativity and determinism for more information about this idea). For example, the word ‘free’ is stripped of its political connotations in a bid to eliminate freedom itself. So, in ‘Newspeak’ the speaker is unable to express the concept of freedom of speech; political freedom; the freedom to disagree. It merely serves to describe the absence of something (as in ‘the garden is free of weeds’), which is ironic when you consider the absence of the freedom of the speakers of ‘Newspeak’.perceive reality differently.

This is, quite simply, one of the best books ever written. Everyone should read it at least once. Be prepared, though – it does not have a happy ending.

(Images: Amazon)


Want more information on Banned Books Week 2014?
Visit: http://www.ala.org/bbooks/banned


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Banned Books Week: Recommended Reads #4 & #5

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BANNED

As some of you might already be aware, this week (21st – 27th September 2014) is Banned Books Week. Held annually (usually in the last week of September), this event celebrates our freedom to read and to express ideas, even those books which are considered by some to be unorthodox, offensive and/or unpopular.

To mark this occasion, I thought it would be appropriate to spend some time this week taking a look at a few of the most important, influential, beautiful, and controversial books that, at some point in history, have been banned. My intent here is not necessarily to endorse these books (although, there are some on this list that I believe everyone should read at some point in their lives), but to simply celebrate the fact that we now live in a world where books no longer need to be burned. After all, as Mary Jo Godwin once said, “a truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone”.

So, on to my fourth and fifth considerations of the week so far…


Book #4: American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis

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If you’ve never encountered the works of Bret Easton Ellis before, then prepare yourself for a shock. The novel American Psycho was met with disgust and outrage upon publication in 1991, and was subsequently banned in many countries due to the excessive levels and graphic nature of the violence and sex portrayed throughout the novel. To this day, copies sold in Queensland, Australia are shrink-wrapped, and the text remains classified as ‘R18’ in the remainder of Australia and also in New Zealand. The Los Angeles chapter of the National Organisation of Women (NOW) even went so far as to describe the book as “a how-to novel on the torture and dismemberment of women”.

It’s not hard to work out why. Ellis’ protagonist is methodological and coldly logical in his approach to murder and torture, and describes all of his actions – from his daily skincare routine, right down to his taste in music – in excruciating detail. This focus is unwavering throughout the most gruesome scenes in the novel, and at points, it can be very difficult to read.

So, why read it, you might ask? Well, for starters, Ellis’s text is ripe with wit and dark humour, for those who are willing to see it. Furthermore, it contains more than just a slither of truth. The scathing evisceration of the creatures that roam around Wall Street offered to the reader by Ellis here is more relevant than ever in the face of the recent world recession. The motif of the serial killer working in plain view because none of his contemporaries was prepared or able to look beyond his haircut, his clothes and his pay cheque is increasingly plausible in a world where the bad guys wear suits and silk ties, rather than sporting gangwear and guns.

This is not an easy book, but it’s certainly a good one – one worth reading, if you have the stomach for it, but it’s not for the faint-hearted. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!


Book #5: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood.handmaids-tale-cover

Despite being banned from schools and being accused of stoking the fire that is feminist protest, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has not been out of print since it was first published back in 1985. A bestseller and a text now synonymous with the feminist struggle, this book is considered by many to be Atwood’s most powerful work.

Atwood, of course, is no stranger to protest and activism, and is not afraid to include controversial topics in her work. Oryx and Crake (and, in fact, the entire MadAddam trilogy), for instance, can be considered to be a warning that we need to start taking climate change and environmental issues seriously. In this book, though, the topic is women’s rights: the plot sees the entire female population being divided into classes based on household functions, with each class clad in a separate colour that instantly identifies the wearer’s purpose – dull green for the Marthas (houseworkers); blue for the Wives; red, blue and green stripes for the Econowives (working class); red for the Handmaids (whose function is to bear children to the head of the household); and brown for the Aunts (a thought-control force, part-governess, part-reform-school matron). It is a warning against seeing women in a reductive and misogynistic light, and a call for all those of the feminine persuasion to stand up for their rights to be equals.

Is this a glimpse of the future? Probably not. However, that’s partially because gender issues have been brought to the forefront of the collective consciousness in recent decades, and so the subjugation and mistreatment of women is no longer seen as ‘acceptable’ in most areas of the world. The fight is, of course, not over, and so Atwood’s text contionues to be relevant in today’s society. Though I must admit The Handmaid’s Tale is not my favourite of Atwood’s works, it is well-written and quite chilling in places nonetheless, and is certainly well worth a read.

(Images: Amazon)


Want more information on Banned Books Week 2014?
Visit: http://www.ala.org/bbooks/banned

Banned Books Week: Recommended Reads #3

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BANNED

As some of you might already be aware, this week (21st – 27th September 2014) is Banned Books Week. Held annually (usually in the last week of September), this event celebrates our freedom to read and to express ideas, even those books which are considered by some to be unorthodox, offensive and/or unpopular.

To mark this occasion, I thought it would be appropriate to spend some time this week taking a look at a few of the most important, influential, beautiful, and controversial books that, at some point in history, have been banned. My intent here is not necessarily to endorse these books (although, there are some on this list that I believe everyone should read at some point in their lives), but to simply celebrate the fact that we now live in a world where books no longer need to be burned. After all, as Mary Jo Godwin once said, “a truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone”.

So, on to my third consideration of the week so far…


Book #3: Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

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The Catcher in the Rye was controversial when it was originally published in 1951. Salinger’s intended audience was adults but, interestingly, it has since become popular with adolescent readers for its themes of teenage angst and alienation. This has happened despite – or, perhaps, as a direct result of – the vehement censorship of the book in US schools in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The challenges generally begin with Holden’s frequent use of vulgar language, with other reasons including sexual references, blasphemy, undermining of family values and moral codes, Holden’s being a poor role model, encouragement of rebellion, and promotion of drinking, smoking, lying, and promiscuity. Often, the challengers have been unfamiliar with the plot itself (as is all-too-often the case when it comes to those wanting books to be banned!).

It’s not really all that surprising, though, that Americans are worried about the book’s potential influence – one of the most famous killers in history, Mark David Chapman (who was responsible for the assassination of John Lennon), famously admired the character so much that he wanted to change his name to Holden Caulfield, and wanted the book to be considered as his statement in court. Chapman is not the only criminal to have been linked with this text – several others, including John Hinckley Jnr. and Robert John Bardo, were found to be in possession of the novel, which has earned Salinger’s work an incredible yet unenviable reputation.

So, will reading it turn you into a psychopathic murderer? No, of course it won’t. What it will do is remind you of all the pain and confusion of adolescence – in that regard, the book is like a smack in the face… and yet, there is beauty to behold here. The language is conversational and at the same time manages to be poetic; the dialogue drips with the unfocused rage and sarcasm of youth. Whilst readers may find it difficult to like him all that much, their heart will bleed for him all the same -we all, to some extent, know what it is like to be Holden, because there are some things you cannot forget.

If you’ve never read it, you should give it a try – if for no other reason than to tick it off the list. Salinger is a master, and the book won’t leave you disappointed!


(Image: Amazon)

Want more information on Banned Books Week 2014?
Visit: http://www.ala.org/bbooks/banned

Banned Books Week: Recommended Reads #1 & #2

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BANNED

As some of you might already be aware, next week (21st – 27th September 2014) is Banned Books Week. Held annually (usually in the last week of September), this event celebrates our freedom to read and to express ideas, even those books which are considered by some to be unorthodox, offensive and/or unpopular.

To mark this occasion, I thought it would be appropriate to take a look at a few of the most important, influential, beautiful, and controversial books that, at some point in history, have been banned. My intent here is not necessarily to endorse these books (although, there are some on this list that I believe everyone should read at some point in their lives), but to simply celebrate the fact that we now live in a world where books no longer need to be burned. After all, as Mary Jo Godwin once said, “a truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone”.

So, let’s kick it off with my first two books for consideration…


 

Book #1: Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

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Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel, Brave New World, was first published in 1932. Since then, it has become one of the most frequently censored books in literary history. Even as recently as 2010, it remains one of the ten most frequently challenged books, according to the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, due to its themes of sexuality, drugs, racism, anti-religious views, and suicide. Censors have long sought to prevent students from reading the book in educational institutions, but that hasn’t prevented it from becoming a well-deserved classic.

So, what makes Brave New World so special? Well, for starters, it is one of the wittiest, most eloquent works of social satire ever written. Huxley creates a forceful blend of bizarre comedy, futuristic foresight, and philosophical dialogue which appeals to more than just your average science fiction readers. There is truth here for everybody. This book is a bitter but accurate commentary on the sickness present in the human species – this drive towards insatiable, shameless consumerism which, day by day, becomes an ever more accurate description of modern society.

Some say the world will end in Orwellian fashion – with Big Brother watching, and the common man driven into poverty and solitude, and no one knowing what the truth is anymore (as is portrayed in the novel 1984 – more on that book later!). Huxley’s alternative vision sees the world instead as the willing victims of a million different pleasurable vices, laughing ourselves to death, being more than happy to buy whatever truth is being sold to us. Both visions are equally horrifying, and yet exact opposites in many ways. It is rather interesting to note that Huxley was tutor and mentor to one Eric Arthur Blair, who later would come to write under the pen name George Orwell… (Man, would I have loved to have been in that classroom!!)

Whichever camp you choose to get behind, whether you’re an Orwellian or a Huxleyite, I thoroughly recommend picking up Huxley’s novel if you’ve never come across it before, or revisiting it if it is an old favourite.

 


Book #2: Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

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First published in France by a pornographic press, this 1955 novel explores the mind of a self-loathing and highly intelligent paedophile who narrates his life and obsessive lust for “nymphets” like 12-year-old Dolores Haze. French officials banned it for being obscene, as did officials in England, New Zealand,  South Africa, and Argentina. Vladimir Nabokov actually nearly burned the manuscript in disgust of its content after writing it, and fought with his publishers over whether or not the image of a young girl should be included on the cover.

Love it or hate it, you have to admit that it is an intensely brave book which dares to go into territory so taboo that few authors, before or since, have dared to tread. What is often under-appreciated about this novel is the sheer beauty of the language Nabokov uses: there are passages in this text which are achingly beautiful; pure poetry. Sadly, it rarely features on the reading lists of academic institutions due to the continued controversy teaching it would create. However, it remains a classic, and for anyone who can put their feelings aside about such a delicate topic, it’s a compelling read.

(Images: Amazon)


Want more information on Banned Books Week 2014?
Visit: http://www.ala.org/bbooks/banned