I’m away from my desk for the next several days. Even we professional gripers need to take a break once in awhile. I’ll be republishing a few posts from the previous year for the next week or so. This post was first published on Sept. 28, 2011.
“What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now they are content with burning my books.”– Sigmund Freud
In honor of Banned Book Week I considered a plausible hypothetical: How I would act if my future 8th-grade son – he’s now 5 – informed me that he was reading Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf?
It is interesting to note that I could not find Mein Kampf on any list of banned books. According to one 2010 source, it has never been banned. I’m sure many people believe it should be banned. I don’t. Banned Books Week celebrates the importance of the First Amendment and the freedom to read. It is held annually the last week of September.
Back to my thought experiment: After a long day at the office, I find myself relaxing at home, on the couch, sipping a glass of Chardonnay to take the edge off. Little Alan Jr. walks in the door from school, takes off his backpack and says, “Hey dad, I’m reading this book Mein Kampf by this guy named Hitler. Ever heard of him?” And thus I snort a significant amount of white wine through my nasal cavity.
Actually, I think I would be rather impressed with my child. Sure, if, during the prior week, he had shaved his head, tattooed a swastika on his arm and goose-stepped down the hallway, I’d have cause to worry. Short of that, I would encourage him to read the entire book.
Why? What could a young child possibly gain from reading such a book? Well, I would consider it an incredible teaching moment. I can now provide instruction on the assessment and critique of an idea, good or bad – and Mein Kampf is certainly bad. I could also provide lessons on history, race issues, religion, war and morality, to name a few more.
Consider a book that has been banned, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. This is what one school administrator had to say about the story:
“In English, children are also required to read a book called ‘Slaughterhouse-Five.‘ This is a book that contains so much profane language, it would make a sailor blush with shame. The ‘f word’ is plastered on almost every other page. The content ranges from naked men and women in cages together so that others can watch them having sex to God telling people that they better not mess with his loser, bum of a son, named Jesus Christ.”
As I read this quote I am devastated at the ignorance to which this man’s poor reading comprehension skills relegate him, not to mention his students. I am further saddened by the self-righteous prudery that adorns his intellectual shallowness, the sort of which ubiquitously wallows in the thin waters of far too many American editorial pages.
The concerns listed above reveal the fears of a small mind. Vonnegut’s work, and many of the classic works that have been challenged and banned, deal with grand and important themes of slavery, war, love, loss and the human condition. The narrative arcs that include the many events that this man abhors – swearing, contempt of religion, and teen sex – are simply a small part of these larger themes and not the point entire. To focus on them is, indeed, to miss the point. These petty quibbles pale next to Vonnegut’s moral considerations of war, free will and fate.
Teach your children to think. Keep our libraries well-stocked with banned books, difficult ideas and meaningful statements that elucidate the human condition. You may get fewer relaxing moments on the couch, but you’ll have children to be proud of.