Those Saved From The Fire
Whilst book-burning is thankfully an image from a bygone era, the banning and challenging of books remains a chilling reality. In the 2021-22 school year more than 2,500 books were banned by 138 school districts in the United States, with books both about and by LGBTQ+ and Black people disproportionately targeted. To remind yourself of the privilege of intellectual freedom, I urge you to read a book either previously or currently banned. I have curated a shortlist of a few of the best.
A side-splitting critique of the absurdity of war and bureaucratic reasoning, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) follows US Air Force bombardier Capt. John Yossarian during WWII in his desperate attempts to stay alive. First removed from the school library in Strongsville, Ohio for profane and inappropriate language in 1972, Catch-22 was also among five books banned from classrooms in April 2020 by the Mat-Su Borough School District in Alaska. The board expressed concerns over the controversial language and sexual references which they claimed could potentially harm students. If you’ve not read it yet, you’re no doubt familiar with the concept: “There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind.” If you’re sane enough to fear flying, you’re sane enough to fly. Akin to an ab workout, reading this novel definitely requires a certain level of physical fitness. Heller’s masterpiece is about as ironic as it gets, yet as a staunch anti-war novel, still offers real profound criticism of war, society, religion and human nature.
Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2000) is a graphic memoir detailing Satrapi’s coming-of-age during the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War. Banned in Iran and denounced by its leaders, the book was also challenged in many schools across the US. In 2013, Chicago public schools pulled it from classrooms and libraries due to the “graphic language and images that are not appropriate for general use”. The attempted censorship of Persepolis in recent history should be impetus enough to pick it up. In her powerful black-and-white illustrations, Satrapi offers a unique child’s perspective of a history largely unknown by the Western public in an engaging and accessible form. While Satrapi’s childhood is on many levels completely unimaginable for most of us, her discussion of adolescence, sexuality, moving away from home, and failure remind us of the universality of growing up.
A turn-of-the-century novel set in New Orleans, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) follows Edna Pontellier whose desire to escape the confines of conventional femininity and womanhood is at odds with the values of the 19th-century American South. Chopin’s novel was controversial from its release and later banned from some public libraries due to its depiction of female sexual desire and its overt questioning of social norms and gender roles. As a result, it unfortunately remained in obscurity until the 1960s and has never truly reached the heights it deserves. However, it is now considered a significant early feminist work, pioneering in its frank exploration of the frustration of a woman resigned to a life of docile domesticity and her passionate yearning for independence and self-fulfilment.
In a striking portrait of the poverty that characterised the Depression era South, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930) follows the death of matriarch Addie Bundren and her family’s epic journey through rural Mississippi to bury her in Jefferson. The novel was banned in several US school districts for using God’s name “in vain”, reference to abortion, obscenity and the promotion of secular humanism. Told from 15 different perspectives in true modernist style, Faulkner details varied responses to grief as well as the hidden fears and desires of each family member. Equal parts visceral and existential, Faulkner’s prime focus is the interior, separating the private and the public self in his mix of the regional vernacular with the lofty language of experimental modernism. The failings of language itself are also subject to interrogation: “sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words.”
Illustration: Jordan Anderson