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Defending the Greats For Banned Books Week

For us, cracking a new spine, turning another page, and letting ourselves be transported by the written word is crucial to our happiness. Which is why it's so painful to hear the words "challenged," "banned," and "burned."

It's Banned Books Week Sept. 22-28, and in celebration of the freedom to read, Amazon has compiled an extensive list of book's that have -- in some way, at some time -- been under attack.

For our part here at Omni, each editor has selected one book from the list and has written a "defense," or reaction to the mere thought of its being banned.

We'd love to hear your thoughts on those we chose and more. Offer a defense of your favorite banned book in the comments section below.

Snow Falling on Cedars

Banned Book: Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
Defended By: Sara Nelson

I guess I don't get why Snow Falling on Cedars is on the Banned Books list in the first place. I mean, I get it: it's about a relationship between a white boy and a Japanese girl. But c'mon, guys: even though the story is set in the mid 20th century, it was published in 1995, something like 30 years after the repeal of the miscengenation laws that had prohibited such interracial marriages. (The kids in the book were never even married, but never mind.) Anyway, I love this book because my son's father is Japanese (I am not) and I have some experience dealing with American attitudes toward that quaint but not forgotten old word MISCEGENATION, and with race in general, I guess. Which even in this so called liberated day and age isn't nothing. So maybe I do get why the book was banned, but I'd like to think we've moved on to a time where if they even had to ban books, they wouldn't even think to ban this one. It offends no one and should move nearly everyone, with its beautiful writing, the compelling mystery at the center of the story, and its irresistible characters.

The Glass Castle

Banned Book: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Defended By: Chris Schluep

It's ironic that people would seek to ban a book about the banning of books. There's a weird circular logic at work. (Like eating all the pretzels out of the Chex mix because you don’t like pretzels.) I once had a discussion with Ray Bradbury about what he was thinking when he wrote the book. I told him that I thought it was a response to the excesses of McCarthyism. He told me, "I wasn’t thinking about McCarthy so much as I was thinking about the burning of the library of Alexandria 5,000 years before." He wrote the book in a typing room at UCLA in the early '50s -- he said, "I would walk through the stacks at UCLA, look at all those books, and think about more recent events in Italy and Germany, and the rumors about Russia during the war. What could endanger all those books?" Turns out normal, well-intentioned people can.

The Call of the Wild

Banned Book: The Call of the Wild by Jack London
Defended By: Neal Thompson

The Call of the Wild goes like this: a domesticated St. Bernard mix named Buck becomes sled dog in the Yukon and, indulging his wild tendencies, battles other huskies to become the pack leader. A memorable scene is the death match against a foe, from which Buck emerges the bloodied champ, "the dominant primordial beast who had made his kill and found it good." Any kid who's been in a schoolyard fight (I can recall three – never bloody, though I once broke my hand) can relate to Buck's desire to beat the bully, to impress his peers, to win. Call of the Wild is hardly the man's-best-friend story some people assume it to be, which is why the book has sometimes been deemed inappropriate for younger readers. Interestingly, the violence and brutality are precisely what the New York Times predicted, in its 1903 review, would lead to its popularity -- "it will satisfy the love of dogfights apparently inherent in every man." Call of the Wild faced it's harshest opposition in totalitarian Yugoslavia, Italy, and Germany, where it was banned and burned in the late 1920s and early 1930s, due to the author's socialist and "radical" views. The themes of individuality and self-reliance that London promoted were apparently dangerous ideas. Schoolyard boys might just get the idea they could someday become a leader.

The Sun Also Rises

Banned Book: The Sun Also Rises by Earnest Hemingway
Defended By: Jon Foro

As far as banned books go, The Sun Also Rises has a lot going for it: sex, bad words, unsuccessful sex, a girl with a boy’s name, Paris, Pernod--these are just a few of the louche particulars that tend to bunch staid underpants. And, predictably, those underpants were bunched, landing Hemingway’s landmark novel on banned lists in Boston, California, and Ireland at various points since its 1926 publication (we might also assume it was banned in Hemingway’s mother’s house; she reportedly called it "one of the filthiest books of the year," which is better than "of all time," I guess). But the Nazis took it one step further, burning the book along with some of his others (A Farewell to Arms), either because Hemingway was a decadent communist or for his accurate depictions of war (apparently depravity is in the eye of the beholder). It’s unclear. But here’s the thing: while it was banned in Boston in 1930, Ireland (1953) and Riverside, CA (1960) took offense after the Nazis. When anyone bans a book, or burns a book, or takes violent action against the author of a book, they are probably not asking themselves Hey, the Nazis did this. Should we be doing this, too? As for the book itself, some love it while others find it insufferably self-absorbed (I can understand both; I loved it as a young man, though that’s a gray memory and I haven’t tried it recently). But its impact on 20th Century literature is undeniable, even if Hemingway’s terse, direct style has taken its hits over the years. There’s risk in being successful and inimitable: many people will imitate you, and when they can’t, they resort to parody, which at this point is an overtold joke. You think you can do better? Isn’t it pretty to think so?
Slaughterhouse Five

Banned Book: Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Defended By: Robin A. Rothman

I'll own up to a bias for all things Vonnegut. He's my all-time favorite author, and it's not just because I grew up in Indiana, his home turf. It's his imagination, his ability to laugh in the face of tragic events, his ability to craft a perfectly timeless sentence that makes everything okay: "So it goes." But no, not "So it goes" when I think of kids at the age I was when I first discovered him who are denied the opportunity to read him. It seems obscene to me that this book should have to be defended at all, but I can do it in one word: War. Slaughterhouse Five is the satirically sci-fi story of a WWII soldier who's captured by the Germans and held in a slaughterhouse as a POW during the Dresden bombing. But it's not the time-jumping that has caused schools to ban and even burn this classic practically since its publication in 1969. Critics of the book will cite any number of excuses to deny young people the right to read it: violence, profanity, religious irreverence, etc. Again, one word: War. In fiction, these "inappropriate" elements often fall within creative license. But it's even more justifiable here since much of what Vonnegut describes, historically speaking, happened... to him. Which is to say, he witnessed the Dresden firestorm, from a slaughterhouse, as a POW, because he fought against (known for their book-burning skills) Nazis. Too bad for everyone the war wasn't PG-13.

The Glass Castle

Banned Book: The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls
Defended By: Mari Malcolm

I'll bet that the parents who raise a stink in an effort to protect their honors-English high schoolers from Jeanette Walls's memoir, The Glass Castle, don't see the irony of their behavior: Walls and her siblings overcame their chaotic, often dangerous childhood and went on to thrive as adults largely because they read widely and learned the power of stories. Books were their survival maps. When I saw this one on the Banned Books list, I honestly couldn't remember the passages that so offended these parents. I did remember being deeply disturbed by the kind of hunger Walls describes, how she had to sneak half-eaten food from her school garbage cans after hours, how the shame of being hungry ate at her, how her mom let her kids go hungry while saving a chocolate bar for herself. And I remember being in awe of her tenacity, the way all of those kids saved themselves and still managed to love their parents. I've been fortunate enough to never go hungry, but one in four American kids goes hungry every day, including a lot of smart teenagers who might feel uplifted and less alone while reading The Glass Castle.


Banned Book: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Defended By: Kevin Nguyen

Last March, the Chicago Public Schools banned Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel Persepolis, which followed her upbringing during the Iranian Revolution. "Banned" is actually putting it a little strongly. The group, led by CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, deemed the book inappropriate, removing the comic memoir from the seventh-grade curriculum because it included several panels involving torture. And yet, there are plenty of books dealing with similarly controversial themes that don't draw the same negative attention. I recall reading Lois Lowry's Number the Stars in fourth grade during a unit about World War II. Lowry's Newbury Award-winning novel has never, to my knowledge, been banned, despite being about, well, the Holocaust—a subject that might be as objectionable as torture (and perhaps moreso). According to Byrd-Bennett, it was Persepolis's "powerful images of torture" (emphasis mine) that led to its removal from the curriculum. Persepolis, by virtue of being a comic (and a great one!), is composed of strong visuals. If we are teaching our kids about the Iranian Revolution, should we pretend that torture wasn't an important part of it? Should torture not be a powerful image?

Seira Wilson discusses banned books for young reader in this week's YA Wednesday.

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