On banning books

From Letters of Note, here’s a 1973 letter from Vonnegut to the head of the school board who banned (and then burnt) the school’s 32 copies of Slaughterhouse-Five.

“If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.

After I have said all this, I am sure you are still ready to respond, in effect, “Yes, yes–but it still remains our right and our responsibility to decide what books our children are going to be made to read in our community.” This is surely so. But it is also true that if you exercise that right and fulfill that responsibility in an ignorant, harsh, un-American manner, then people are entitled to call you bad citizens and fools. Even your own children are entitled to call you that.

I read in the newspaper that your community is mystified by the outcry from all over the country about what you have done. Well, you have discovered that Drake is a part of American civilization, and your fellow Americans can’t stand it that you have behaved in such an uncivilized way. Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.

If you and your board are now determined to show that you in fact have wisdom and maturity when you exercise your powers over the eduction of your young, then you should acknowledge that it was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books–books you hadn’t even read. You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive.”

Full text here.

10 responses to “On banning books

  1. “They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are.”

    Love this. Terrible when people miss the point entirely.

  2. *shakes pompoms* What an inspiring post today!

  3. Raji Muthukrishnan

    Soemtimes I don’t know what to think of the mindless people who decide what we should and should not read – I understood that ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ was removed from school libraries/curriculums in Canada.

    • Yes indeed. There was an objection to a racial epithet–very aggravating when there isn’t a distinction between an epithet used in a historical context versus one with racial intention. But it was a single school board, i think, and not all of Canada, so there’s hope yet!

  4. I hate any form of banning. If you decide not to use it good but to declare it banned is plain stupid.

  5. What a lovely and excellently inspiring letter! Love it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s