Wednesday, September 30, 2015

When tree flakes make governments quake (it's Banned Books Week!)

Somehow or other I managed to release Consequence during Banned Books Week, the American Library Association's annual celebration of the freedom to read -- this year that'd be Sept 27 - Oct 3. So I had a good look at the books on Wikipedia's list of books banned by governments (as opposed to the site's list of books that are challenged by miscellaneous groups and agencies).

Bans on books in this list for their supposed "obscenity" just make my eyes roll. Not that such bans aren't foolish and narrow-minded and culturally reductive. It's just that thinking of, say, Joyce's Ulysses or Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales or the Fifty Shades... books as obscene in the age of ubiquitous online pornography strikes me as more than a little bit futile, dated, and out-and-out silly.

Here are books that stood out for me in Wikipedia's list:
  1. Rights of Man (1791), Thomas Paine
  2. The Jungle (1906), Upton Sinclair
  3. The Grapes of Wrath (1939), John Steinbeck
  4. Animal Farm (1945), George Orwell
  5. El Señor Presidente (1946), Miguel Ángel Asturias
  6. Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), George Orwell
  7. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), Alexander Solzhenitsyn
  8. The Gulag Archipelago (1973), Alexander Solzhenitsyn
  9. Burger's Daughter (1979), Nadine Gordimer
  10. July's People (1981), Nadine Gordimer

What do these books have in common? What I see is that these are books that were banned because they made governments or social elites worry about their grip on power and privilege.
  • Thomas Paine's Rights of Man was banned first in the U.K. (which charged the author for supporting the French Revolution); then in Tzarist Russia following the Decembrist uprising in 1825. The monarchists worried when Paine's ideas -- particularly that "a general revolution in the principle and construction of Governments is necessary" -- circulated among the masses.
  • Similarly, Animal FarmNineteen Eighty-FourOne Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and The Gulag Archipelago offended and threatened post-Tsar autocrats in the U.S.S.R.
  • Upton Sinclair's The Jungle -- which portrayed the exploitation of immigrants in industrialized U.S. cities and the horrors of the early 20th century meat-packing industry -- struck the autocrats in East Germany as "inimical to communism." Whatever that might mean, exactly.
  • Nadine Gordimer's Burger's Daughter and July's People threatened the apartheid South African state by critiquing its brutal institutionalized racism.
  • In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck gave a clear-eyed view of how California received refugees from the collapsed farming communities of Dustbowl-era middle America: inhumanely and selfishly. (Sound familiar?) In any case, the people of Kern County didn't like how Steinbeck portrayed them.
  • Miguel Ángel Asturias, in El Señor Presidente, described the dictatorship of his native Guatamala so incisively that the country's autocrats prohibited its publication for thirteen years.
Books -- black ink daubed on bleached tree-flakes -- are more powerful than their constituent parts might suggest. They have been used to great effect to expose ugly truths about power. The examples above are just a tiny fraction of a very long list of books that have guided and strengthened people in resisting constraints on their self-determination. For those who wield power, this has been and continues to be a problem. For the rest of us, it's something closer to salvation.

I think it's a happy coincidence that my novel makes its debut during a week when readers consider the written word's power to overturn an intolerable, seemingly implacable status quo. The characters in Consequence would likely agree.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Hanging friends' art in fiction
Robert Redford, the Weather Underground, and why we read books
Surveillance and power through fiction and fact: Max Barry's "Lexicon"
Banned books week: Joyce's Ulysses

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