This month’s blog is a cooperative effort, with contributions from a number of our members. It sprang from our ‘school’s-out’ tradition of doing something a bit different in July to end the year. At our June meeting, Helen had come up with a really interesting theme, inspired by a book she found in a second-hand book shop: ‘100 Banned Books: Censorship Histories of World Literature’ by Karolides, Bald & Sova. Everyone went away to choose a book which had been banned at some point, somewhere in the world. Then, at the July meeting, we each shared our thoughts with the group and read aloud a short passage from our chosen book. It was a fascinating evening, so much so that we overran by 45 minutes. There were no duplications (perhaps that says something about the shameful number of banned books out there) in a really interesting and diverse selection. Here are a few of them, with a paragraph or so of explanation from the choosers.
Mike chose “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg
‘I chose the poem “Howl” because it remains a significant contribution to US poetry which I admire. The poem was first read by Allen Ginsberg in San Francisco in October 1955 at “a charming event” as it was described in the publicity. The audience was transfixed because of the vivid, profane, personal nature of the poem which contrasted with the impersonal poetry which dominated US literature at that time due to the influence of T. S. Elliot. Ginsberg utilized his experiences and the experiences of his friends to present a nightmare vision of post-war US society, but he saw hope of a revival of that society within the lunacy.
This was a significant event in poetry circles but assumed international significance when the poem was published the following year and the publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and his book shop manager, were arrested on obscenity charges because of the sexual language in the poem. They were cleared in a landmark case because the judge agreed the poem had “redeeming social significance”. As a result “Howl” became a huge seller and encouraged a new energy and frankness in US poetry, while the first lines (“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed…”) became probably the most famous in the US canon. Ginsberg, of course, went on to be a major figure in the Beat Generation.’
Helen chose ‘Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding
‘I picked this having read it at school and remembering what a strong impression the story made on me. Apparently it has been banned (especially in schools in the USA) at various times on the grounds of profanity, lurid passages about sex, statements defamatory to minorities, God, women and the disabled. Oh, and violence. One view suggested it is a thinly disguised criticism of the Christian church, saying that religion is not necessarily a civilizing factor. This is shown in the episodes where the so-called religious boys are the ones creating havoc and barbarism. William Golding himself said that we can trace the defects of society back to the defects in human nature.
Reading it again after all these years, I thought it showed the danger in ignoring individual responsibility – the threat of danger from people who hide behind any group. And the danger of not recognising the potential of the dark side of our own natures, which if not understood and faced, can lead to bullying and intimidation of minorities, and even war.
My quote was from the character of Simon, the gentle boy who was ignored. He imagines he is hearing the dead pig’s head talk to him, “There isn’t anyone to help you. Only me. And I’m the beast…Fancy thinking the beast was something you could hunt and kill!…You knew didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go? Why things are what they are?”
Simon understood that the Beast was inside, not outside.
I enjoyed the book even more, second time round. It works on many levels, to use a well-worn cliche. And I thought it was interesting to discover that the 1963 film originally came out as X-rated. Now it’s a PG. Fun for all the family! A sign of the times?’
New member David chose Miklos Haraszti’s book A worker in a worker’s state Penguin 1977.
‘ I would have picked Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate - the great Russian novel of both the second world war and the great terror which the KGB said could not be published for 200 years but didn’t have it to hand to get a quotation. Haraszti’s book comes from the end period of the Soviet system when things were oppressive in a much milder but also much more banal way. He had been sent to work in a factory as a punishment (so manual work was a punishment in a workers’ state) and described the conditions and attitudes of the workers in much the same way as say Huw Beynon’s UK Working for Ford. The book was condemned basically because it showed that alientation in all its aspects was just the same in the workers’ state as under capitalism. The author was fined and given a suspended sentence. The passage I quoted on the consequences of being ‘under the inspectors’ resonated absolutely with the increasing bureaucratic control of public sector professionals and other workers in the UK today. I checked up on where Haraszti is now. He is a leading light of the liberal opposition to the quasi-fascist / nationalist government in contemporary Hungary (very anti Jewish and more practically anti Rom) and is an academic living in the US.’
Janet chose To Kill a Mocking-Bird by Harper Lee
‘Published in 1960, this novel was an immediate success. It won the Pulitzer Prize and has sold over 30 million copies. Now regarded as a modern American classic, it is widely taught in schools throughout the world. Yet I had never read it, nor have I sat down and watched its 1962 film adaptation starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, the Alabama lawyer who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman. So when I googled ‘banned books’ I was delighted – though startled – to see To Kill a Mocking Bird come up. I read it in little more than a day, and enjoyed it very much, especially the narrative voice of young Scout.
This is a book which argues for tolerance and against racism. It was, however, written from the point of view of a white family and is set during the Great Depression of the early 1930s. Since the 1970s, there have been attempts to have it removed from some schools and libraries in the USA, mainly on the grounds of being stereotypical and racially offensive. Its depiction of black people is deemed by some to be ‘degrading to African Americans’, and its use of what is now widely referred to as the N-word regarded as repugnant. A 1981 challenge to Lee’s only published novel sums up this attitude, stating that it ‘represents institutionalized racism under the guise of good literature’.
(Quotations are courtesy of the American Library Association’s website, www.ala.org, which is an excellent source of information on banned and challenged books. The ALA also holds an annual Banned Books Week to celebrate the freedom to read.)
Martin chose Spycatcher by Peter Wright,
‘The book was banned in the UK for 3 years on the grounds that it gave away secrets. However, it was widely available overseas (the internet was not so prolific then) and serialised in a Sunday newspaper, so they gave up the lost cause.
The most serious allegation from the government’s point of view was the assertion that Sir Peter Hollis was a soviet spy whilst head of MI5. Wright makes a case which cannot be checked without access to MI5’s files but sounds plausible. It must be borne in mind that Wright is a man with a grudge. When he joined MI5 he was promised that his 20 years of pension entitlement whilst a scientific officer with the Naval Weapons research would be carried forward. It was not.
Spycatcher is a cracking good read as a novel, every bit as good as a John le Carre covering much of the same ground but with the added thrill of potential historical accuracy. It is also a damning critique of the British secret services and ruling society in general for their crass stupidity, ineptitude and wholesale reliance on having attended the right school, the right regiment or the right club as the only criterion for ability or trustworthiness. Freemasonry was an even more pernicious plague. It also gives a previously unwritten history of radio communications in which initially his father, and later Peter were heavily involved.
The crucial point made, is that in 1922 a Royal Commission into long range wireless communication decided it was “an amateur science” and not worthy of further study. Wright Snr was Chief Scientist for Marconi and later that year he built an apparatus which cheaply sent messages from England to Australia to no avail. The ageing Marconi, unable to raise capital to develop his invention, merged his company with the thriving cable companies who promptly closed down his research department, firing Wright Snr. and all his staff. So overseas communication was reliant on cablegrams, laboriously transcribed into morse and pumped down millions of miles of copper wire before being decoded at the other end for several more decades. The last vestige of this operation was the telex system, now consigned to the dustbin of history. As late as the 1980’s any company of consequence listed a telex address on the mastheads. When did you last see one?
Like all good spy novels of the 1950’s and 60’s when there really were “Reds a under the bed” and Ted Heath expelled over a hundred Russian spies from their embassy, there is lots of drilling holes through embassy walls to plant microphones and huge inter-service rivalries where MI5 and MI6 and the FBI and CIA hated each other more than the supposed enemy.’
Anne R chose Wondrak and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig
‘A few years ago while in Berlin I visited Bebelplatz, scene of the book-burning in 1933, now marked by the haunting memorial of an underground chamber, containing empty shelves, which is illuminated at night. And so when the theme of ‘banned books’ was suggested, I found myself thinking about books which have been not only banned but also burnt. One of the 75 or more blacklisted authors was Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), a non-observant Jew born in Vienna. I decided to read a small volume of his short stories; its centrepiece is the semi-autobiographical ‘Compulsion’, published as ‘Der Zwang’ in 1920. Ferdinand, an artist, has sought refuge in Switzerland, but when his army call-up papers eventually catch up with him he agonizes over whether to comply. The story is a vivid account of his thought processes, the heated discussions with his wife and his vacillation between an abhorrence of war and the compulsion to join up. ‘Compulsion’ represents a powerful argument for pacifism. Furthermore, Ferdinand’s wife is spirited enough to issue her husband with an ultimatum – he must choose either her or the army – and such forceful resistance from a woman would have alarmed the Nazis. This gripping story is beautifully written (as are the others in the collection) and translated, and I particularly admired the descriptions of scenery. It is sobering to learn that although Zweig emigrated to England with his wife in 1934, eight years later they both committed suicide in Brazil.’
Ann C chose ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ by John Steinbeck.
‘I read this Pulitzer prize-winning novel when I was in my late teens. It was a seminal book for me – and it is equally relevant today, with its themes of social injustice, prejudice against incomers, economic depression and greedy corporations. Published in 1939, it suffered an onslaught of challenges and bans. When Kern County California resolved to ban the book in 1939, County Librarian Gretchen Kneif wrote a letter of protest to Supervisor Stanley Abel.
‘If that book is banned today, what book will be banned tomorrow? And what group will want a book banned the day after that? It’s such a vicious and dangerous thing to begin and may lead in the end to exactly the same thing we see in Europe today. Besides, banning books is so utterly hopeless and futile. Ideas don’t die because a book is forbidden reading. If Steinbeck has written truth, that truth will survive.’
My chosen passage was the speech Tom Joad makes to his mother when he has to leave her to go into hiding. By the time it was my turn to read, I had already enjoyed a few glasses of excellent Pinot Grigio from The Barrels bar and found myself becoming, shall we say, ‘tired and emotional’ – but I soldiered on and managed to finish!
‘Fella ain’t got a soul, just a piece of the big soul. The big soul that belongs to everybody. I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be ever’where—wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there… I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folk eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there.’’
Other banned book choices included:
Green Eggs & Ham (for Marxism, apparently!)
Alice in Wonderland
Heart of Darkness
Master & Margherita
James and the Giant Peach
Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass
Our next meeting will be on Tuesday 4th September, when we will be discussing The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012.