The Great American Controversy: Dinner and a Book Ban Debate

Monday, December 12, 2016 - 5:23pm

I am the biggest bookworm and literary advocate you will ever meet. Most of my time is spent thinking about books, perhaps because I am endlessly fascinated with how life-changing a book can be. I am a sucker for the classics, and for anything published before 1950 that was written as an attempt to inspire social change.

But because so much of my mind revolves around books, I am incredibly intrigued by censorship and the people behind it. Is it ignorance? Or is it a sheltered lifestyle that leads one to want so desperately to censor things that human beings need to be reading? What do we do about it?

A once in a lifetime event. A story Fox News and CNN will just about kill each other over. A dinner party to end all dinner parties. Invite only, inside an ornate library, catered by the Cheesecake Factory. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you: “The Great American Controversy: Dinner and a Book Ban Debate.” Thought you were in for date night? Dinner and a show? Boy, were you wrong. Welcome, pro-censorship citizens, to the most life-changing dinner of your life.

Just imagine: a long mahogany table would be dressed in a classy white lace and pearl table cloth, surrounded by wooden chairs with gold cushions, the finest china in front of each place. The guest list would be exclusive since a dinner party of this importance is not just for anyone. The list would include a specific selection of people around the country who have attempted to censor books.

And of course, the special guests of the evening — all of the authors who have been met with major protests and bans on their incredible works of art. Ah yes, these might as well be the two favorite pastimes of the overbearing parent, the conservative principal and the occasionally ignorant schoolteacher: attending dinner parties and banning books.

Ideally, I’d like the seating chart to have Mark Twain sitting at the head of the table, where he can pass the mashed potatoes to a woman from Minnesota who claims that her high-school-aged son and daughter “will not be reading ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ under my roof, due to its irrational and crude language. The thought of having my children read this novel is deeply uncomfortable to me.”

Mark Twain would turn to her with a polite smile and reply, “With all due respect ma’am, the point of my novel was not to make you comfortable in any way. In fact, it was meant to make you uncomfortable. It was meant to uncover the harsh realities of the way America truly and honestly functioned in Mississippi at this time. If you are uncomfortable, you certainly do not have to read my book. But by shielding your children from real things that happened in this country, you are not helping them. You are not educating them. You are making them ignorant to the realities of the world. You are hurting them.”

This same woman, we’ll call her Sharon, who refuses to let her children read phenomenal literature because of “crude language” will let her son listen to whatever terrible music he wants when he gets home from school. The woman, realizing she is wrong,  makes a petty noise and sips her fine wine, as Mark Twain turns to converse with Richard Wright.

I’d like Holden Caulfield to climb out of the pages of “Catcher in the Rye” and pull up a chair in between J.D Salinger and Harper Lee. In all his innocent and naive defiance, he would fill his plate with only dinner rolls and sit at the table adorned in his red hunting cap and smile. He would call all the people around him “phony” as he does so well. He would refuse to let his voice be silenced. He would continue to be a voice for the confused and lonely teenager, as he first did for the 1960s kids who desperately needed something to relate to. He would turn to F. Scott Fitzgerald who is arguing with the priest of a church in a town in South Carolina that has banned “The Great Gatsby” due to references to sex and alcohol.

“I don’t understand your opposition to my book, ” he would say. “Between prohibition and the end of the first world war, the 1920s were a time for great social change. Women had gained the right to vote and felt more social freedom than ever. The country was experiencing a time of tremendous prosperity,  between both the economy and the social change. I’m sure I could have easily written a book about the people of the 1920s wearing turtlenecks, attending book club for means of socialization, and drinking water out of crystal mugs, but that would all be a lie.”

“The people of the 20s went to speakeasies, cut their hair short and wore short skirts. Things were changing. The world deserves an accurate representation of what this was like through the eyes of Nick Carraway.”

The priest would be speechless in the face of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who looks away as Hemingway eats three slices of plain cheesecake. He would speak on behalf of the domestic banning of many of his books, which draw on his experiences fighting in both World Wars. He would wonder how anyone could fight to ban something written based on a subject they know nothing about.  He would beg people to understand how important it is that they understand the terrifying reality of war. He would say that he doesn't want it further removed from the world — War — something that occurs every day but people continue to ignore.

I’d like Vonnegut to stand and make the champagne toast, saying “I hate it that Americans are taught to fear some books and some ideas as though they were diseases.” Stephen Chbosky, author of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” could stand after, saying “Banning books gives us silence when we need speech. It closes our ears when we need to listen. It makes us blind when we need sight.”

Ray Bradbury, walking in a little late, could come in just in time to say “Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.” And with a toast to finish, Ellen Hopkins would stand.

“A word to the unwise. Torch every book. Char every page. Burn every word to ash. Ideas are incombustible. And therein lies your real issue.” She would then sit back down and the room would erupt into cheers of triumph that would silence everyone in the room that has tried to silence them.

The best books were created with the intention to start something whether that be a movement, an explosion, a lifestyle or a love story. These characters were written into existence to be a catalyst for action. Their stories were created to teach a sheltered society about things going on around the world, about things happening in their backyard they may know nothing about. Steinbeck did not write “Grapes of Wrath” because he was trying to offend anybody;  he did it because the story of the Joads and the migration to California during the Great Depression needs to be remembered and told. Richard Wright did not write “Native Son” because he wanted people to get offended or scared. He wrote it because it’s a story that educates people on things that do happen in this world.

It’s critical that children get their hands on these pieces of literature. It’s critical that people are uncomfortable reading “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and it is critical that people think that “The Scarlet Letter” is obscene. But it is important and critical that those people realize that there is a reason these books are shocking. These books are shocking, yes, because they are grounded in reality. They are metaphors for deep-seated issues in this country and around the world.

The dinner party will end as all do, and the guests will begin to fetch their jackets and belongings, saying goodbye to their friends. They will be drunk and full and exhausted, waiting for a car to fetch them or for a bus to come. As they exit the ornate library where the dinner party was held, they will be handed a copy of a book that has been censored in the United States before. They will hold that book in their palms, and perhaps they will begin to understand its implications. Perhaps they will go home and kiss their children goodnight and leave the book on their pillow, hoping they’ll pick it up and read it.

How exciting is it, that “The Great American Controversy: Dinner and a Book Ban Debate,” an evening of cheesecake and literary masterpieces will provoke people to blow out their lit matches and stop burning such honest and beautiful American creations. Our creations. Our books.