Monday, August 22, 2011

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Several weeks ago I turned off the air conditioner and opened all of the windows in hopes that a nighttime breeze would keep my house cool. Muggy heat rolled in instead, and I wasn't comfortable in bed, so I went out to the living room to lie on the couch. After tossing and turning for a few minutes, I got up and checked the bookshelves for something to read. I chose my wife Maggie's twenty-year-old paperback copy of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five.

Maggie's kept this dog-eared, yellowing copy of Slaughterhouse-Five since high school, longer than she's known me. I hadn't read the book before, but I remembered hearing about it when Kurt Vonnegut died in 2007. At that time I had been reading the wartime diaries of Victor Klemperer, a Jewish university professor at Dresden, and Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) is a novel about the Allied firebombing of Dresden where Vonnegut had been a prisoner of war.

Knowing that the bombings killed an estimated 25,000 civilians, I was moved when I first heard about the passage in Slaughterhouse-Five where Kurt Vonnegut imagines the American planes flying backwards, sucking up their loads of unexploded bombs, returning to their bases in England, the airmen shipping back home to States, turning back into high school kids, becoming children again, and eventually turning into infants.

Maggie's paperback copy of Slaughterhouse-Five has 215 pages, and I read most of it on the couch that muggy night. Vonnegut is wry and irreverent. Protagonist Billy Pilgrim time travels back and forth between experiences, from when he was a prisoner of war at Dresden, to becoming an optometrist after the war, and then being abducted by aliens and put on display in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore (Slaughterhouse-Five was recently selected 19th of the Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books by NPR).

At one point, Billy overhears literary critics discussing "whether the novel was dead or not":
The master of ceremonies asked people to say what they thought the function of the novel might be in modern society, and one critic said, "To provide touches of color in rooms with all-white walls." Another one said, "To describe blow-jobs artistically." Another one said, "To teach wives of junior executives what to buy next and how to act in a French restaurant."
I loved this because I'd been trying to write a review Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, and in that novel the main character loses one of her shoes under her table at a French restaurant and later vomits her asparagus and champagne into a nearby alley. So the function of this new novel Rules of Civility must be to show us how not to act in a French restaurant?

Just a few days after I read Slaughterhouse-Five, and while I was still feeling pretty smug about discovering this wonderful novel in my own living room, a school board in Missouri voted to remove it along with Sarah Ockler's Twenty Boy Summer from their high school library and curriculum after a resident complained that these two books "teach principles contrary to the Bible." The school board deemed the books to be "inappropriate for kids" rather than "good or bad." The superintendent explained, "We very clearly stayed out of discussion about moral issues." The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis responded by offering free copies of the Slaughterhouse-Five to the school’s students.

I searched for Slaughterhouse-Five in the Dubuque Community School District's online library catalog, and it looks like they have copies in print and audio CD. I hope Slaughterhouse-Five is taught in the high school curriculum, too, especially since my kids attend Dubuque schools. I enlisted in the Marine Corps through a delayed-entry program when I was still in high school, and the idea that it would have been inappropriate for me to read one of the most important American war novels at the same time as I signed my enlistment papers is disturbing.

Removing books from schools and libraries harms children more than it protects them; it teaches children that banning controversial material is better than trying to understand and discuss it. Where access to books and ideas enriches the lives of people of all ages, censorship diminishes and impoverishes us all.

Michael May, Adult Services

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