October 22, 2008

Banned Books

Every time I visit the US, I find there’s a new baseball team and a new raise-awareness date. On my arrival there last month these were the Reno Aces, and Invisible Illness Week. I thought the new team name an inspired choice; Invisible Illness Week grabbed me somewhat less, although I did enjoy noting how it had been calendared in next to good old Banned Books Week. Was narrow-mindedness one of the invisible illnesses, I wondered.

I was proud to learn last year that I am a direct descendant of the author of the first banned book in America. In 1650 William Pynchon, who is also Thomas Pynchon’s ancestor, wrote a treatise called The Meritorious Price of our Redemption, Iustification, &c which argued a point of Puritan doctrine. It was suppressed and burned on the Boston Common, where my father rollerskated as a boy. A respected magistrate and scholar, Pynchon himself was not burned, not immediately at least. He was given time to reconsider his views and make a retraction, but he said to hell with this (my sister’s words), transferred his land to his son and went back to England, where he continued to write his tracts until his death.

syndetics-lcPerhaps this bloodline is the reason why I’m so intrigued by banned books, the books which subvert authority because they make people think. “Ana,” I ask my Madrilenan friend with the family portrait of the mantilla-wearing countess, “What was the book again your father took away when you were growing up? Was it Crime and Punishment?” “Ah no” she says, “It was The Brothers Karamathov, he burned it in the bath.” Of course, The Brothers Karamazov, "a world filled with greed, passion, depravity, and complex moral issues” as the library catalogue record has it. I think of it as the greatest of those books that everyone who has read them can still recall, sometimes a few lifetimes later, the emotion they felt then.

“Does fiction matter?”

We had Iain Sharp, Gordon McLauchlan and Paula Morris in for New Zealand Book Month to answer this question and the answer was yes, for many different mischievous, thoughtful and fantastic reasons. And here is an amazing revelation which shows why we need to ask. Paula told us that at Tulane University, where she teaches, every year all the undergraduates are assigned one book – the same book -- which they all must read, discuss, etc. And she said they have to pick a non-fiction book because too many students are afraid of reading fiction!

The poet Joseph Brodsky wrote movingly of Nadezdha Mandelstam who, when her husband Osip was sent to the Gulag where he perished, committed to memory all his poems “as they could not be committed to paper”, repeating them day and night for 18 years – “it was them, not his memory, she was trying to keep alive”; and did his own stint in the Gulag before being exiled from Russia. From his new home in the West he said, “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them”.

The books:

  • The brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Less than one by Joseph Brodksy

  • Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 04:30


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