Kurt Vonnegut: ‘completely sick’ and ‘garbage’? Discuss.

In 2011, London Librarians were asked to compile a ‘top 100’ list of banned books. The list they came up with is fascinating, not least because it would also make for a passable top 100 in terms of quality. One author from the survey who caught my eye was Kurt Vonnegut – quite possibly because he was one of a couple of recidivists who, not content with having one book banned had then jolly well gone out and done the exact same thing with another. Some people never learn.

Vonnegut’s 1963 novel Cat’s cradle was banned by the Strongsville, Ohio School Board in 1972 without an official reason even being stated. In notes from the meeting, the book is referred to as ‘completely sick’ and ‘garbage’. The ban was overturned in 1976 but that didn’t stop what is arguably Vonnegut’s best known work meeting the censor’s wrath as well. The language, sexual and irreligious themes and use of outdated terms now deemed offensive in Slaughterhouse-Five might be the cited reasons for some of the many bans the text has been the subject of. But it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the book’s criticism of US forces during WWII possibly influenced the censors just as much, if not more.

The book certainly explores complex moral territory and poses uncomfortable questions about human conflict unflinchingly. Another reason that the book could be seen to be problematic is Vonnegut’s citing as source work by the widely credited historian David Irving. Irving’s book, ‘The Destruction of Dresden’ has been criticised for exaggerating the widely accepted death toll of the bombing raids and inflating the seniority of his sole source for the figures. The witness himself later claimed to have been misidentified and acknowledged his own contribution as being based on hearsay rather than any more substantive evidence.

In the context of banned books week, perhaps this proves the essential point that a book doesn’t have to be banned to be discredited. In light of its namesakes serial offending of the powers that be, the Vonnegut Memorial Library is a prominent supporter of Banned Books Week, and is running lots of interesting events including one in which one poor soul is locked in a library for a week. So it goes.


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