Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Kurt Vonnegut vs. the Bible

July 30, 2011

“Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”
Psalms 137:9

The high school board of education for the city of Republic, Missouri last week voted unanimously (4-0) to ban Kurt Vonnegut’s classic antiwar novel Slaughterhouse-Five from the school’s library. The board was responding to public complaints by one Wesley Scroggins, who was outraged that the city would use his tax dollars to store books which teach “principles contrary to the Bible” for children to read.

Wesley Scroggins, seen here taking some time off from
goose-stepping to the local book burning for a publicity photo

Scroggins is right about one thing. Slaughterhouse-Five, like pretty much every other work of modern literature, does teach principles contrary to the Bible. The Bible tells us we should be happy to smash babies against rocks during war with our enemies (Psalms 137:9). Vonnegut’s novel teaches the opposite; that such acts of senseless slaughter dehumanize us all, even the ones who are doing the smashing. This moral lesson is stated pretty explicitly in Chapter 8:

“There are no characters in this story and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.”

Vonnegut, seen here relaxing after a long day
of smashing babies against rocks.

Another problem Scroggins has with Slaughterhouse-Five is that it has lots of cursing in it. In an op-ed for the Springfield News-Leader which has apparently since been taken down from the internets, Scoggins says the book “contains so much profane language, it would make a sailor blush with shame.” We should remember that we’re talking about a high school library here, not all public school libraries. Nobody’s teaching any of Vonnegut’s racier passages to 8-year-olds. And no competent high school English teacher is going to teach them devoid of any context.

If a student assigned to read Slaughterhouse-Five comes away from the class learning that this limerick from the book encompasses what Vonnegut was saying:

“In my prison cell I sit,/ With my britches full of shit,/ And my balls are bouncing gently on the floor./ And I see the bloody snag/ When she bit me in the bag./ Oh I’ll never fuck a Polack any more.”

… Then the student failed, and the teacher failed the student. If you teach literature that way, then you suck as a teacher and should find another line of work. That’s where the blame lies, not on the book itself.

Figure 1.1: An incompetent teacher

Besides, this guy who is so concerned about “Biblical principles” can’t be seriously offended by this. Here are just a few passages from the Bible just off the top of my head which are also so profane that “it would make a sailor blush with shame,” to borrow a phrase from Scroggins:

“Behold, I will corrupt your seed, and spread dung upon your faces, even the dung of your solemn feasts; and one shall take you away with it.”
Malachi 2:3

Yet she multiplied her whoredoms, in calling to remembrance the days of her youth, wherein she had played the harlot in the land of Egypt.
For she doted upon their paramours, whose flesh is as the flesh of asses, and whose issue is like the issue of horses.
Ezekiel 23:19-20

“But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”
1 Timothy 2:12

We’ve also got a guy sacrificing his daughter for God in exchange for good luck in (what else?) war, some incestuous date rape, and countless other atrocities celebrated as good for the sole reason that it pleases this God character. I propose that the sum total of profanity contained in the Bible easily exceeds the same in Slaughterhouse-Five.

But unlike Scroggins, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that even a book as morally inept as the Bible should be banned from high school libraries and English teachers’ curriculum. Like Vonnegut’s work, it is an important part of the canon of Western literature. If a student graduates from high school without at least a little understanding of the Bible as literature – vulgar passages and all – then the teachers and administrators of that student’s school failed to do their jobs in giving them an adequate education.

And there’s just one more thing. I saved this for last. Wesley Scroggins does indeed have children, but they don’t even attend the public school he’s attacking. He home-schools his children. Apparently he can give his own kids an education which is consistent with “Biblical principles,” but that’s not quite good enough for him. He would like more power, please, and apparently the cowardly school board is willing to oblige, embarrassing themselves and their city in the process.

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Leave it to a humorless, subhuman Belgian to take this seriously

July 4, 2011

There’s a wonderful children’s book out for all the parents out there who want to teach their children about international politics and the case for a Belgian genocide. Here is a quick outline of the case for killing all the Belgians:

What has [Belgium] contributed to world culture? Fluffy waffles. A few varieties of beer and chocolate. That’s about it. Which raises the question: what have the Belgians been doing with their time instead? Maybe Belgium chokes the world with its sweet, sweet waffles to divert us from its growing imperialist ambitions, as the Belgians build a war machine on a scale undreamt of by Alexander or Genghis Khan.

Terrifying. And if that didn’t convince you, there is also this testimony on the Belgians from John Cleese.And if you’re still not convinced all Belgians must die and their “culture” be wiped out forever, check out this response to this book from a real live Belgian. It starts off by trying to convince us that the Belgians really have made contributions to the world by inventing the saxophone and French fries. Then things get even weirder:

So, now that we’ve put these things straigt, I should give you some advise for the next time you think of writing this kind of  book.  First of all: a bit of research wouldn’t harm, you know?  We don’t eat brains.  We have stopped doing that since mad cow disease started spreading.  We don’t eat puppy’s.  I thought the chinese did that? You can buy a dog in a chinese market and they’d ask you if you want it cut and deboned .

It’s just like a Belgian to blame the Chinese for their own puppy-eating. This appalling racism is par for the course in Belgium, which is why we must immediately level the entire country and erase any mention of them from the pages of history – if there actually are any mentions of them in history.

We must prepare the next generation for another war in Europe. The savage Belgians are so committed to their national identity that they have obliterated their collective sense of humor. And so we must eliminate these barbarians from the face of the Earth before it’s too late.

Robot Jim

March 10, 2011

I had some pretty strong feelings about the watering down of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but now I think the other side is starting to win me over. These people make some excellent points:

Here is where to go to contribute to this important project.

African-American Jim

January 6, 2011

One of the literary controversies that’s always left me the most befuddled is the reaction to Mark Twain’s portrayal of racism in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Critics of Twain’s portrayal of racist characters as… well, racist, have for a long time been trying to either censor or water down some of the language used. And now it looks like they have to some extent succeeded. From Reuters:

Twain scholar Alan Gribben said he decided to reissue the 19th century classic “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” replacing the slur with the word “slaves” in all 219 places it occurs in the text because the original offended many readers.

Here’s the thing though: If you read that book and your conclusion is that Twain is saying that Huck and his dad are awesome for saying “nigger” all the time and that Huck and Tom should be admired for keeping Jim in bondage when it’s no longer necessary to do so as if it’s part of some really cool game – and by extension that Twain is saying that slavery and Jim Crow laws are wonderful – then you’re not just wrong, you’re borderline illiterate. Someone who comes to that conclusion might be able to mechanically read actual words on a page (probably moving their lips in the process), but totally fails when it comes to deriving a larger comprehension of the words they’re reading. And if you’re worried about the children who might not pick up on the completely obvious moral of the story, then that is the problem of the parents and teachers of said children and not of the rest of us who know how to read.

So either this Gribben person is missing the whole point of this book or he’s catering to those who do, as if they somehow matter. I would lean towards the latter, but either way, the term “Twain scholar” should not be applied to him. And in censoring the book in this way, Gribben’s actually whitewashing late 19th century racism. Replacing “nigger” with “slave” ostensibly makes the racism of the characters Twain is portraying and attacking less offensive (although Roger Ebert disagrees on that point). But what interest should we have in making those who believe in inherent racial inequality more likeable? Why is that a priority for literary critics, or anyone, for that matter?

This is really the most insidious way of attacking good satire that those who would censor it have. They draw on the good instincts we all have against stupidity and racism and then use it against the target of the work in question. But what other choice does an author have? How can you attack racism without actually portraying it in a character?

That’s where all of this starts to get ugly. You have to wonder what it is exactly these “many readers” are offended by. If it’s just the actual word “nigger” devoid of any context at all, then they’re borderline-illiterate morons who have no business dictating how books should be published. But it also could be that they do understand the larger context and just don’t like Twain’s message. It’s not exactly subtle, after all. That’s just not how the guy rolled. They want a friendlier, happier, most nostalgic view of Reconstruction in the south and this book is depriving them of that fantasy. So they’ll try to water it down and censor it even if they have to bend over backwards betraying their true feelings to do so.

Fortunately we’re not all dumbed down enough to let this slide. The Librarian of the Year is speaking out against it (In other news, there is such a thing as a Librarian of the Year), along with other actual scholars who aren’t as stupid and/or sensationalist as this horrible Alan Gribben person.

Today is Ray Bradbury’s 90th birthday

August 22, 2010

And for the occasion Rachel Bloom of the Upright Citizens Brigade wrote and performed a romantic love song for him. Let’s listen to it now.

And here is his reaction to watching that video:

Kafka’s unpublished works cannot be published until his lawyers’ descendants navigate a maze of bureaucratic insanity

July 21, 2010

Before Kafka died, he asked his friend to burn all of his work. As those of us who have read him might have guessed, he wasn’t the happiest and most well-adjusted guy in the world. But thankfully his friend posthumously broke that deal, releasing some of it to the public and locking much of it away in a Swiss bank account.

Now it seems that some lawyers have been working their way through various courts in Switzerland and Israel to make sure that they follow the proper protocols and sign all the correct forms in order to ensure maximum efficiency in extraditing the vaults of Kafka’s as yet unpublished works.

As a Kafka fan, I’d like to be able to read some of it. But at the same time, it’d be very fitting if these conflicts between various bureaucracies all over the world just kept going on for decades over legal minutiae.

Books that influenced me the most

March 30, 2010

Ed Brayton at Dispatches From the Culture Wars is where I picked up this blog meme, and so I’m gonna go ahead and join in as well. Here are some books I’d call influential in no particular order.

Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson

Even though I was young still when I got to this, reading it made me suddenly realize that my whole idea of literature, journalism, and what they could be had become pretty uptight. My parents encouraged me to read and I enjoyed it a lot. But most of the stuff I went through before Fear and Loathing seemed almost bland and tedious when I was re-reading it after Fear and Loathing. It gave me this way of being critical of the stuffiness in language which I barely even notice beforehand.

Naked Lunch by William S Burroughs

I read the shit out of this book. I even took it to a photocopier to copy the whole damn thing and then do that cut-up thing he described in other works, except of course it wasn’t completely random like he claimed. Burroughs was definitely into some weird shit, but it was usually in the context of fiction so there’s no real problem with that seeping out into the real world (aside from his personal life). He always had this reckless approach to writing I admired and the result was that he could create these alternate realities which were both terrible and beautiful, nightmarish and utopian, and disgusting and amazing all at the same time. All of that is best conveyed in Naked Lunch. The film adaptation though, eh, it probably should never have even been attempted in the first place.

Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman

This one is a little dated in some ways. It’s from the 80s, so this is all way before the internet made it easy to spread unpopular ideas and opinions. In order to hear those, you had to know who to look for and where to go to buy their books or magazines or whatever else. So to the extent that this was more all-encompassing this book is less relevant than it used to be. But where it’s still relevant is in how we can self-censor, and how much easier it is to err on the side of conservatism. I also loved how the approach to the study of the media is more scientific than rhetorical, which was refreshing. Of course it can’t be completely 100% scientific since you can’t really have a control group with historical events. For now at least, that would be considered “unethical.”

The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

This is probably the best current book advocating science and skepticism out there. There are many layers here. So for instance you might open it at random and get to a page detailing an account of an alien abduction. If you keep reading, you’ll get to a larger context of the infallibility of eyewitness testimonies. An even larger context would be revealed if you keep reading and see how this connects to mistakes people made in the past about “witches” and “demons” – as well as the social problems caused by those mistakes. And in the context of the book as a whole you get back to the straightforward advocacy of science as the best tool we have in order to make sense of the world around us.

Video of Mark Twain

March 19, 2010

Here is what is apparently the only known video of Mark Twain. It was recorded by Thomas Edison.

JD Salinger (1919-2010)

January 28, 2010

Man, the old fogies have really been dropping like flies lately.

Has anyone looked into whether his death was… phony?

Kurt Vonnegut’s letter home after Dresden

January 12, 2010

Kurt Vonnegut really was a POW at Dresden during the firebombing. That part of Slaughterhouse-Five was true. And now we’re learning that we really can become ‘unstuck in time’ so that we can go back to WWII and read #12102964 Pfo Vonnegut’s letter home following that bombing campaign.

Pygmy

November 26, 2009

OK, first of all, this book is much better than his previous one, so those who were disappointed by Snuff and thought Palahniuk was in decline can probably write that off as an anomaly.

But Pygmy is written in a very different, Engrish-y style. And it’s relentless. It almost never stops. The only escape from the narrator’s voice is through other characters when they speak. And unlike other books with a lot of slang (A Clockwork Orange, Irvine Welsh), it’s not something you can just put aside and hope it all starts to make more sense as you go. You really have to understand what the narrator means to say by syncing yourself up with his way of thinking or else the plot will escape you completely.

Here’s an example. This:

“Could be fists of operative me execute Punching Panda, bam-blam, so render entire crowd no conscious. Subsequent then execute Pumping Rabbit Maneuver distribute own seed among various appropriate vessel. Exit shrine. Seek midday nourishment. Visit memorial acclaimed war hero Colonel Sanders.”

translates to something like, “I could just knock everyone here out, rape them, and go eat lunch at KFC.” Yeah, he thinks Colonel Sanders is “similar Lenin” because of all the “many vast mural.”

Anyway, the narrator is Pygmy, an undercover operative on a student cultural exchange program for an unnamed totalitarian country. His “glorious homeland” kidnapped and brainwashed him and other young specialists to have total devotion to the state. There are many Communist overtones in Pygmy’s political indoctrination, along with social Darwinism and reverence for a nondescript deity.

Even with the weird writing style, you still get a lot of that “chorus” thing Palahniuk always does – those single or few sentence repeating themes that show character development and the escalation of tension. In Survivor there are the announcements of the fuel tanks running empty and the biblical citations. In Lullaby there’s the narrator counting to himself. You know what I mean.

The best advice I can give for this book is that if you haven’t read Palahniuk before, this is a bad place to start. And if you have read him before, and you aren’t intrigued by the first 20 or so pages, don’t bother with the rest. Just wait for Tell All out next year instead.

The Greatest Show on Earth

September 8, 2009

Richard Dawkins will have a new book released here in the US in two weeks called The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. He says that it’s meant to address problems in places like Turkey and the United States where science education is undermined by religious fanatics, but I’m not sure how much this book will resolve that problem. Jerry Coyne wrote a book very much like this earlier this year, and before that so did Michael Shermer, Kenneth Miller, Neil Shubin, Carl Sagan,  and I’m sure many others. And if anything, the anti-science fringe has gotten even more fanatical in the meantime. Not that the proper response should be to just shut up about it, but it’s probably worthwhile to put into context the real impact of these kinds of books and not pretend that one of them is going to suddenly change everything and make unreasonable people reasonable.

The Guardian has a review since it’s already been released in the UK. Idiot man-child William Dembski’s blog “Uncommon Descent” has a “review of a review.” One great thing about this book (besides reading it when it comes out) is that you just know that Dembski’s friends at the Discovery Institute are just frothing at the mouth over it.

Creationism is serious business

Creationism is serious business.

Anyway, here is a video promo of Dawkins’ new book: