Happy Birthday, Kurt Vonnegut!

Authors, Banned and Challenged Books, Censorship

Kurt Vonnegut was born on this day in the year 1922.

Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library logo

The Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library was on my Indianapolis to-do list during ALA Midwinter 2021…but the coronavirus is lingering. I had to register for the virtual conference instead and you should too! Ibram X. Kendi will be there, among others. I suppose all that really means is that I will have to make a trip to Indy sometime in the future.

Kurt Vonnegut’s books have been challenged, banned, and burned. I think he remains one of the most important American writers of the 20th century. There are many reasons for the challenges to his books but one of the trends seems to be the setting: school English classes and school libraries. While his books can be read by teenagers, they were written more so for an adult reader, so I could empathize with modern parents. However, there is some type of irony in that high school aged Americans were bombing Europe and burning human bodies in 1944. Perhaps there is something to be learned there.

Not only is it his birthday, it is also Veteran’s Day. Vonnegut himself was a veteran of World War 2. In fact, The Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library has his Purple Heart on display, loaned from his family. His shared experience in the war has yielded the most public outcries of censorship. Slaughterhouse Five, or The Children’s Crusade, relates to his experience of the Allied phosphorus bombing of Dresden. Vonnegut was on the ground in Dresden as an American POW to the Germans. He hid in a meat locker within a slaughterhouse to survive. His experience of Dresden was more aligned to the everyday German’s than the typical Allied position, which was from the air.

Slaughterhouse Five

Slaughterhouse Five is a book with heavy themes of war and post-traumatic stress disorder. Phosphorus bombs light everything on fire, including people. Water does not put out such a chemical fire. Hysterical German civilians would jump into rivers, only to still be on fire. Vonnegut’s letters and writings from the war explain some of the horrific acts that went on as if it was normal, everyday life. That is just how it was, and they kept going until things got better.

As we divide ourselves further and further, it becomes easier and easier to understand how that horror can become normal, everyday life. American life now is nothing like life in 1944 Europe and we need to keep it that way. There are so many books written by veterans that end up on the banned or challenged lists. Not just Kurt Vonnegut but also Ernest Hemingway, Erich Maria Remarque, Tim O’Brien, Joseph Heller, Anthony Burgess, George Orwell, JRR Tolkien, William Golding, and JD Salinger just to name a few. 

So today especially, pick up a book by a veteran, even if you have read it before. It might read a little differently now. Clearly, my first suggestion would be Slaughterhouse Five. I hear there is a new graphic novel adaption from Simon & Schuster too, if you want to change your reading experience even more.

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