During my junior year of high school, my Contemporary Literature teacher, Mr. Kuklinski, gave the class two reading options: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess or Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.
Little did I realize at the time that either choice could potentially lead me down the road to ruination, a path I’m fairly certain I could have stumbled upon on my own with a little effort. But still, it’s nice to know that educators once cared.
So, thinking we were mature enough to decide for ourselves, Mr. Kuklinski, who also happened to be the high school hockey coach, let us pick one of the two novels to read and discuss during the first nine weeks of class.
I initially chose A Clockwork Orange because the bright orange cover art caught my eye. I had yet to fully grasp the “don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover” concept. After about ten pages of struggling to understand the protagonist’s teenage slang – a mix of Russian and Cockney English – I negotiated a book swap.
Although much of Slaughterhouse-Five was lost on me, what with all the science-fiction time jumping, alien abduction and heavy-duty philosophy stuff, I was bright enough to know it was an anti-war book. With three older brothers who narrowly avoided the Vietnam War for various reasons, war was a very real part of my life.
What I didn’t know then – something that would have made my reading experience that much more thrilling – is that Vonnegut’s World War II classic was variously challenged, banned and even burned across the U.S. almost since it was first published in 1969. How did this escape me? A Clockwork Orange suffered the same scrutiny.
When Slaughterhouse-Five was stricken from the public schools of Oakland County, Michigan in 1972, a circuit judge called it “depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar, and anti-Christian.” Another school district in New York called the book “just plain filthy.”
The sixteen-year-old me would have been excited about this revelation.
What better time to be introduced to all of that than your junior year in high school? Keep in mind, I grew up in a small town before the advent of cable TV, the Internet or Smart Phones, so vulgar and depravity were tough to come by.
I don't recall being shocked or damaged by reading Slaughterhouse-Five. Apparently, without being told by adults, I had brushed past “filth” without getting dirty – a significant disappointment in retrospect. But I did get an “A” on my Slaughterhouse-Five book report, so Contemporary Literature wasn’t a total loss.
Through the years, I’ve read several Vonnegut novels. Some I’ve enjoyed more than others. But never once, even while stumbling across the finish line of the last page, did I ever have the urge to set the books aflame like a North Dakota Public School Board did with thirty-two copies of Slaughterhouse-Five in 1973.
That was almost fifty years ago. Thank goodness we are far more enlightened today...
In early June, a fireproof copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale sold for $130,000 at Sotheby’s, with proceeds going to PEN America’s efforts to fight book banning.
The battle needs all the help it can get because the number of attempts to ban books from schools and libraries surged last year. Among the findings in the recent report “Banned In The U.S.A.,” PEN America tracked more than 1,586 instances of individual books being banned in 2021 and that book bans “have occurred in 86 school districts in 26 states.”
Atwood’s book is a favorite among those who fear the written word. The dystopian novel about misogyny and other dangers of oppression became a bestselling novel, an Emmy-winning TV show and a regular on banned book lists.
“I never thought I’d be trying to burn one of my own books... and failing,” Atwood, 82, said in a statement prior to the auction.
I was much too unaware to know if Mr. Kuklinski was making a conscious effort to challenge my teenage mind in high school with his book list. And I have no idea if my small-town school board was so enlightened that they let him try his best while staying out of the way.
What I do know is that I was given a choice, one that lit a fire under me, and not under any books.