Symbol of the “New York Society for the Suppression of Vice”, advocating book-burning. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Eloquence in the face of stupidity, rage and hate touches me more than almost anything else. So please take a moment to read Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s 1973 letter to the chairman of the school board in Drake, North Dakota, who felt that burning books was somehow what our children should aspire to. It’s not surprising to me, in that terrible, volatile time of war, racial tensions, and economic distress, that some would decide that burning books was the way to shape the world in their own image. But it’s endlessly distressing to me that, nearly 40 years later, hardly anything is different.
Here’s an excerpt from what Vonnegut wrote to that school board chairman:
“After I have said all this, I am sure you are still ready to respond, in
effect, ‘Yes, yes – but it still remains our right and our responsibility
to decide what books our children are going to be made to read in our
community.’ This is surely so. But it is also true that if you exercise
that right and fulfill that responsibility in an ignorant, harsh,
un-American manner, then people are entitled to call you bad citizens
and fools. Even your own children are entitled to call you that.
“I read in the newspaper that your community is mystified by the outcry
from all over the country about what you have done. Well, you have
discovered that Drake is a part of American civilization, and your
fellow Americans can’t stand it that you have behaved in such an
uncivilized way. Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred
to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought
against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American,
you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not
merely your own.”
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s books meant more to me as an adolescent than any other author. In his later years, he seemed to me to be a cranky old man, but now I’m starting to see his point. In any event, read his entire and entirely beautiful letter over here, at Letters of Note.