Saturday, June 5, 2010

Burn This Book

Burn This Book is a collection of eleven essays by eleven writers (including the book's editor's Toni Morrison) about the importance of the written word, and after reading it this week, I feel obliged to respond. This isn't a review of the book, but I will say it's a worthwhile read for any kind of writer because it offers several intriguing philosophical discussions about the nature of writing and what the goals of a writer should be, and at 113 pages, it's a brisk read.

Many writers describe writing as an interior act, a manner of self expression and discovery. John Updike says a writer begins with a personal truth, building his or her experiences before becoming a writer and then putting them down on paper. This is why he believes so many writers' best works are their first because they began with that personal truth and slowly moved away from it. Since writers write their own truths, their impact is limited because not everyone shares those truths. As Russel Banks states, "The novelists speaks to no one but himself." Banks further notes very few novels in American history have initiated massive, immediate social change. Updike says the betterment of humanity and changes to society are not the driving motivation of most writers.

This raises an important point by Morrison in the first chapter: if writing is indeed an inherently selfish act, primarily for the benefit of the writer, why are writers among the first to be targeted by totalitarian regimes? Orhan Pamuk discusses briefly the 1980 coup in Turkey in which thousands of people were arrested, but it was writers who were most persecuted.

British essayist Pico Iyer describes a trishaw driver named Maung-Maung living under the oppresive military regime in Burma. Iyer's wrote of Maung-Maung's life and hopes of owning a business and getting an education, which led to Iyer's banishment from Burma. If he shows up, he'll be arrested at the airport, where his picture hangs. After many years, Iyer somehow managed to receive a letter from Maung-Maung, describing what he's been up to. This communication, in a country in which modern communication is controlled, is Maung-Maung's only way of reaching out. As Iyer puts it, "We are the only freedom he knows."

That one little bit of communication represents Maung-Maung's efforts to resist the efforts of the state to dehumanize him. This little bit of self expression sustained his hopes that the outside world contains a better life for himself and his family. Being able to put those thoughts down on paper may be only a minor rebellion against the government and won't do much to alter the social order, but it's enough to give Maung-Maung hope and allow him to remain defiant. That's the danger of writing to fascist regimes: writing offers people a taste of freedom and individuality. It's not what's being written so much that it is written. If 1984 taught us that the ultimate state seeks to crush individuality, then writing teaches us how to keep it alive because it allows self expression.

A single writer expressing his or her truth to the world is not threat to a corrupt regime, but a population of millions with the freedom to express themselves in such a way is. To allow one person the freedom to be a writer is to allow all people the freedom to express themselves, and with self expression, they cannot be controlled. Pamuk says, "The joy of freely saying whatever we want to say is inextricably linked with human dignity." In essence, writing isn't just a freedom. Writing is freedom.

I found the most intriguing essay to be by Ed Park, who discusses a book called The Cheese Stands Alone. The main character is interrogated in some sort of psychological iterview with time gaps such as "three-second gap" or "ten-second gap" in the narrative, and Park models his essay after that portion of the book. In the book, a kid learns his entire life and history has been fabricated; nothing he was raised to believe is true, and Park calls it one of the most paranoid books he ever read. The novel follows the kid as he discovers little inconsistencies as he slowly unravels the mystery. I had never heard of this book before, but now I'm interested.

Ironically, this book, which is about obtaining forbidden knowledge, was banned at a Florida school because a grandmother complained to the superintendent about the book had "bad language" and advanced "humanism and behaviorism." Even though parents had signed permission slips, a minority of people were able to force their view of morality.

Book banning never fails to anger me. In high school, my class read a letter by Kurt Vonnegut to a school district that had thrown Slaughterhouse Five in a furnace after they banned it. Granted, I probably would have discovered Vonnegut on my own eventually, but reading about that incident inspired me ask for Slaughterhouse Five for my birthday, and in the years since, I've read several of Vonnegut's works. But still, telling me I can't read something is going to make me read it. No question.

I took a Media Law class as a junior in college and did a report about the Video Nasties, a group of horror movies in the late seventies/early eighties banned in Great Britain because it was believed they corrupted the youth. There were some 72 films on the list, and maybe ten were any good. The rest were complete dreck: awful directing, writing, acting, etc. Now most are available because the values of the time have changed. These movies, which otherwise would have been forgotten by audiences, can now market themselves as being so horrific, they were once banned. There are so many good horror movies out there that don't get attention, it irritates when bad ones do.

My favorite quote in the book came from South African writer Nadine Gordimer, who said, "[B]ecause I was a writer...I became a witness to the unspoken in my society." That's as good as any explanation for being a writer as I've ever heard or read.

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