KAZAKHSTAN: Fines for “extremist” books

Slacktivist Fred Clarke calls this “Kafka Meets Borat” and it’s difficult to argue with his assessment.

In essence, Khazakstan bans books, but the official banned book list is a secret. Even the state court proceedings that determine whether a book is banned, is secret. And since no lists of banned book is published,there’s no way to know if that book you are reading is banned or not. Until the local law takes you to jail for being an extremist. Although if it’s a religious text, it probably has been banned.

Cute, huh? Yeah.

BBW 2013 (con’t): More Banned Books

Muffled Voices: 5 Famous Authors of Banned Books is a wonderful article up at Biographile.com, feature literary greats such as Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, John Steinbeck, and more. I’d set aside a while to read the whole thing.

BBW 2013: The Hunger Games

We’re at that time of year again where the American Library Association celebrates the indelible fact of intellectual curiosity by noting popular books which made the banned list. 2013’s list includes The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and it’s a pleasure to review it.

THG is one of those books that finds an underground audience long before it breaks out to the public eye. In this case, a network of library reading groups pushed the books into the hands of impressionable youngsters, who then realized that this was something special and showed it to their friends, who showed it to teachers and parents. (Hint: girls read. A lot.) Scholastic, not being the sort of publisher to sit on a gold mine, ran with the effort and the rest, as they say, is history.

Anyway, the story: in the future the U.S. has become the country Panem, segmented into a nation of 13 districts surrounding a central capitol. 75 years ago, the districts revolted against the capital and lost. As a result, every year each district sends a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to the capitol where they fight to the death until a single victor emerges. The contest is called The Hunger Games.

Katniss Everdeen is sixteen and lives in District 12, (somewhere in the Appalachians, as coal mining is the only industry), where life is brutal. Crushing poverty and starvation are constant companions, and Katniss’s father died in a coal mining explosion not long before, making things harsher still. Katniss’s mother fell apart, leaving her daughter to hold things together; she hunts to bring home food and to trade to the police or at the local market.

The book opens on the day of the tribute selection process, called the Reaping. Your name goes into the jar every year and it stays in the jar until you are selected or you age out. You can tweak the system for personal gain: add your name to the pile multiple times and you can receive cash, which is a survival tactic for District 12’s families. Katniss has done this a few times, like Gale, her best friend.

This year, Katniss’s 12 year old sister, Primrose, gets reaped. Katniss volunteers to take her place, which is permitted, if rare. The male tribute is Peeta Malark, a boy whose parents own a bakery and who has worshipped Katniss from afar for years. They say their goodbyes to friends and family and board a train for the Capitol.

Almost from the moment they board the train to the end of the book, life becomes a game show in a horrifyingly literal sense. Each tribute is transformed into a celebrity, and as one would expect, some weather the change better than others. Haymitch, Katniss and Peeta’s trainer, won the Hunger Games for District 12 years ago and has become a hostile, raging (albeit wealthy), alcoholic.

The secret to staying alive, he tells them, is to get people to like you. Yes, Katniss can hunt and survive outdoors for weeks on end but when she opens her mouth, a desperate, angry girl who’s been ravaged by personal loss and poverty comes out. But survival now means mugging for the camera, playing up her improv acting, and sucking up to an unseen but everpresent (and demanding) audience. And she is terrified. Peeta, however, proves to be a natural at it.

Then there’s etiquette, provided by Effie Trinket, the Capitol’s representative to District 12 (I think of her as the resident Political Officer), combat training, grooming, (Cinna remains my favorite character from all three books), accessorizing (outfits and weapons), the corporate spectacle as the media debut the tributes to the people of the Capitol, and finally their release into the arena.

Katniss knows the drill: she hunts for food, stays close to the water, and sleeps in trees. She knows how to evade the alliance of rich (well-fed, motivated, and buffed) tributes that sweeps the field of 13 kids in the first 8 hours. Unfortunately, Peeta is working with them, which throws Katniss into emotional turmoil. Along the way, she makes an alliance of her own with Rue, a young girl from the agricultural District 11. By working together they manage to take a bite out of the troop of favorites. Eventually she meets up with Peeta (literally by walking on him after he’s camouflaged himself), except Peeta is in bad shape. But the cameras are everywhere and they play up the star crossed lover image that Haymitch has been cultivating behind the scenes to have sponsors deliver drugs to get them back to health. It works a little too well: a rules change says that two tributes from a single district can share a victory.

Finally it comes down the last three: Katniss, Peeta, and Cato, the favorite career tribute from District 1. Cato is eaten by genetically modified wolves (don’t ask), and the rules change again to nullify the previous change. Katniss and Peeta decide to kill themselves instead of each other, and the rules change again to make good on the original change. District 12 celebrates the win, and Katniss and Peeta now need to deal with very different lives.

I don’t agree with the criticism that THG is a rip-off of Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale. Yes, the stories are similar, but the Last Man Standing trope is not exactly a new thing. (Remember The Running Man and The Long Walk by “Richard Bachman”? I sure do.) BR has a wholly different character from THG, for one thing. The BR event the future Japanese government creates is a wholly punitive measure, for example, seen only by government officials and soldiers, not a game show. Worse, the characters act out their various high school dramas as they try to kill each other.  The rule in BR is simple: either one student lives, or the whole class dies together.

THG, in contrast, contains cultural baggage which could only have written by an American. In THG, the show is the only thing that matters, even while the only reality is death for all but one tribute. The Game Master is charged with the President’s orders to make it look good. The GM’s control booth looks like something out of Johnson Space Center and assure complete control of the arena, enabling his crew to herd players toward each other with forest fires and livening the action if things get too dull. The commercialization of violence and the spectacle of ritual murder is very clearly meant to be commentary on specific realities within the American way of life. Ratings determine how well you do and literally enable you to survive the rough patches.

Besides that, the messages of the two books are very different: THG says, “fight.” BR says, “run.”

he reasons most often cited include anti-ethnic, anti-family, insensitivity, offensive language, occult/satanic, violence. Let’s take these one at a time.

Violence: well, duh. It is a violent book. Lots of kids get killed, sometimes in particularly gruesome ways (killer wasps, mutant dogs, and bloody, bloody murder, to name three). The violence is frequent but never gratuitous. There are no long drawn out scenes of torture, for instance.

Anti-ethnic: this is interesting, considering that one of the weirdest reactions to the movie was the racism that erupted online when some fans found out that Rue was black. In fact a lot of the folks from District 11 were black and it was an agricultural district. Hmm. Anti-ethnic, or a not so gentle reminder of an ugly part of American history? You decide.

Anti-family: I don’t see this at all; the only thing in Katniss’s mind most of the time is her family. Seriously, she volunteers to take Prim’s place in the game because she knows her sister is not cut out for gladiatorial combat.  Maybe someone got offended when Katniss insisted she’d never have kids. I couldn’t say.

Insensitivity and Offensive Language: it takes enormous energy and vision to write a series of books like THG. It takes none of either to take umbrage at it. Just say you don’t like it and be done with it. That’s at least honest.

Occult/Satanic: Well, the worship of power is Satanic, at least in the Anton LaVey sense, and a major theme of the series is the misuse of power by those who have it, so in a way . . . nah. The folks who use these terms most often tend to lump Satanists, Catholics, Pagans, Muslims, and Jews into the same category. So, no.

Something that’s not often noted is the way Collins’ description of her Capitol and its relationship to the surrounding districts reminded me of the way Rome related to its provinces as the empire deteriorated. Everything becomes entertainment after a certain point. Spectacle is the ends as well as the means of social engineering one’s country, combined with capitalism’s drive for more, faster, better sooner. Penam’s relations with other countries is never touched upon properly in the series, which is a shame, because it would be interesting to see how far along Collins would have taken the analogy with modern day life.

I’m going to stop short of looking at Catching Fire and Mockingjay, the second and third book in the trilogy respectively, because if I did, we’d be here all day. I might review them for next year’s BBW, if only because we’ll have two more movies to look at between now and then and the differences between the first film and the first book are fascinating.

I am going to say that I think that Collins has unearthed a particularly ugly but illustrative tidbit about our society: when we denounce the human sacrifice of the Aztecs and the decadence of Imperial Rome we don’t usually think of those who died to perpetuate their civilizations as human beings who lived in centuries past so much as we do images from a documentary or paragraphs in a history book. And when we reduce the people we now share the world with to abstractions and measure their worth to us by their entertainment value, we have nowhere to go but down.

Drop me a comment and let me know what you think. Best comment gets a free copy of the book!

Just a quick note: Shiela DeChantal (who writes the Book Journey blog) contacted me a while ago about doing another post for Banned Book Week. I said I would, and I am. But this year she’s doing her banned book link set this week instead of next week when it’s official, due to schedule conflicts.

Anyway, I will be reviewing The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins for my part in this. And like last year, I’ll be giving away a copy of the first book in the trilogy (print or Kindle as requested) to the person who posts the best comment. That’ll be up on Saturday the 21st, so keep it in mind and let me know what you think.

See you Saturday.


Banish Alan Moore, Banish All The World (Part 2)


Beverly James means well.  I believe that completely.

And she’s correct when she says that librarians remove books from the collection all the time, We do it at MCNY, too. We just spent six grueling months taking out nearly four thousand volumes that were too old,  out of our scope, or inaccurate for our students’ use.

It happens. It’s necessary.

We even have a term specifically fort it: weeding.

But I do not have to agree with it, and I still don’t.

What do you think? Am I overreacting? Drop a comment and let me know.


BBW 2012: Brave New World

In my experience, no one uses the word “utopian” correctly. The incorrect way is to do so in a hyperbolic sense rather than the literal one. For example, those who say that our tax system could use some progressive tweaking are being utopian. Not true, as the tax system gets tweaked all the time. The offenders intentionally misuse the word in order to halt the discussion.

Utopia comes from a pair of Greek words: ou, or ‘no’, and topos, or ‘place’. Utopia, therefore means ‘no place’.  A perfect society is a logical and moral construct rather than an expression of reality, so it can’t exist. We don’t even really want to live there. We just like to dream about it.

Dystopia is the rhetorical opposite of Utopia.  In this case the stem dys (also from Greek) means ‘bad’, so ‘bad place.’ Except in this sense, it’s a place as bad as we can imagine. That’s easy–work a shift in a Foxconn factory for a few weeks. Get yourself a cup and beg in the slums of Calcutta for a while. I guarantee a life lesson or two.

I sometimes tell my students that I think calling Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World dystopian is unfair. That gets a discussion going pretty quickly, as the allure of utopian societies remains subject to opinion. One writer’s paradise is another writer’s hell. There are elements of both extremes in this story, but the book isn’t usually taught that way in classrooms.

First a few historical bits. Brave New World is #52 on the ALA’s list of most frequently banned books. It’s been banned for its politics (communism, socialism) and for the sexual content (pornography). As far back as 1932 the book was being challenged for its language and for supposedly being anti-family and anti-religion. In 1980 it was removed from a classroom in Miller, Missouri, and in 1993 an unsuccessful attempt was made to remove it from California readings lists due to its “negative activity.”

The year is 2540 (or 632 A.F. –After Ford–as it’s known locally). In terms of physicality, it’s not that different from the world we see around us now.  No flying cities (there are personal helicopters), no teleport booths. But . . . all aspects of human behavior and physiology have been standardized. People are cloned in factories, raised to specifications in education centers, and every aspect of their lives is predetermined by a centrally planned state. Society is completely managed, but the level of stimulus-response training people receive as they grow up avoids the need to micro-manage the population. Once grown, people are sent into careers of the government’s choice based on economic need and they live out their lives. They wake up, go to jobs, do their work, eat, sleep, and take a hangover-proof wonder drug called soma when they need a break from reality.

And that’s it. Literally, that’s all there is to this world. There are no new discoveries about the universe or insights about people themselves. No sexual hangups, no real problems other than deciding how to entertain oneself. No real skills except for those needed to do one’s job. No parents, no children, no psychological trauma. No emotions, which means no drama, so no comedy or tragedy. No illness. It’s a well managed world where where everyone is perfectly average. Everyone is happy, healthy, and productive literally until they day they die.  The world is homeostatic.

So . . . what’s not to like?

Quite a lot, actually. For example, the happiness that is considered normal here is more like a self-reinforcing apathy. No one has any real worries about work because jobs are there, waiting for every human being who emerges from the education centers. Famine and disease are unknown. Personal relationships as we understand them don’t really exist. Death is inevitable, but the lack of connection between people makes grieving unnecessary. Monogamy is considered a social disease, and wanting to be alone is thought pathological. Sex is cheap and soma use is mandatory, at least, at certain times of the month. (A state pseudo-religion which glorifies sex and soma allows co-workers to bond and blow off steam on Friday nights.)

We learn about this world by watching Bernard Marx (Huxley named every character after a real life fascist or communist), a state-employed psychologist, run through the matrix as it were on his way toward what he thinks are laudable goals. Understanding how society operates curses him to awareness of just how low in the pecking order he is; he craves status, sex, and authority. Bernard is the physical and mental antithesis of what people expect: he’s short, smarmy, socially inept, and thinks much too much. He is a loser. And that’s what makes him wonderfully human, but that comes at the end of the book.

He pursues a co-worker, Lenina, who likes him well enough but no more than her other male partners. Bernard figures his chances with her will improve if they go on vacation together, but his idea of a vacation is a visit to a “savage reservation” in North America. When they arrive, they ooh and aah at the natives, but they get a surprise. They meet a young man named John who is the son of a civilized woman who was herself stranded there decades ago.  Lenina is utterly fascinated by John, while Bernard plans to use him to bolster his career.

They bring John “home”. Things get worse when Bernard’s supervisor threatens to send him to an island, i.e., banish him to the equivalent of a leper colony in the North Sea. Things get horrible when Bernard exposes his supervisor as John’s father, which to civilized morals is so freakish that the gentleman resigns in disgrace and the matter is literally never mentioned again.

Bernard shows John around the equivalent of high society and gets his status (and Lenina for a while), then mishandles it rather badly when he mistakes his new admirers for friends. John’s mother dies in hospital, and John handles it badly. John stops co-operating with Bernard. Barnard handles it even more ineptly. Mustafah Mond, the World Controller of West Europe, finally takes an interest in the savage’s integration into civilization, and things end badly for everyone.

Or do they?

John and Bernard have a lot in common: neither belongs in civilized company, and both try to use the other to access what they want (status for Bernard, Lenina for John). Both exacerbate their own misery and make the people around them miserable in turn. Square pegs jammed into round holes tend to do that.

One of the more absorbing aspects of this novel is the fact that the protagonists are the State’s failed subjects. Think about it.  Bernard is responsible for maintaining paradise but is physically and mentally ill-suited to living in it. Lenina’s perfect man is one that was born outside civilized society. John wants no more than to be accepted by the tribe of natives he was born into, and is rejected out of hand due to his foreign origin. Even Mustafah Mond, the Guy In Charge of Western Europe,  began his career in social control by being too smart for his own good. The fact that he was offered an out by going into politics was a fluke. Had things really worked properly, he should have been banished decades ago.

There are holes in the plot. Giant holes that you could drive a UPS truck through. One is John’s exposure to the English language by way of an old Shakespeare collection his mother just happened to be stranded with way back when. There is no way that John could have learned his absorbing command of the bard just by reading it. For that matter, his mother is described as a twit, and the idea that she’d have any book in her bag when they arrived is not exactly credible. As Neil Postman noted in Amused to Death, Orwell feared the banning of books, where Huxley feared a lack of respect for and interest in them. The only books we ever see live in Mustafah Monnd’s office safe.

Another problem (and one that Huxley acknowledges in the introduction) is the either/or nature of the world as presented in the text. There is civilization and there is savagery, but there’s no in-between. Neither universe informs or acknowledges the other. We’re told that the islands are numerous enough to house the total sum of all social misfits but we don’t get to see what life there is like. We’re told by Mond that an entire society of elites was sent to an island to carve out what life they could and have to take his word that the situation imploded rather quickly.

There are similarities to our here and now, too. Economics is the reason given for everything that happens in BNW. The economy isn’t everything–it’s the only thing. A person’s entire meaning in this world is the sum total value they can add to the machinery of commerce. His labor feeds it, his money lubricates its guts, his leaders direct it. In Huxley’s world, the economy is purely mechanical. All humans are its servants, one way or another.  Worse, there is no place on Earth to get away from it. Our current political discourse, where the lower orders are placed in the position of defending their right to eat at every turn, differs from the reality of BNW in degree only.

So. Are we there yet? Well, yes and no. The book assumes that all the wacky assumptions of utopian science fiction–unlimited energy, resources, and perfect balance with nature–have already been achieved, in defiance of history and the laws of physics. Since new inventions that don’t directly serve consumption are illegal–you will be banished if you try to pursue what Mond calls “real science”–it’s expected that there’s no new information about the world or the universe is being discovered, either.  Material concerns reign supreme. Clone people, give them jobs, feed them, extract their labor, convert the dead to fertilizer for crops, repeat as necessary. The modern idea of economic growth has no place in a world that depends on homeostasis. I doubt we’ll go there.

On the other hand, in the respect that iron-clad social control is maintained by a central authority standardizing human behavior for the sake of the wheels of commerce, you can argue the details all you like, but I think we’ve been there for at least 50 years.

Banned Book Week 2012

Sept. 30 to October 6 is Banned Books Week. But you knew that. The same way you knew that one of the best ways to get students to read a book is to tell them that it’s on the banned book list. Right?

Not that the list is a static thing. It changes as time passes, with some titles sticking around a few years (or decades) and others arriving and departing within a year or two. But, hey, you knew that, too.

Anyway, my own contribution to observing Banned Book Week here is going to be something similar to what I did last year. Then, I reviewed Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a creepily prophetic story of a future America controlled by a brutal Christian Fundamentalist government.

This year I wanted to do something that in the same vein, so I’m reviewing Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. One, it’s a book that I’ve taught in class, and two, I’ve never sat down to review it. Like then, I’m doing this in partnership with Shiela DeChantal’s Book Journey blog, so we’ll be swapping a few readers along the way. Shiela is covering posts for the entire week, so it’s worth a few minutes to check out her updates along the way.

Better than that, I’m going to give away a copy of BNW. I’ll choose a winner based on the most interesting comment that someone leaves here.

The post will be up by 9AM on Thursday, October 4th, so check back then.




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