Last Friday, as part of a weeklong celebration of the ALA’s Banned Books Week, the John T. Richardson Library hosted City Lit Theatre for a performance of their Books on the Chopping Block. City Lit is a Chicago performance group that performs plays based on works of literature and Books on the Chopping Block involves dramatic readings of several excerpts from books that have faced the ire of censors.
The excerpts, selected from the most commonly banned books in recent years, ranged from the quietly stirring to the emotionally jarring. One of the readings was a very intense scene from Jaycee Dugard’s memoir A Stolen Life, wherein Dugard describes the terrifying mix of crippling terror and confusion she felt as she was being abducted and subsequently speaks to her abductor, who coldly says, “I can’t believe I got away with it.” This passage was apparently chosen to illustrate some of the objectionable and graphic sexual violence in Dugard’s book.
Later the group performed a passage from The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a book criticized in part for its content regarding homosexuality. Charlie, the protagonist, recalls an occasion when he caught his father crying, and when Charlie confronted his father about it, he simply ordered Charlie not to tell his mother, without explaining what was bothering him. Charlie’s mother, on the other hand, was busy discussing celebrity gossip in a hair salon. Interestingly, Charlie’s mother was being critical of how obnoxious and dumb one particular reality TV star is, but ironically, Charlie’s mother seems almost unaware of how her current behavior seems just as obnoxious as that of the star she’s criticizing. This excerpt demonstrates the peculiar artifices of superficiality that people around Charlie choose to fixate their attention on while they themselves have difficulty communicating honestly.
One reading was from Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel about the life of a young Iranian girl during the Islamic revolution. Persepolis has been criticized for being politically and socially offensive. In the passage performed by City Lit, Marjane’s mother criticizes Marjane for dressing in a way that endorses the very Western values that Marjane’s parents have tried mightily to get Marjane to reject, as they are political supporters of Marxist ideology. To the narrator’s parents, wearing a Michael Jackson T-shirt seems like a telling endorsement of consumer culture—which they oppose.
The final dramatic reading was from Sherman Alexie’s young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. The well-done and funny scene depicted an odd exchange between the cerebral Gordy and the much less curious protagonist, Junior. It ends with Junior confessing that all of Gordy’s glowing talk about the wonders of knowledge “is giving [him] a boner.”
It’s that very kind of crass humor and frank language that Banned Books Week should be concerned with protecting. Good literature tells the truth, and if it tells the truth well, it may disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed. It’s a mistaken impulse to censor opposing perspectives in a supposed effort to protect people from dangerous ideas. What we should try to acquire from literature are the tools to confront reality as it is, rather than to shelter ourselves from the difficult labor of carefully thinking about controversial subject matter. This confrontation with offensive ideas gives readers the opportunity to develop a robust appreciation for opposing perspectives rather demand the world cater to one’s own personal preferences and sensibilities. Ultimately, nothing disinfects like sunlight, and controversial works of literature and the subject matter they include should be confronted directly.
– Jeff Duran