“Where one burns books, there eventually one eventually burns people”

The title of today’s post is a quote by German poet Heinrich Heine and I have chosen it to mark what is about the middle of Banned Books Week. In the spirit of keeping track of what we might have missed out on, I thought it worth sharing some of my favourites that have over the years, made the list.

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Commemorative plaque Nazi book burning 1933 on ground of Römerberg square in front of Frankfurt city hall, Hesse, Germany. Courtesy of Creative Commons, click on image for source.

 

Some of the books that have made the list over the years. Share your favourites below!

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.

catcher cover

The story of teenager Holden Caulfield’s struggle to come to terms with the confusing world around him remains both hugely popular and highly controversial. Under the swearing and angst-ridden prose that has offended so many there is a tone of genuine sincerity that has led many others to save a soft spot in their hearts for Holden Caulfield, however unreliable his narration might be.

The book carries a certain mystique, partly due to the reclusive nature of author J.D. Salinger, and the fact that it was linked to at least three historical assassinations. Mark David Chapman was holding it when he shot John Lennon, Robert John Bardo also had the book in his possession when he shot actress Rebecca Schaeffer, and rumours abound of it being lined to other high-profile shootings, such as Sirhan Sirhan’s assassination of Robert Kennedy. This has made some people see Catcher as a negative influence, but I would argue (vehemently and probably in a long and rambling blog post) that the book has overall had a far more positive influence in society than negative, and has been a valuable lifeline for many young people. Also, Holden is genuinely entertaining;

That’s the whole trouble. You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write “Fuck you” right under your nose. Try it sometime. I think, even, if I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery, and I have a tombstone and all, it’ll say “Holden Caulfield” on it, and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right under that it’ll say “Fuck you.” I’m positive, in fact.

And for anyone else who has a soft spot for Holden Caulfield, check out John Green’s video analysis here.

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus , by Mary Shelley    

frankenstein cover

Popular culture has done a great disservice to Mary Shelley’s 1818 Gothic classic about a young scientists’ misguided attempt to defeat death by creating a living creature out of used corpses. Unfortunately there is little resemblance between Frankenstein’s monster as he appears in Shelley’s novel, and the two-dimensional monster that is often reproduced on screen:

frankenstein film

But for anyone who needs a tragic character to fall in love with, I recommend reading the original, for the monster turns out to be the wisest creature, and one that speaks with a beautiful voice:

I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.

 

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence.

chatterley cover

I first read this book for an English subject at uni, and was gratefully surprised for how much real depth there is to the story. Unfortunately the emphasis given to the explicit scenes within the book which have contributed to its censorship has meant that the actual substance of the book is overlooked. The book is often caricatured into a two-dimensional story about an explicit love affair, but it is deeply philosophical and also beautifully written, dealing with the themes central to existence, such as where to find meaning amongst the pressures of social expectations. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in absurdist writing, such as that of Albert Camus.

Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.

She followed the track and the hammerings grew near, in the silence of the windy wood, for trees make a silence even in their noise of wind’.

And of course, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.

harry potter cover

Well what can I say that hasn’t been said about Harry Potter? Harry Potter is epic. Whoever bans it is a fool. And probably working for Voldemort.

Of course it is happening inside your head, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?

Feel free to share your favourite banned books below!

 

 

A Medley of Failure and A Book Review

It may have become apparent by now, that one of my favourite contemporary philosophers is Alain De Botton. It’s not just his determination to strip philosophy of its more inaccessible pretensions, it’s also his quirky and encouraging celebration of failure that make him an appealing writer. De Botton continually highlights the consoling and therapeutic sides of art and culture as antidotes to the pressures of – yes, that tiresomely overused phrase – the modern world. His call to properly re-examine the familiar idea of success as measured through objective symbols like wealth and status is something that is not only endearing, but also hugely necessary today. So in this spirit, I thought it worth mentioning this little gem of a book that I came across by chance many years ago, and that I unearthed the other day whilst rearranging my bookshelf (it’s what all the cool people do in their free time).

The Book of Heroic Failures by Stephen Pile

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Stephen Pile, The Book of Heroic Failures (Great Britain: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1979).

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The Book of Heroic Failures by Stephen Pile

The book is not nasty. It, like De Botton, does not encourage us to look down or condemn those who have failed in their endeavours, whether they are work related, personal, or cultural endeavours. Rather, it encourages us to recognise the absurdity that can disturb almost any attempt to do something personally meaningful. The ever-present reminder that we just might not get to where we wanted to be is there in nearly every story. Having said this, this odd medley of failure also contains the message that often through failing we get to somewhere else, somewhere that could be equally interesting as our initial destination. This book shows us something of how much of the modern media could treat failure if it is to be really useful to anyone: As something familiar to everyone in one form or another, and not an aberration that separates smart people from geese and fools to be laughed at and ridiculed even beyond the point of their humanity.

horrible tabloids

There is something humbling about reading this book, but also strangely encouraging. It doesn’t abstract failure into something that only happens to other people, but reminds us almost cheerfully, with a self-deprecating and amusing tone, that failure is a natural part of living that shouldn’t be denied or covered up but rather, embraced. There is a weird kind of happiness that can come with not being the best, and this funny little book, with its magnificently camp cartoon illustrations, serves as a useful reminder on any bookshelf, that at any moment, it might all fall down.

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The Book of Heroic Failures by Stephen Pile
The Book of Heroic Failure by Stephen Pile
The Book of Heroic Failures by Stephen Pile