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Allow me to introduce myself. I am the founder and CEO of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library in Indianapolis. I am a former U.S. Marine Corps Officer and author of the book Breaking Down Vonnegut. Those of us who created and curate the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library request a meeting with you to discuss the banning of 41 books including Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. We are also deeply disturbed by your suggestion that a teacher who teaches this book is somehow connected with nefarious activities that put children in harm’s way.
Let’s talk about harm’s way for a moment. Kurt Vonnegut knew something about harm’s way. He, along with most able-bodied soldiers in our country, fought against book banners and other fascists during World War II. As a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany, Vonnegut witnessed the unfolding of history, important events that were not captured as clearly or poignantly by anyone other than Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse-Five.
When Kurt Vonnegut finally returned home to Indianapolis, he went to the library to see how the local newspaper had covered the bombing of Dresden. He was shocked to discover it had never been mentioned. People tried to censor that moment in history, that moment in the human condition. But, you see, Vonnegut is a national treasure.
Back in 1973, a school in Drake, N.D., burned copies of Slaughterhouse-Five in the school’s furnace. Vonnegut was so incensed that he wrote a letter to the school board chairman, Charles McCarthy, expressing this hope:
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.
In 2011, the first year we opened our doors to the public, a rural Missouri school attempted to ban Slaughterhouse-Five from its library and classrooms. We at the Vonnegut Library launched into action. We immediately contacted the Western Missouri Civil Liberties Union. As the CLU investigated the case, we at the Vonnegut Library began sending free copies of the books to students at this high school. We are prepared to do the same with your district. We are prepared to help the courageous teachers who are being abandoned by their leadership.
Any Bayside High School student or parent of a Bayside student will be able to request a free copy of Slaughterhouse-Five from us at [email protected]. We will give away up to 1,000 copies of this book and potentially more with additional donations. We will continue to get books donated to us through gifts to our 1922 Society, our fund for education, at VonnegutLibrary.org. We are going to work with our friends at newspapers, the Freedom of Expression Network, including the American Library Association and National Coalition Against Censorship, the Florida Civil Liberties Union, and all the rest of our national partners who uphold our Constitutional rights. We are going to create more readers of these books, thanks to your efforts to take away our liberty, our freedom to read.
Even our conservative former governor, former Vice President Mike Pence, declared the last week of September to be Banned Books Week in Indiana, celebrating our freedom of read, afforded to us in the U.S. Constitution. Intellectual freedom – the freedom to access information and express ideas even if the information and ideas might be considered unorthodox or unpopular – provides the foundation for Banned Books Week.
You have misunderstood the meaning of the word “liberty.” Removing someone else’s privilege of reading a book is an act that is worthy of rebellion. But we don’t actually have to rebel because these are our rights as Americans. We just simply have to help the school officials and elected officials to understand that the Constitution is our law of the land. The whims of one group of moms is not the law of our land. I know – I’m also the mom of teens. I’ll be sure to put them to work to assist with this effort to help others access books. As former war General and President Dwight Eisenhower once said, “Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you’re going to conceal thoughts by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go into your public library and read every book.”
Our mission is to “champion the legacy of Kurt Vonnegut, the principles of free expression and common decency.” Perhaps our Board Chair, Comedian Lewis Black, will be with us when we meet with you. Vonnegut said there was only one rule he knew of, “Goddamn it, you’ve got to be kind.” It is unkind to tell other families what books you want or don’t want in the school library and classrooms. Lewis Black also has one rule: If he is to join us in meeting with you, you must have at least one foot in reality.