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Books and words: a miscellany

Item: A cheery start for the week: You may have read that Slaughterhouse-Five was banned from the curriculum and library of the high school in Republic, Missouri—the attempt to withhold books from young people being a persistently recurring phenomenon in the United States of Moronia. Happily, a donor has made it possible for the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library to make as many as 150 copies of the book available, free, to any Republic high school student who requests it.

Item: If you missed them last week, don’t neglect the opportunity to hear Professor Christine Mallinson’s graduate students’ podcasts on how Baltimoreans talk.

Item: Your word of the week is penumbra. Keep an eye on the shadows.

Item: Still pondering beach reading, though Sis Smith’s suggestion that I begin the Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin roman-fleuve* all over again is tempting.


*Literally “river-novel,” a term to describe a series of novels, each self-contained, focusing on a main character, generations of a family, an era, etc. From the French. Think of Proust. From the German we have Bildungsroman, “education novel,” a novel about the growth, moral, psychological, etc., of the main character.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:54 AM | | Comments (10)


Is the constitutional progression like this then: emanation, penumbra, substance, life?

What about the ontological progression? Or even the etymological? I'm lost in the penumbra with this one.


I read Slaughterhouse-Five in college, during a protracted Vonnegut streak. Then as now, I am at a loss to explain what it is about the book that signals the censors to act. I am open to it now, if you or the readers can enlighten me.

Let me speculate why Slaughterhouse-Five gets banned.

For one thing, it has sex in it, including a cartoon drawing of breasts, and seems to approve of sex as a Good Thing.

For another, the account of the bombing of Dresden is vivid about how horrible war is, and the knowledge that it was performed by Our Side takes a little of the shine off the nobility of our conduct.

Third, and fatally, it shows that authority is often arbitrary and unjust, encouraging skepticism about authority.

Parents and administrators who prefer indoctrination to education won't stand for it.

My thanks.

The points all make sense, if a maddening kind.

Who wouldn't enjoy playing the proverbial fly on the proverbial wall at these meetings.

More fun would be to follow the approving censors home and see what they're like around their friends.

I'm making a big presumption there, I know.

Earlier this year a teacher objected to a book my son (then in middle school) was reading during a study hall. It had something to do with zombies fighting in World War I. She demanded to know where he'd gotten this disgusting book, until he pointed out he'd checked it out of the school library.

I'd like to second the Aubrey/Maturin suggestion. Absolutely brilliant series.

As the risk of adding a tangent to the Slaughterhouse-Five controversy, my dad was a belly gunner in a B-17 bomber over Europe in World War II. A sister came home from high school talking about Slaughterhouse-Five at the dinner table, and teacher saying it showed how inhumane Americans were in bombing Germany.

The old man was going to be damned if he allowed some teacher describe him and his fellow fliers in the Eighth Air Force as war criminals. And if you ask him, he was very happy, and still is, that Harry dropped those two nukers on the Japanese.

From interviewing common soldiers as a reporter, just regular guys, the attitude of the World War II vets was basically, “They started it, we finished it.” There is no nuance. It was kill or be killed.

Slaughterhouse-Five bored me. Call me a dope. Many find it thought-provoking. Kids need that. I can’t think of a good reason why they should be “protected” from it.

However, people should be aware of the combustibles being tossed about. That stated, I think sex, incompetence by authority etc. are probably the chief objections as John speculated.

I will say this much: my old man never had any problem describing his perception of stupidity by general officers of the United States Army.

My father, a World War II veteran who was stationed in Australia, New Guinea, and Long Island, was interviewed for an oral history project.

Dad, who left no detail behind, is listing his many disappointments with the U.S. Army's vocational assignment system while the interviewers can be heard on the tape trying to nudge him into telling the more interesting story of his overseas experiences. They wanted a 20-minute summary, but he had hours of stories.

After several thousand years of men and women finding one another, it always surprises me that people still feel compelled to write about it as if it were something new that had to be explained. When in doubt, write about sex? I find Vonnegut boring, too, and on that alone, might recommend that a better author be suggested. Censorship merely encourages people to read the stuff. I too am glad Harry dropped the bomb - otherwise it's possible my father might never have come home from the South Pacific.

"From the German we have Bildungsroman...."

... which is not to be confused with the American political biography written to be released at a strategic point in a political campaign.

This is the Bulldungsroman.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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