The history of banned books is long, dark and convoluted. But, aside from being wildly intriguing, it is also the starting point for a much bigger conversation on the ethics of literature. A conversation which took place at McMurtry College this past Thursday in celebration of Banned Books Week.
Lead by Director for the Center of Teaching Excellence and McMurtry associate Joshua Eyler, and a group of McMurtry students, the college honored Banned Books Week by hosting a reading of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” at the college commons. Volunteers took turns reading sections of the book aloud in consecutive 20 minute shifts, finishing after about five hours.
Eyler approached Eissenstat about organizing the event after planning similar readings at other universities. Both agreed that the reading could be a great way to raise awareness about intellectual and cultural topics within the residential colleges.
According to Eissenstat, “Slaughterhouse-Five” was chosen both thanks to its controversial status and its unique form, which allowed listeners to engage with the story regardless of how much of it they were able to listen to.
“It’s short and engaging, it’s a really immediate style, immediate language,” Eissenstat said. “I think it gave some people some opportunities to say some words that you would normally not say over the microphone in the commons, and so it was this provocative, fun, discussion-sparking activity. ”
Eissenstat discussed the goal of Banned Books Week, and how the McMurtry event helped bring awareness to conversations on the influence of literature and why challenges to literary freedom should be important to us.
“Basically, it’s an awareness-raising week to think about the politics of censorship [and] the politics of reading and writing.” Eissenstat said. “[it is] a really interesting conversation to have about how people interact historically with literature. What power do they assume that literature has? What power do they assume that different ideas or ways of writing has? I think that gives us a much better understanding of where we are now, when we can look at the history of an idea, of a piece of literature.”
Eissenstat also described how the reading was personally meaningful to her as a way of connecting with literature directly and for its own sake, as opposed to much of the reading we do as students at a university.
“I forgot how much I loved reading out loud, and how that’s such a different way of engaging with literature than when you’re just scrolling through something for class,” Eissenstat said. “To really be able to savor every word I think was a good experience.”
She also spoke about what the event was able to achieve in the broader context of McMurtry’s community, especially noting how it brought people together, as was originally hoped, and sparked those important conversations in communal settings.
“Seeing the way that it brought McMurtry associates and McMurtry students together was really cool.” Eissenstat said. “And then, ultimately, [some of my favorite things were] those little conversations that happen when you’re sitting in the commons, and there’s someone reading over the microphone, and someone goes like, ‘What is this? What’s going on?’ and you get to have a conversation about “Slaughterhouse-Five,” and literature, and Banned Books Week, and censorship, and all these fun things.”
Banned Books Week occurs annually on the last week of September, and Eissenstat shared her hopes for the future of this initiative, emphasizing the importance of continuing student involvement in bringing these topics to light and provocative discussions to light.
“I think the hope is that this will become an annual tradition, probably in the same format with a different book,” Eissenstat said. “Maybe something longer, maybe something more salacious. Who knows? I’m graduating this year so it’s kind of up to the younger generation to decide where they want to go with it […] Because it is such a cool, and fun, engaging way to think about banned books and really bring a community together.”