Banned Book Club: 1984

Title: 1984

Published: 1949

Author: George Orwell (i.e. Eric Arthur Blair) (1903-1950)

Challenge status: #9 on  Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century and frequent target of banning attempts according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #4 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.

Why: Well, when challenged in Florida in 1981 the reasons given were that the book was “pro-communist and contained explicit sexual matter.”

First line: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Synopsis: The foreboding classic view of a future that is now partially here: a totalitarian regime that effectively controls not only the behavior but the very thoughts and memories of it’s citizens. Winston Smith is not a loyal member of the party: he has questions and doubts that end up pulling him into a theoretical resistance movement and into the arms of a fellow disbeliever (his lover Julia), both from which he is eventually saved via an active re-education that takes place deep in his heart and within the Ministry of Love (Miniluv).

Thanks to Orwell we now have some amazing vocabulary (thoughtcrime, Big Brother, newspeak, doublethink, unpersons) and concepts (entertainment screens that broadcast while conducting surveillance, mini-helicopters and microphones hidden in plain sight – always collecting data, office workers who’s whole function is to “correct” the news to reflect the current truth, party practices destabilizing bonds between family members as a method of distributing policy enforcement, a government that creates tabloids, lotteries, and pornography to keep the proletariat subdued, armies that bomb their own citizens to further the image that the country is at war, politicians that expend all surplus resources as part of useless skirmishes to keep the populace hungry and angry – never really seeking to change balances-of-power between the primary competing nation-states).

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Banned Book Club: Catch-22

Title: Catch-22

Published: 1955

Author: Joseph Heller (1923-1999)

Challenge status: #15 on  Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century and target of banning attempts according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #3 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.

Why: Language, References to women as “whores”. I’m guessing the sex, violence, and portrayal of religious leaders didn’t help either, but don’t see specific references to them.

First line: “It was love at first sight.”

Synopsis: Well. This book is hilarious, engaging, there’s a good storyline, and it’s very well written. Heller’s style of prose is delivered with the clever cadences and the comedic timing of steven wright (if steven wright did slapstick and deadpan at the same time). Technically this is satire. But what is actually saddest about the book is that, as we are wound tighter and tighter into the grip of the story, it stops feeling like satire and starts feeling like reality. Just a reality we wish we could lock into a box and make it disappear. The insanity in the beginning of the book is quite reasonable compared to what passes for sane, everyday behavior by the end of the book.

Yossarian, our main character, is a bombardier who wants out of combat missions. As he pursues his goal (35 completed missions), the goal posts keep getting moved ever further out (40 missions, no 45, no 50….) and the war keeps stretching on with no end in sight. Around him people crack, die, disappear or flourish based on how their nature dictates within the context of this camp outside Italy. No virtue goes unpunished and every vice ends up hyper-extending and warping each character into a cartoon. From Major Major’s desperation to be accepted “he had a shy and hopeful manner in each new contact, and he was always disappointed. Because he needed a friend so desperately, he never found one,”  to Colonel Cathcart’s desperate ambition “he could measure his own progress only in relationships to others,” and Milo’s Kafka-esque cross-country capitalist chess games (eggs, tomatoes, lobster, egyptian cotton, airplanes, combat mission details…) “They all belong to the syndicate…and they know that’s what’s good for the syndicate is good for the country…Everybody has a share.

Yossarian wants out, and here’s where the concept of Catch-22 comes in (first in conversation with Doc Daneeka): anyone who’s crazy enough to keep flying combat missions must be crazy, and thus can be grounded — all they have to do is ask! But the catch (Catch-22) is, that anyone who asks, i.e. wants to get out of combat duty, can’t actually be crazy. And thus can’t be grounded.

Interestingly, the term Catch-22 is actually a reference to the book; the term didn’t exist before the book was published. Originally the book was going to be called Catch-18 and went through a few variants before the author and editors just decided Catch-22 sounded the funniest.

Very good book, though the last few chapters started stressing me out – a kind of sympathetic reaction. I’ve been in a number of discussions lately about professional burnout (seems to be an epidemic in the tech/infosec industry) and so reading this story about a set of folks so stuck on a hamster wheel as their psychological states deteriorated at an accelerated rate was kind of startling: Stress. Pain. Anxiety…”Everybody has a share.”

Banned Book Club: Fahrenheit 451

Title: Fahrenheit 451

Published: 1951

Author: Ray Bradbury (1920 – 2012)

Challenge status: #69 on Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books: 2000-2009

Why: Language, “Questionable Themes”

First line: “It was a pleasure to burn.”

Synopsis: A dark look at the near future where firemen don’t put out fires, they start them — specifically in services of burning books, which are forbidden. An apt kick-off to my hot hot hot summer of banned books, Bradbury’s classic paints the pictures of a society where intellectuals have been driven into hiding, and the majority of Americans sedate themselves with a steady stream of meaningless data and entertainment. The resulting dullness of experience is reminiscent of the dystopia of 1984 and Brave New World. Montag, our main character, finds himself starting to slip sideways as small questions nag at him: Why does his wife cling so strongly to the vivid but absurd phono-color walls as comfort only to “accidentally” overdose on sleeping pills? What is in those books that their owners would choose death over giving up their libraries? Why is the country constantly at war? And – ultimately – why isn’t he happy?

Besides being a passionate love letter to the concept of intellectual thought and freedom, this is also a timely read in the era of Twitter, FB, Google Glass, Siri, & Bluetooth headsets. That which entertains us doesn’t necessarily nourish us.

Summer of Banned Books

BBW_Forbidden_200x200Every year or so, I realize there are way too many great books out there that I’ve never gotten around to reading. And then I get an itch to soak up the written word. Summer is coming, and while these season is usually a time for “beach” books, this summer I’d like to get prepped for Banned Books Week – this year it’s September 22−28.

The lists of banned books are distressingly long, every year the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom compiles a list of the top ten books that are most frequently challenged in libraries and schools around the country. They also have lists on Frequently Challenged Books of the 21st Century100 Most Frequently Challenged Books by Decade – and my favorite – Banned/Challenged Classics. As it turns out, attempts have been made to ban nearly half (at least 46) of the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century.

As a quant and occasional applied numerologist, somehow these made it onto my list of books to read first:

  • Fahrenheit 451
  • Slaughterhouse 5
  • Catch 22
  • 1984
  • And Tango Makes 3
  • l8r, g8r

It is pretty interesting to see how many books written for children or young adults (teenagers) are on the list of top banned books by year. I guess in some areas they already got the classics out of the way. 🙁

Read on, readers

Last week I stopped into SOURCE Dublin to give a follow-up to my recent talk in Boston, another foray into game theory (Games We Play: Payoffs & Chaos Monkeys) — this time w/some more advanced mathiness and references back into behavioral economics. Anyway, I still owe some explanatory blog posts to support some of the materials I had to rush through (to get everything into 45 minutes), but first thing I wanted to share is my working reading list. I’m finishing up reading some other books which I’ll post later but this is a good overview and will get folks interested in the topics headed in the right direction.