Go Read a Banned Book

Don’t think about pink elephants. GO!

You’re thinking about pink elephants, aren’t you? ‘You are what you eat’ the old saying goes. ‘They shall know you by your friends’ some respond. The reality is, people will know you by what you think about; and you become who you are by the way you interpret what you see around you; which in turn shapes how you talk about your world, the friends you make and the issues that burn themselves into your consciousness. And you can’t not, can you? – Passions that capture you most often surface uninvited from the subconscious responding to sequestered fears and sunken insecurities unearthed by the daily affairs of life. Which does not mean that they are right, true or healthy – ‘that which is amenable for a life more abundant’. Prejudice, they are often called – although that word does not mean what most people thinks it means: the literal definition being, “an unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason.”

An opinion without reason.

“Isn’t that always the way it is: if a person’s inclined to look for something, he finds it wherever he looks. Even if there’s no trace of it at all, he still finds clear evidence. Even if there’s not even a shadow, still he sees not only a shadow of what he’s looking for but everything he’s looking for. He sees it in the most unmistakable terms, and these terms become clearer with each new glance and every new thought.” Nikolai Chernyshevsky, ‘What Is To Be Done’.


My wife often complains that I was born in the wrong decade; that in each conflict, each debate, and each act of legislation I see only the commies and the struggle between the individual and the collective. That I’m a cold warrior at heart. Guilty as charged, I suppose. We are what we see, indeed. But this is why we read the classics, – why we struggle through Chernyshevsky’s 150 year-old Russian prose, though he was a dead white man and a communist to boot. Because the only way we can escape from our prejudice is by confronting our ‘feelings’ with knowledge, thought and reason. This is to be sure a deeply uncomfortable process, forcing us to spend time with those who we probably would least like to; those who do not believe as we do nor hold to the codes and ‘sacred values’ which are our daily bread; whose ideas of what troubles our broad world, even in good faith, are different than our own.

I’m almost 2/3 of the way through ‘What Is To Be Done’ – for those who don’t know, the novel that is credited with radicalizing Vladimir Lenin. But why would a cold warrior read this, of all books? Wouldn’t I find much more peace between the covers of Atlas Shrugged? Yes – of course, and I have; and I continue to. But I read Chernyshevsky for the same reason I read Camus, Nietzsche, and Oscar Pollak. I read them to engage with old ideas which have withstood the test of time and have become ‘classics’ in their own rights; not concerned that I will be converted by folly, because I am not weak minded; nor worried that I will be offended, because I am not thin-skinned. No, I read them because I want to think, and to know is a condition which suffers no surrogate.

To be sure, this runs contrary to post-modern thought: books of old too quickly melt the ‘self-licking ice-cream cones’; echo chambers no longer function when they are perforated – and for this reason the books are withdrawn. People afraid of ideas prefer to ban, to burn; realizing as they probably do that flames fade away unwritten into the mists of prejudice. “…Only a few perceived the intellectual holocaust and the revolution by burial that Stalin achieved…” Ray Bradbury once said, “Only (Arthur) Koestler got the full range of desecration, execution, and forgetfulness on a mass and nameless graveyard scale.” Back to my ‘pink elephant’ commie-fighting; the greatest ‘graveyards of the mind’ are found behind curtains Iron and Bamboo, from which there is no escape; and those are built when we are told that knowledge and truth are in fact tools of oppression.

My advice, for what its worth? Go read a banned book; you’ll be better for it.

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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