My last post dealt with my principled opinions and feelings about book banning/burning. This one will be personal.
I realize it sounds clichéd when someone says reading saved their lives, but it shouldn’t. Our lives are saved by the people around us, those who are with us, relatives and friends and teachers, in an ever-widening circle of familiarity. That network is the reason we are alive and the people we are. I know it’s fashionable to try to claim island status, that we are ourselves by our own hand, but it’s nonsense, and even those most stridently dedicated to that bit of myth know better, unless they are so utterly isolated as to be clinically dysfunctional. That claim is made for a simple reason—certain people don’t wish to be beholden to those of whom they disapprove.
As a result, at some boundary away from the center, as that circle of support expands, many reach a point where they stop knowing or caring about or accepting the next ring. The connection is too vague, from a place too unfamiliar, about people too unlike us.
Well, that’s where reading comes in. And it is absurd not to understand that books are part of that inner circle for many of us. They are our friends, with us, teaching. They are a refuge and a source of understanding. The moment we begin to read a book, it comes alive and is there.
As I have written before, I did not have a particularly great time as a child. Not horrible. But I had trouble fitting in. Many of the daily fascinations of my “friends” baffled me. Once I got into school, these bafflements led to embarrassments which led to further disconnects which opened the door to bullying.
Movies, tv, and books became my safe place.
I had a small assortment of Golden Books, a couple of Dr. Seuss books, and a bizarre variety of comics. There were no bookstores near me at that time, so I don’t even know where they came from. We occasionally went to a big Drug Store called Katz (we called almost any store that had a pharmacy department a Drug Store, whether that was its primary business or not) and they had a magazine section where some of my comics came from. I got my first library card when I was six and there was the school library.
Unknowingly, my world was expanding.
I discovered “real” books around the age of 10. Real Books were books with no pictures. I admit the transition was difficult—I am primarily a visual person. What developed was a reading method that reached its peak around age 15 or so and has to some extent stayed with me. I loved movies. Upon starting a new novel, I would cast the characters and in my mind I ran a film of what I read, translating the words into scenes. By the end of high school, I was reading close to a 100 books a year (my senior year I read about 200, cutting class regularly to go to the public library for the day and sit reading). This fell off sharply when I got a job, but I have maintained a reading rate of between 50 and 100 books a year since. Although, as I got older I found myself reading more deeply, therefore slower, and so my average is somewhere between 60 and 80.
There may have been a year or two where my reading fell off close to nothing, but for 60 years I have never not read.
I had no idea reading could cause controversy until I was in seventh grade. The year before I had started bringing books to school, mass market paperbacks, most of which fit easily into a back pocket. I tried to find someplace to read during recess. I had little interest in going out to the playground. Eventually I found an unused room behind the stage in the gym where I could read for half an hour. I was smart enough not to disappear completely during recess, lest they try to come find me. I don’t know if that actually worked or if someone figured out what I was doing and decided to leave me alone.
I did find my popularity with the girls rising. Many if not most of them were also readers. And they would borrow my books when I finished. In retrospect, I did bring some rather “inappropriate” books to school. Emmaus was a parochial school. Last Summer, The Master of Falconhurst, Flowers In The Attic…probably not what the parents of those girls would have considered suitable. And in hindsight, this was the reason they were borrowing my books and not getting their own. They couldn’t.
It didn’t become an issue until the principal, a dour older man named Adolph Oberman, caught me with a copy of Harold Robbins’ The Carpetbaggers. He took it, glowered, said nothing, and called my parents.
The Carpetbaggers is filled with quite explicit sex. For its day, quite explicit.
The conference Mr. Oberman had with my mother and me was educational. (Yes, I was present. I think he expected a united front in making me ashamed of myself.) He handed the book to my mother and asked if she was aware that I was reading it.
“No,” she said. “Why?”
He was a bit dismayed. “Do you think this is appropriate for him?”
She shrugged. “If he can’t handle it, he’ll stop reading it. Or he’ll ask me about it. Either way, I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t censor what my son reads.”
Mr. Oberman was shaken. I was surprised, too, not because I had any sense of the book being a problem, but because I had come to expect that anything I did that resulted in this kind of a conference was automatically A Bad Thing. That my mother was putting the ball back in his court was unexpected.
“I would prefer he not bring such things to school,” was about all he could manage.
On the way home she asked me where I had gotten it, but that was all. No lectures, not demands to see what else I owned, no impression of disapproval.
My mom is a hero to me.
It was around this time that I got my first bike and found the neighborhood bookstore. When my parents realized that I was spending my allowance on books, my allowance increased. They never questioned what I brought home.
Entering high school in the fall of 1968 was to walk into a maw of a cultural beast in full transformation. Till then I was marginally aware of “hippies” and the War and the Counterculture. Over the next few years I found out what it was all about and had a front row seat at the battle to control information. My favorite history teacher was reprimanded for allowing a debate over Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation to take place. I challenged the syllabus for its insipid choices and was finally told flat out that the books selected (for our school, which was traditional blue collar school) were chosen because they were short enough not to challenge our presumed attention spans. I read Fahrenheit 451 and learned about the history of censorship and suppression—
—which baffled me and angered me. These were my friends—the books—how dare anyone burn them?
And this is what nonreaders do not seem to get. Books are alive the moment a reader finds them. They are conversations. They are what remain of lives long gone yet through them still present. They are the Past, they are people, they are the future-maybes, they are the record of civilization, and they are the repository of the whole of human experience. When I could not talk to my peers, when they had nothing they wanted to say to me or know from me, I could open a book and be with people.
For a long time I didn’t appreciate that aspect, but as I grew older I realized that the relationships on the pages I had attended to were, in their own way, as worthy and rich and supportive as those with flesh and blood on two legs and a whisper in my ear. Sometimes more so, because here these people, many long-dead, were explaining themselves to me, which most of the people around me never did. And because of these silent conversations via the word, eventually I understood the people around me, too.
It did save a lot of time and grief.
Granted, it can put one at odds with the people around you. For a time, as many devoted readers know, you are the odd one, the weirdo, the bookworm, the nerd, the dork. For a people who seem to value Experience, I always found it curious—and unfortunate—that they never realized that reading, close reading, is experience.
But some seem to sense, even understand in a clever and sly way, that it is, and that experience brings change.
I grew up able to read anything I came across. Did I read inappropriate material? First, define that for me. Secondly, I would hope so. You don’t expand your self by playing it safe and staying within arbitrarily defined “appropriate boundaries.” And, really, reading a book is about the most risk-free exposure to inappropriate there is.
Back at Emmaus, another incident occurred which I did not know about at the time, at least not the full story. That stolid, conservative principal, Mr. Oberman, decided, some time between my sixth and seventh grade, to try to bring into the school a sex education program. He found one that had been designed by christians, constructed with a concern about religious sensibilities while still dealing factually and fully with the world of chaos about to fall upon students of our age. There was a presentation at a PTA meeting, which my mother attended. (At the time my dad worked nights, which left mom to deal with this sort of thing.) According to my mother, it was a beautiful course, tasteful, knowledgeable, pitched to just the right level. She thought it would have been terrific. Only one other parent and she voted to approve it. Every other parent there said no. One, according to mom, even said “I never knew any of this stuff, why should our kids need to know it?”
I get the idea—if you don’t tell them, they won’t know to indulge it. It’s a stupid idea, but it’s as common as hydrogen. Because we were being told about it. Only not properly and not factually and not within any kind of framework that would allow us to understand it as it should be understood. We were getting it from older kids, from magazines that “showed up” and were passed around, from the age-old osmotic passage of “forbidden” knowledge that is the font of superstition, trash history, racism, and conspiracy-driven nonsense that somehow Everyone seems to know and no one bothers to verify. We were learning how french kissing could get a girl pregnant, how masturbation will cause cognitive degradation, how sex would cause hair growth, how a thousand other false “everybody knows” bits were true and a science-based course on human sexuality was a sin. All because parents—most of them in that place and time—could not handle the idea of sex education.
For myself, by then I had acquired the priceless habit of Looking Things Up. I was made to feel stupid a couple of times about sex by my peers. What did I do? I rode my bike to that bookstore and bought a book about it. Love and Sex in Plain Language by Eric Johnson. A slim book, barely 110 pages, with illustrations. That was another book that got passed around to some of the girls. But it was the first time I ever had proof that what my classmates were telling me was empty nonsense.
But the nonsense was being passed around. That sex education course would have been as much damage control as anything else.
“I never knew any of this stuff, why should our kids need to know it?”
Given that, what might they have felt about other topics? Like slavery or religious bigotry or Manifest Destiny or evolution or—? And we want people like that to determine what everyone else’s children can have access to why? Because believe me, they aren’t trying to keep those books out of their children’s hands for the benefit of the kids.
I imagine it’s possible, even likely, that some people consider me untrustworthy. Unreliable. Corrupt. A Bad Influence. Unpatriotic. I read all those books (somewhere close to 4000 by now) and filled my head with all those things nobody needed to know.
But having read all those books—and living the kind of life such reading helped give me access to—I also know exactly what such opinions are worth.