Here at the end of Banned Books Week, I’m reminded of a time when my mother bought two boxes of books at an auction and shared them with me. This was in the town of Sumner, Illinois, population 1,000. I went to a high school where there only thirty-seven kids in my freshman class. By the time we graduated, there were only twenty-eight of us. Seven of the original thirty-seven had dropped out; another two had moved away. It was a small, mostly working-class town, where reading wasn’t always valued. Where would it get you when it came time to put food on your table?
Somehow, though, someone in that small town had amassed enough books to fill two good-sized boxes. I’ve forgotten many of the titles, but I can still recall a few: The Graduate by Charles Webb, Stendahl’s The Red and the Black, Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys!” by Max Schulman, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and a novel, whose title I wish I could recall. I was old enough to understand that it was a book one might consider “earthy.” I don’t know whether my mother ever read this novel, but, if she did, she never told me not to read it. The previous owner of these books had read the classics along with the more popular books of the time, choosing not to discriminate, and that was the gift my mother gave me, the gift of reading and deciding for myself what was worth the time and what wasn’t.
Finally, a small lending library came to our town. It was a little storefront room downtown that was open only a few afternoons each week. I remember it was summer when it first opened, and days when I wasn’t working on the farm with my father or tending to our backyard vegetable garden—when my time was mine and mine alone—I’d walk uptown just to see what books might catch my eye.
I remember the lazy feel of those summer days in that small town where the traffic down the main street could be so sparse in the dead of the afternoon that a dog could walk down the middle of that street a good long ways before having to move to the curb to let a car pass. By this time, the noon whistle at the fire station would have sounded and folks who worked in the few stores there were would have eaten their midday meals, some of them at the cafe, and would have gone back to work. Just a drowsy, hot day in a small town in the middle of the heartland where someone had decided a library was in order.
One day, I walked into that library. No matter how small it was, no matter that the room was without air conditioning and cooled only slightly by an oscillating fan, no matter that there were no snazzy displays, just a few rows of shelves, this was still a place of books—all of them free for the asking and the promise that I’d return them at the proper time.
To this day, I love the leisurely feeling of strolling down the aisles in a library, just to see what I can see. At the time I’m remembering now, public libraries—even that small lending library—were almost holy, so sacred that they required hushed voices. If you spoke at all, it was always in a whisper. There were no cell phones ringing, as there are now, no beep-beep-beep of the bar code scanning self-checkouts, no clacking of computer keys, no full-throated voices at the reference desk. Oh, listen to me go on, old fuddy-duddy that I am. The libraries of my youth were places of supplication, places where you stood humbly in the midst of all those books. Places of reverence.
Even if the book was Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, the 1966 bestseller that Amazon.com now describes as an “addictively entertaining trash classic,” a novel of “sex, drugs, and schlock and more.” One of the most commercially successful novels of all time, having sold more than 30 million copies. I didn’t know any of that when the book caught my eye that day. Maybe it was the bold white letters on the black spine that first drew me to it. Maybe it was the sound and rhythm of the title. The front of the jacket was white with the title and the author’s name in black and gray letters. Brightly colored capsules—yellows, reds, blues—the “dolls” of seconal, nembutal, and amytal dotted the cover as if someone had left them scattered there. For whatever reason, I opened that book and read the first paragraph: “The temperature hit ninety degrees the day she arrived. New York was steaming—an angry concrete animal caught unawares in an unseasonable hot spell. But she didn’t mind the heat or the littered midway called Times Square. She thought New York was the most exciting city in the world.”
I was hooked. I’d never been to New York, but someone, this character, Anne, had just arrived there and she thought it was wonderful. A journey had begun, and I wanted to know who Anne was, why she’d come to New York, and what would happen to her while she was there. It didn’t matter to me that the novel was a bestseller or that people had sat in judgment of it. All I knew at the time was it was the start of a story, and it promised to take me somewhere I wasn’t able to go on that hot day in Sumner, Illinois. All I had to do was check it out.
And that’s where the problem came.
The librarian was a woman who lived on our street. I’d always thought her a kind woman, pleasant and quick with a smile and a good word. Her name was Rose and she had black hair curled on top of her head.
She took one look at Valley of the Dolls, and she pressed her lips together in a tight line and looked at me over the top of her glasses. When she finally spoke, she was stern.
“Does your mother know you’re reading books like this?”
For a moment I was flummoxed by the question. No one had ever tried to police my reading. Now there was this woman, Rose, who was suggesting with her question that someone should do just that, and she was the one to do it.
I hadn’t had any feeling of shame about checking out that book until she asked me that question. The only thing I knew to do was to tell the truth.
“My mother lets me read whatever I want,” I said.
I imagined that Rose was forming a new impression of my mother, then—not a good one, and I was sorry about that. But it was true. My mother was never afraid of what I might encounter between the covers of a book. She trusted me to recognize and to discard the books that were lacking in merit. Perhaps, it was the way I answered Rose, in a voice that managed to calmly state the fact while at the same time indicating how surprised I was that she had asked the question in the first place. Suddenly, she was the one ashamed.
She took my card. She penciled in the due date on the checkout slip glued inside the back cover. I read Valley of the Dolls, and as far as I can tell it did me no harm.
How grateful I am that I had a mother who loved reading and who taught me to love it, too. She opened the world of books to me, and never tried to close my mind or my heart to any corner of that world. She wanted it to be mine in its entirety. Who knows what I might have missed, had she felt otherwise. “Let there be light,” it says over the entrance to the original Carnegie Library. Anyone who makes it possible for a young person to have access to books, gives that gift of light. Books give us a way to see our worlds, to see others, and to see ourselves. They give us the power of empathy. They make us better. How sad it is when someone is afraid of that.