The Kind of People Who Ban Books

Literology / Thursday, September 26th, 2013

My daughter is twelve, which means the good folks at Barnes and Noble believe she loves paranormal romance novels and books with vampires in them so much so that 80% of the shelves in their teen section carry one, the other, or some combination of the two. Consequently, it has been increasingly and incredibly difficult the past two years to find books that are richly written and also age-appropriate. I have been grateful to friends and colleagues who pass titles my way when they run across something Daina-appropriate, which means sex-free, deep, and delicious–although that sounds like I’m describing a nun cookie . . . which, according to the Google gods, exist.

As a literature professor and bibliophile, my philosophy has always been read anything, read everything. And I was fortunate to grow up in a house where this was possible. My father’s attitude was always “better you than me” since he prided himself in having gotten so far in life having never read any complete books and never understood my penchant for them. 

I am grateful to my mother for several things. Most obviously were that she and books were always present in the house and that she made book-reading a part of our daily routine in such a strong way that it seemed odd to go to homes where there were not books on shelves, beside and below beds, and stowed away in secret corners of rooms and closets. 

There are, however, the less obvious, too, those quiet—or not so quiet—and brave acts parents do in defense of their children. Some cannot be put here, but should there ever be an occasion where you want both me and coffee in the room at the same time, we will sit in sworn secrecy, and I will tell you strange stories of books other adults had taken from me “for my own good” and replaced with things other girls loved. I’ll then tell you of other books sneaked back onto my shelves and even those which needed to be turned around with the spines facing the back of the bookshelves in case company came. 

These experiences helped me to understand reading as both risk and reward, to read the act of reading some books as forbidden and subversive and necessary. In retrospect, I look at my mother and her love of language and realize how generous and strong she was to let me wander through the stacks as I did, to let me wade in the words and find my own way.

I’m realizing this now as I’m faced with deciding how far and how deep my own daughter’s reading should go. Although our cable-free, cloth-diapering, homeschooling selves live like a band of hippy peace, light, and lovers somedays, the mother in me is at odds with the read anything, read everything philosophy I’d held for so long. 

The truth is I don’t want her to read anything, read everything. But the reasons aren’t sex, drugs, or rock and roll like some might expect. For me, it’s a matter of light and dark. I believe too much in the power of words to affect a person for me to be comfortable with her indulging in too much dark. I see elements of her I recognize and know as mine, and I don’t want her to dwell too long in depth for fear of her drowning in it. 

But I do want her to wade. She deserves the mother I had, the kind who sneaks books on her shelf and apologizes for the hands that would slap her reaching ones away. 

I found this piece of  a Gwendolyn Brooks poem when rereading her Selected Poems yesterday. I adore the kindred feelings here between mother and child, that shared nature which makes us reach unafraid, bold and ready for the new, whatever may come.

This week is Banned Books Week. Go and read something delicious. 

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