My childhood was a bloodbath.
The blood stayed safely confined within the covers of books, but still: I relished gore. I ate up stories of serial killers and ax murderers and remorseless poisoners. I couldn’t get enough of gun-toting hoodlums. Supernatural creatures, such as the vampires that currently flit and hover over pop culture, did not intrigue; my passion was strictly reserved for true crime, for the real-life roguery that imperils our every step — or so one might think, from these lurid accounts.
My obsession worried my mother, who feared she had hatched a monster. One day, while I was busy toiling in a fourth-grade classroom at Geneva Kent Elementary School in Huntington, W.Va., she went into my room and gathered up my true-crime stash. I returned home, discovered the theft and confronted her: What had she done with my precious books?
“I threw them away,” she replied with an infuriating calmness.
Oh, the outrage! Seething, I resolved then and there to run away from home — Alaska sounded nice — and get a head start on my destiny, which involved the establishment of a detective agency.
What especially rankled was that my mother’s fears had been wrongheaded: I didn’t identify with the killers. I identified with the cops, the sleuths who cracked the case. I wanted to solve the crime — not perpetrate it.
That day marked my first encounter with banned books.
I probably don’t need to point out that my mother’s efforts were utterly counter-productive, that her prohibition only made true-crime books seem even more alluring.
Human nature, for all of its rumored complexity, is a simple thing: Tell us we can’t have something and we suddenly want it more than we’ve ever wanted anything else in our lives. Put something out of our reach and we grope and strain and pant for it with all of our might.
That truism, however, cuts no ice with those who try to ban books. Or maybe it cuts too much ice. Maybe it’s a veritable hull of the Titanic, in ice-slashing terms, and they simply don’t care if their efforts end up bringing more attention, not less, to the books they fear — because it’s not really about the books. Maybe it’s just about bullying, about telling other people what to do. Deep down, I imagine, book banners don’t really want to ban any books; they want the world to acknowledge their beliefs and convictions. The books to which they object just happen to constitute a handy stage for the dramatization of their manifestoes.
This week marks the 28th annual return of Banned Books Week, an event sponsored by the organizations that enable our nation’s literary culture to thrive: the American Library Association; the American Booksellers Association; the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression; the Association of American Publishers; the American Society for Journalists and Authors and the National Association of College Stores.
Additionally, Banned Books Week is endorsed by the Library of Congress Center for the Book.
In 2008, reports the library association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, at least 500 attempts were made to rid libraries of books that some people didn’t like and thought others shouldn’t like, either. And those were just the reported tries; many more incidents are not recorded. The books that have faced challenges include consensus classics such as “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and newer books such as the “Harry Potter,” “His Dark Materials” and “Gossip Girl” series. The complaints are predictable: profanity, sexual content, anti-religious sentiments.
The groups that keep Banned Books Week front and center want to remind us that freedom of reading, like freedom of speech, is crucial to a democracy. Books are worth fighting for. The release of the annual list of controversial books is a great opportunity to renew our commitment to unfettered access to books.
Books don’t kill people; people kill people. In other words, I didn’t become the ax murderer that my mother feared I might. And if I had, I don’t think we could’ve blamed the books. As it was, I outgrew my true-crime fetish, eventually tiring of the dreariness of violence and mayhem. I moved on to space travel. That dream of a detective agency in Alaska never materialized.
The dream about the jaunt to Mars? Check back with me later.
You never know. Thanks to the books I read, I believe that anything’s possible.