I am a librarian’s daughter.
Whatever else I have been or become, I am always this. It doesn’t matter that I’m in my 40s with children of my own or that my mom hasn’t been the school librarian since I was in college. The end of summer brings memories of new lunch boxes, weirdly stiff shoes, and books. Boxes of crisp-covered, tight-paged books. Books with virgin pages that I would be the first to caress. Books that would give me secret knowledge unclaimed by my peers. It didn’t matter that my peers were oblivious to said knowledge or that they wouldn’t care that I’d beaten them to the stories on the shelves – books had power, and for a few weeks of the school year, that power was mine alone.
Books have power.
I’ve understood that since my days of plaid jumpers and knee socks. Yet, some part of me has never fully integrated the realization that many people fear that power.
Books are the essence of free speech, a glorious mishmash of the messiness of the human experience -- facts, errors, misunderstandings, epiphanies, outright lies, and soul-shaking truths. All that is mundane, sacred, and, yes, profane lives in the written word. Books are thought, and thought is both weapon and salvation.
It makes intellectual sense then, that people might fear this power, that parents could wish to keep their children out of the shadows or from straying from a certain mental path.
But the shadows are always with us, and it is off the trail that we find our way.
I live in a liberal college town. Most of those involved with my children’s education celebrate knowledge and exploration of ideas. Yet, at least once a year, there will be a discussion in at least one of my children’s classes regarding “appropriate reading material.” This conversation is nearly always sparked by the latest semi-subversive book popular among the kids who want to believe themselves edgy. Typically it’s a book written for an older audience and containing sex, violence, or both. It’s often also abysmally written.
For me, the last is the only real sin a book can commit.
This annual question of age-appropriate literature invariably causes some consternation in our family. My children’s father and I are both proponents of reading, thinking, and information. We also believe in supporting teachers. But neither of us is comfortable with the muddy slide from concern to censorship.
At least once a year, we find ourselves explaining to someone the family rule regarding books:
IF YOU ARE CAPABLE OF READING IT, YOU MAY READ IT, BUT YOU MIGHT HAVE TO ENDURE AN UNCOMFORATBLE CONVERSATION WITH MOM OR DAD.
We both have an open bookshelf policy. Any of the books – yes, ANY – on the shelves at either of our houses is available to any of the kids. However, we know the content of the books and reserve the right to discuss it with the kids as they read. (This corollary usually holds sufficient prospect of awkwardness to deter them from more “adult” content.)
This is my paradox: when it comes to banning or challenging books in schools, I want everyone to approach the written word the way my family does. In other words, as I expound on the virtues of intellectual freedom, I really want everyone to see it my way.
Maybe that’s the real value of Banned Books Week; thinking about words and controversy opens all of us to the reality that the world is full of ideals other than our own. When we explore those other, uncomfortable ideals, we grow closer together.
In another timeline, a skinny, bespectacled girl sits crosslegged on beige linoleum in front of a cardboard box. Her freckled nose sniffs the pages of the paperback in her hands, and heedless of the still unpacked box, undusted shelves, and exhortations not to bend the spine, she dives into another world and absorbs its power.
I am, and will always be, a librarian’s daughter.