When I was in seventh grade — 12 years old — I decided to read every science fiction book in my small town’s library. I loved science fiction, which allowed me to imagine other worlds, other people whose experience was unlike my own. The constraints of my own life fell away and I felt free. At the library, I discovered worlds beyond our own with beings whose way of life is utterly unlike ours. It was exciting and beautiful.


So I read through the A’s, the B’s, the C’s, and on. Near the end of H, I came to Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” a dystopian novel that imagines a world of mindless entertainment driven by the constant consumption of soma, a happiness-inducing drug, along with indulgence in what we might call pneumatic sex devoid of human connection. The librarian wouldn’t let me check out the Huxley, saying it was inappropriate for a 12-year-old. When I told my mother, she wrote a note giving me permission to read the book.

In the O’s, I came upon George Orwell’s “1984.” Again the librarian refused to let me have the book. And again my mother wrote a note granting me permission to read. Orwell’s imagined dystopia was one we’re more familiar with — a brutal dictatorship complete with secret police, intrusive state propaganda and torture. In “1984,” truth is whatever the invisible leader Big Brother says it is. Facts exist at the whim of those who rule. Rather than soma, bad gin is consumed — and not to induce happiness but to numb people from the world in which they live.

In letting me read these books — two of the most often banned ones in our country — my mother was neither grooming nor propagandizing me. I’ve read a lot of banned books, and none has turned me into something I’m not. Rather, these books have given me a deeper understanding of the varieties of human experience, and an entry into the lives of others. Through reading, I have felt less alone, truer to myself and more capable of meeting others with generosity and compassion.

I’m currently reading a novelistic chronicle of the life of Dita Kraus, a Jewish girl from Czechoslovakia who at 14 ended up in the Auschwitz death camp, where she was a library assistant in a secret school for children. The library, hidden in a different place at the end of each school day, had eight books including a Russian grammar book, a geometry textbook and a world atlas with brightly colored maps of countries that no longer existed. There was also “A Short History of the World” by H. G. Wells, Freud’s “New Paths to Psychoanalytic Therapy,” and “The Good Soldier Švejk,” a dark comedy set in WWI.

When Dita asked to read this last book, she was told it was not appropriate for children, especially girls, as it was written by a blasphemous alcoholic, expressed scandalous opinions about religion and presented morally dubious situations. “I’m 14 years old,” Dita said. “Do you honestly believe that after observing thousands of people going to the gas chambers, what I read in a novel might shock me?”

The adult Dita, having survived Auschwitz, believed the Nazis feared books as much as guns. “Throughout history,” she said, “all dictators, tyrants, and oppressors, whatever their ideology … whether defenders of popular revolutions, or the privileges of the upper classes, or God’s mandate, or martial law — have had one thing in common: the vicious persecution of the written word. Books are extremely dangerous. They make people think.”

I’ve read a lot of banned books, and none has turned me into something I’m not. Rather, these books have given me a deeper understanding of the varieties of human experience, and an entry into the lives of others.

On Sept. 13, a Texas public school teacher was fired for having her eighth-grade students read from “The Diary of a Young Girl,” a record kept by the 12- to 14-year-old Anne Frank during the two years she hid with her family during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.

While we and our children are not living under the constraints that oppressed the teenaged Anne Frank and Dita Kraus, we are facing a time of increased surveillance over thought — a time marked by the rise of book banning in both the school and public realms. It’s clear that the banning of books does none of us any good, neither those who would protect us from ostensibly dangerous ideas nor those who would be protected. 

When we find ourselves troubled by certain ideas or values, I hope we can give ourselves permission to speak to one another. And I hope that as adults, we can help our young people grapple with the complexity of life by talking with them about the books they read.

After 10 years teaching in Artist-in-Schools programs throughout the western United States, David Romtvedt served for 22 years as a professor at the University of Wyoming.

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  1. Well written David. Growing up in Buffalo, Wyoming, my grade school librarian encouraged my reading, and introduced me to science fiction at an early age. I read everything he suggested, and nobody complained about me wanting an education. In high school, in the late 60’s and early 70’s, I was introduced to the world of the morally upright, and indignant threats to reading. A suggested list of books “they” wanted banned was posted. This suggested reading list, including the “infamous” Catcher in the Rye became a guideline for what I should read next. Fahrenheit 451took on a whole new meaning when I realized that people actually wanted to burn books. Now, here we are again. Ignorance wants to prevail, and we can’t let it. Our local Barnes and Noble has a table of “banned” books, which I find again to be a handy, and much needed reading list. Thank you David.

  2. Very well written. Censorship has never worked; in fact it frequently stimulates more interest in the banned materials. The hypocrisy of arguing for limited government at the same time passing laws to control what we read and what can and cannot be taught is palpable.

  3. This is Wyoming, people. What happened to the Wyoming Way, in which we were generally libertarian, tolerant of differences, and skeptical of meddling, intrusive outsiders who tried to tell us what to do? Let’s let our young people find out about the world – the good and the bad – instead of crippling their learning, and send the would-be censors back to their fanatical religious groups, out-of-state political parties, and “hate TV” channels.

  4. thank you, David.. I, too, was allowed to read what I wanted, and I always appreciate that freedom. I passed that value on to my children and now my grandchildren.

  5. Very well done! My parents encouraged us to read and listen to propaganda, then to visit about our impressions.

    When I was in 6th grade, my Dad offered to split the cost of a Radio Shack shortwave radio kit, and he helped me solder it together. I listen to stations all over the world. Sometimes the stories were so different, that I would ask if they were really talking about the same situation. When ideas become too dangerous to even try to understand, we have lost essential logic skills, and our capacities to engage become ever more limited.

  6. Oh David, there you go again, propounding liberal education values (exemplified in opposition to book banning) as a bulwark against intolerance and hate, when what is trending is the imposition of a thick patina of ignorance and strident ahistorical falsification in order to deny the rights and authenticity of other cultures, races, sexual identities–and of course, our country’s own history. And those darn librarians, guardians of the right to read, are under siege. As is often the case, David, you leave me no choice. I’m on your side. Thank you for your essay!

  7. The truly important statement in your article is that your MOTHER (Parent) gave you permission to read a particular book. I totally agree that reading a wide variety or even just a select genre are beneficial. There ARE books that are inappropriate for youngsters to read. However IF the parent of a child deems it appropriate for the child then so be it, and the child should be allowed. PARENTAL responsibility and involvement is the key.

    1. The fringe that are hell bent on banning books are playing parent to every kid or person that wants to use the library. They do not have the right to decide what is “appropriate” for everyone else. In fact, the book banners show no redeeming qualities that I’d want my children to emulate. They only show fear, discrimination, and bigotry.

      This is the new GOP….

  8. I would say you turned out to be more than “fine.” You are an incredible musician and writer. Thank you for all that you do to bring wonderful art and poetry to Wyoming.

  9. This is so well stated! I too read lots of sci-fi at that age. Some of it was great, some of it was pulpy and sensational. Not all of it changed the way I thought about the world, but here’s the thing: reading begets reading, and for every book I burned through it made me want to get to the next book faster.

    Today, test scores in reading skills have dipped among preteens. Literacy is one of the most important tools and gifts that we can ensure is passed on to our children, along with the (related) ability to engage in dialogue and critical thinking about complicated and important ideas — free access to libraries and to reading materials of all kinds promotes both. To me, the danger isn’t what kids are reading (if you’re curious, ask ’em!). The danger is that they might not be reading at all.

    1. I have a degree in Psychology although am not a psychologist. “…a deeper understanding…” is spot on! As an avid reader, my interest in human nature, my education and my lifelong curiosity have been immensely helpful in developing tolerance, compassion, and never ending curiosity and enlightenment!

  10. Well said and thank you! The so-called controversial books I’ve read over my 70+ years have made me stronger as a thinker, more compassionate as a human and more understanding of the diverse and complicated history that is ours to learn and grow from, through books.

  11. Like you, I grew up in a small community (Pine Bluffs) and read every baseball-related book when I was 13. “Ball Four” was edgy for a youngster and opened my eyes. Then I started reading every science fiction book in the library. Asimov was tougher to absorb than Heinlein. William Rice Burroughs was next. Animal Farm was assigned reading in High School. I have a bookshelf full of very diverse subjects. Maybe I will get a chance to share them with that same library when I pass.

  12. Controlling, not only what our children read or are taught, but also brainwashing adults, is shaping our society into a dictatorship. At all levels of the human experience we need to be encouraged to develop our higher level thinking skills to be critical thinkers.

  13. Thank you for this thoughtful essay. Attacks on books like The Diary of Anne Frank are abhorrent. My parents also encouraged us to read widely, and like you, books were my friends and my worlds – and still are. I enjoy your poetry, and recall with pleasure when you read some of your angel poems to the Jackson poetry group several years ago.

    1. This was not the same “Diary of Anne Frank” as typically read by students, including myself in junior high. A quick Google search will confirm that, “A Texas teacher was fired for assigning students to read an unapproved graphic novel adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary.” Empasis on: “An unapproved graphic novel adaptation”.

  14. Well written. It is good to read opposing viewpoints. If your own convictions are strong, you will not change your mind, but you might understand others better. If your convictions are weak, you can learn something and maybe change your mind. Both are good things.

  15. Your Mother and mine were similar thinkers. At the very same age as you I was already a voracious reader, well known at the library. When I attempted to check out “ Exodus “ the librarian refused, saying the material was unsuitable for a child. My Mother went back to the library with me later in the day. She explained to the librarian that if I was intelligent enough to want to read a book, then I should be allowed to do so.

  16. There is or was a move by the Crook County School Board to assume the responsibility of monitoring challenged books and curricular materials recently. Six either current and former librarians, which included myself, presented papers that opposed that move which would have taken that responsibility away from an already established library panel composed of seven members (certified librarian, principal, an elementary and secondary teacher and three members from the community. They tabled that move for the present.

  17. Well said. Perhaps we all should be reading banned books to learn what it is that some people do not want us to contemplate. We should do all we can to keep and support our local libraries, now under attack, that open the doors for children and adults in our quest for understanding and truth.

  18. Knowledge is power, and those who don’t have any try to control others from gaining it . And I can not understand why.