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.”
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.