“A healthy society does not ban ideas and it does not ban books.” – Nikole Hannah-Jones
I love to read. Often, I choose the company of a good book over the company of another human. I am fortunate to have grown up in a family that also liked to read and encouraged me to read. One of my earliest memories is walking to the library with my mother. For me, the library was better than the little neighborhood store where I could buy candy. I loved the smell of leather bound books and oiled wood floors. I loved the feel of the books, the heft, the pages between my fingers. I loved the hushed tones of people’s voices in the library. The way everyone whispered made me think the space was sacred. It was, at least to me. The library felt even more sacred than the Methodist Church that I attended with my parents every Sunday. I loved looking at the different type faces in the books. I loved the process of choosing – only three each visit.
I read almost everything, from the early picture books where I sounded out words to Nancy Drew mysteries and later science fiction and horror. My dad was a printer, superintendent of the press room for the Shelby Daily Star, so I learned early to read and enjoy newspapers. I also read his detective books, True Detective magazines, Life, Look, National Geographic, Readers Digest, and a number of other revolving magazines that landed in our home. At some point, my parents bought a set of encyclopedias and those were almost as much fun as the library.
My mother was a nurse and kept her nursing school textbooks. I read those and learned the scientific names for all the fascinating parts of the human body – correct names, my mother would insist.
This was the 1950-60s and I was a “free-range” kid, an only child, surrounded by a neighborhood of other children and an extended family of cousins. We spent a lot of time outside (the library may have been my church, but the city swimming pool was my baptismal font). We roamed the neighborhood, rode our bikes all over town. In many ways it was a pretty ideal childhood. But, make no mistake, I would never want to return to those repressive, racist days of “Father Knows Best,” and “Leave It To Beaver.”
I read Lolita and Atlas Shrugged, and W.J. Cash’s The Mind of the South, along with the Ku Klux Klan literature I found when I helped my dad clean out a ramshackle building that would become his first commercial printing plant. I’m happy to say that I was not harmed by anything I read. Some of the things I read did make me uncomfortable.
Everything I read made me think. Reading opened new worlds outside my small town, brought me new ideas, places, people who did not look like me. Reading opened the world for me and showed me what was possible.
Fortunately, neither of my parents would have ever considered suggested censoring what I read or suggesting to the school board that any book be banned. They also were not concerned about anything that might make me feel “uncomfortable.” Occasionally, my mother would pronounce some of my choices “too mature” but I managed to read the books anyway and again, this child was not harmed.
September 27 began “Banned Book Week,” a designation launched in 1982 as efforts increased to ban books. The American Library Association reports that it saw a 67 percent increase in efforts to ban books in schools between 2020-2021.
Why the increased interest in banning books? What is the fear? Banning books has always been more about power and control, imposing a particular moral code or belief system, than on “protecting” children.
As we as a country struggle with maintaining our democracy, I remain grateful for libraries and for the independent bookstores that support and sell good literature. To celebrate what we still have, here is a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye celebrating books and the libraries that hold them:
Because of Libraries We Can Say These Things
She is holding the book close to her body,
carrying it home on the cracked sidewalk,
down the tangled hill.
If a dog runs at her again, she will use the book as a shield.
She looked hard among the long lines
of books to find this one.
When they start talking about money,
when the day contains such long and hot places,
she will go inside.
An orange bed is waiting.
Story without corners.
She will have two families.
They will eat at different hours.
She is carrying a book past the fire station
and the five and dime.
What this town has not given her
the book will provide; a sheep,
a wilderness of new solutions.
The book has already lived through its troubles.
The book has a calm cover, a straight spine.
When the step returns to itself,
as the best place for sitting,
and the old men up and down the street
are latching their clippers,
she will not be alone.
She will have a book to open
and open and open.
Her life starts here.
—Naomi Shihab Nye, from Fuel: Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, BOA Editions Ltd., 1998
Beautiful memories and beautiful reality. People are like books, sometimes hurt when we open but no other way to discover life. To be healed of the hurts that close us. I remember reading those same periodicals, Pat, and especially a recurring ad in Reader’s Digest: “Give me a man who reads.” Uh, I would think, that would be me.
Thank you for sharing your insights, Bill. Yes, people are like books, and are we not all (at least at some point in our lives) in need of healing what closes us. Thanks for reminding me of that ad in Reader’s Digest. Indeed, you are a man who reads.
I grew up in rural, backwoods Arkansas on a cotton and rice farm. I got my first library card in grade 6 in Walnut Ridge, AR at the Lawrence County Library. I had been an avid reader since the 2nd grade but the offering were pretty sparse in elementary school libraries in Arkansas in the 1950s. But, WOW, a County Library was a different animals, shelves and shelves of books. I discovered the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Those books dropped me right into the middle of winter blizzards in North Dakota and life in a dugout home with a sod roof on The Banks of Plum Creek when a cow fell through the roof. And so much more. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn from the pen of Mark Twain. The story of the baby raised by a wolf pack who become Mowgli in Rudyard Kiplings, The Jungle Book. And so many more, to many to count. It would be fair to say that libraries and the magic of books changed my life … for the better.
There is no doubt that reading changed your life – and mine. If you had not been such an avid reader and eager to share your thoughts and insights about the books you were reading, we likely would not have developed our friendship and then decided to take a chance on each other dating. Thanks for sharing your story!