More than half a century has passed since I graduated from high school, an eon in digital time, but the project to remove books from schools and libraries was almost as hot an issue then as it is now. Even classics can go out of print, but the war on books is never out of style.
I was as opposed to that war at the age of 17 as I am at age 70. But there’s something I failed to see in my youth that I recognize today: the one piece of common ground between the book banners and me. We both believe that books matter, that they have the power to change a young person’s life. Like it or not, we belong to the same minority, the minority of those who believe in the power of literature in a post-literate age.
The library at my public high school in New Jersey had a collection of restricted books, which were kept in the librarian’s office and which a student couldn’t borrow without a parent’s written permission. The contents of the “restricted reading list,” as it was called, were a well-kept secret. One might perchance locate a title in the card catalog and see it marked as restricted, but there was no way to know the other titles on the list.
I was one of a small number of students who found the restriction intolerable.
Looking back on those days, I’m inclined to appreciate the librarian and the school administration more than I did at the time. Access to the books was restricted, yes, but no one was calling for their removal. Reactionary as the grown-ups in charge seemed to us then, they were at least aiming for a workable compromise.
But I was so much older then, as Bob Dylan said, and I was determined that the barriers to my reading come down. The first step was to learn the contents of the list, which I proposed to do by entering the librarian’s locked office after school with the aid of a sympathetic custodian. My partner in crime was a girl I’d started to date, like me an avid reader, the only person I knew with her own subscription to The Village Voice. We copied down the titles with the custodian standing at the door, reproduced them on a mimeograph machine and circulated them throughout the school with a petition calling for their liberation. As I recall, only a handful of faculty members added their names to those of the scores of students who signed. A Spanish-language teacher scrawled his signature defiantly as he declared in his clipped accent, “You, sir, are a man of the people!”
I only wish the man of the people could remember more of the titles on the list. I know that one was Jane Kramer’s biography “Allen Ginsberg in America,” which I’d charged out with my mother’s reluctantly surreptitious permission. I’m pretty sure Claude Brown’s “Manchild in the Promised Land” was another, and perhaps Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “A Coney Island of the Mind.” The only title besides Kramer’s that I can recall with absolute certainty is James T. Farrell’s “The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan,” mainly because of the salacious interest it aroused among my male classmates. The imaginations of young people will always be way ahead of their elders’ censorship.
One reason I probably can’t remember more titles from the list is that none of them changed my life. The books most censors go after rarely do. Had I gotten no further than “Allen Ginsberg in America,” or even his notorious poem “Howl,” the extent of my youthful transgressions might not have advanced beyond trying to grow a beard.
It was the Bible that radicalized me. I came to Marx via the Magnificat, to the peace movement via the Sermon on the Mount. “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” — that was Martin Luther King Jr., but as any of his closest followers could have told me, he was quoting the Hebrew prophet Amos. It was the least restricted book of my childhood that proved the most subversive as I came of age.
I imagine many of those fighting to ban books might say the same, notwithstanding outcomes very different from mine. Shouldn’t that difference give us pause? There is no way to determine the influence of a book. I’ve looked into “Mein Kampf” but it didn’t make me a Nazi; it only heightened my instinctual awareness of what might. Kate Millet begins her landmark feminist study “Sexual Politics” with a takedown of Henry Miller; what others found liberating in Miller’s books exemplifies what she would be liberated from. Books can inspire readers to very different beliefs and courses of action. Reading the Bible has bolstered the resolution of more than one atheist. Should it be banned for that reason?
I can’t claim to know all the motives of those who would ban certain books. Given that so many of the prohibited books speak openly and compassionately about racial justice and gender diversity, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that the bans and removals are motivated by prejudice and hate. But in the interest of finding common ground, I might do better to look at more benign human traits that most of us share — laziness, for example, or simple fatigue. I’m well acquainted with both.
It’s hard work raising a child in a complicated world. It takes time and patience to model intellectual courage along with whatever other values you wish to impart. To read a controversial book with your children, pointing out what you find objectionable and listening to what they have to say, requires at lot more energy than getting rid of the book.
As for the politicians pushing the book-banning agenda (and pushing concerned parent groups in front of them), they are almost certainly doing it for political capital, and there are few quicker, easier and, yes, lazier ways of garnering political capital than vowing to keep teachers in line. It’s a time-honored tactic that can play as well with the left as with the right — with anyone who’s ever suffered in school.
My youthful fight against the restricted reading list was short-lived. The girl and I were called to the principal’s office, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the teachers who signed our petition were called too. The restricted reading list remained in force. But no one could stop me from reading what I wanted to read, and no one could have stopped me from marrying the girl. We’re married still, bookworms to this day — what a pair of dinosaurs we turned out to be.
But so are the book banners — not only for engaging in a no-win fight as old as Gutenberg, but also for believing, as we do, that books are powerful things worth fighting over. If only they believed in the intelligence of their own children and in their ability to influence them by example and discussion as opposed to the cultivation of philistinism and fear. My view of Allen Ginsberg actually became more critical after reading Kramer’s biography, the book I’d persuaded my skeptical mother to let me read. She probably didn’t think so at the time, but she knew what she was doing.
Garret Keizer is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection “The World Pushes Back” and the memoir “Getting Schooled.” He is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine and Virginia Quarterly Review.