For all my family's rules — and we had many — someone forgot to set limits on our reading material. No one — not my ever-vigilant mother nor the blue-haired librarians who guarded the stacks — said no to any book, and so we were free to spend long summer afternoons lolling in the air conditioning (then still a novelty) as we explored the world beyond the Ozarks.
At age 12, I came home with "Catch-22," and no one batted an eye. Much of the content, maybe most of it, was over my head, but I read the whole thing and then returned to check out everything I could find by Joseph Heller. That same summer, I finished all of Philip Roth's books — including "Portnoy's Complaint," though certain scenes (I'll let you guess which ones) went right by me.
Left to my own devices, I'd chosen two novels that rank high on the list of books that historically people somewhere have actively sought to remove from public consumption. Sometimes they've been successful. Still, I read those banned books at a fairly tender age, and I turned out to be a voting citizen who sleeps with her husband.
In other words, the books didn't corrupt me.
Which brings us to Banned Books Week. Every year, the American Library Association and other organizations dedicated to the First Amendment host a nationwide party celebrating the open book and free expression — even when free expression has made someone uncomfortable. A book is considered challenged if someone seeks to remove it from circulation. A book is banned when that someone is successful. The list of banned books includes many of America's classics: "The Great Gatsby," "To Kill a Mockingbird," "The Catcher in the Rye" and "Their Eyes Were Watching God" for language, sexual references, racism, obscenity and sexual explicitness, according to the ALA.
Though keeping track of challenged or banned books is an inexact science, the ALA had been compiling lists since 1990. They counted 517 challenges last year, compared with 420 the year before, and most of the challenged books came under fire from parents, which always struck me as odd. Hands-on parents read books right along with their children, and they use their children's questions as teachable moments.
To celebrate locally, the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, the Connecticut Library Association and Hartford Public Library are hosting a "Readout" at 6 p.m. today at the library's downtown branch. Several of us microphone-hogging types are reading portions of banned or challenged books. I'm reading from the Harry Potter series, which turned a generation of children into devil worshipers.
That's satire, silly. In fact, J.K. Rowling's best-sellers created a generation of readers, and some parents — rather than get excited about joining their children in line outside a book store to await the next installment — whined that the content was steeped in witchcraft.
Again, parents: teachable moments.
Come join us at the library at 6 today, and then at 8 p.m. on Thursday, come to the "First Amendment Rock Off" at Black-eyed Sally's in Hartford. The music, of course, will be selected from the work of the Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, Bob Dylan and other dangerous rabble-rousers.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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