I brought my 10-year-old son along. I’d been working late a lot, and we agreed it would be fun to hang out.
“What’s a banned book?” my son asked me, as we strolled through the mild Nyack evening. The boutiques and antique shops had just closed; one storefront had become a whimsical new art exhibit. I couldn’t quite grasp the theme–something about the color orange and a young woman’s shoes.
Innovation was being celebrated all around us. How to explain to my son the curious phenomenon of banning books? Even leaving out things like Nazis and book burnings, it’s hard to explain such a thing, even to adults. Why would organizations, religions, governments, actively prevent people from reading?
There is no why, really, so I stuck to what I knew. “It’s like, when a school or a church or a library won’t let kids read Harry Potter.”
“You didn’t let me read Harry Potter,” he pointed out.
“What do you mean? You read the whole series last summer. You read The Deathly Hallows twice! That’s like three thousand pages of Harry Potter!”
“I mean when I was little,” he said.
“Well, the people that banned Harry Potter weren’t worried about kids being too little to understand it. They didn’t want anyone to read it, not big kids, not grownups. They said that God’s miracles from the Bible were the only kind of magic that should be allowed. Everything else was witchcraft.”
“That’s dumb,” he said breezily, winding up and throwing a practice pitch with an imaginary ball. He has the habit of doing this when he’s thinking. It makes walking next to him a little risky, since he’s now nearly as tall as I am.
Then he said, eager for the first time, “So are they going to read Harry Potter tonight?”
“Um, maybe,” I said, though I doubted it. Harry Potter had probably been pounced upon by some reader earlier in the day. “Or maybe some other children’s books.”
But, no. We had missed the children’s books entirely. I’d considered that Brave New World would be a little grown-up for a 10-year-old boy. I thought he might at least latch on to some of its fantastical horror.
But Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, which was being read with gusto by a large, strapping male as we entered, is adult in a totally different way. Tropic of Cancer is largely considered to be the book that gave novelists the power to write about anything. Though it’s mostly about a novelist pursuing lots of sex so he can write lurid books, it is innovative in other ways. A literary phenomenon, and such a revelation of experiences beyond our safe little world! So to speak.
The reader noticed us as we took a seat next to my friend. He’d just dropped the “c-word” for what my Filipina mother calls a girl’s “little flower.”
My son didn’t understand a bit of it. I shook all over with suppressed laughter. The reader did not stutter, but raised a barely perceptible eyebrow that might have signified panic or irritation. C-word upon c-word (okay, Miller was not very innovative in describing female anatomy), he finished off the energetic sex scene and stepped down to a round of applause.
Apparently, the “after six” portion of the readings was to be all adult-themed.
The readers following Mr. Tropic of Cancer offered Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, in addition to Brave New World. Every one, announced the librarian introducing each reading, had been banned for graphic content, including things of a sexually explicit nature. I don’t think I imagined it: She looked at me harder and harder each time she cleared her throat to introduce the next reader.
The evening took an ironic turn, as readers championing freedom of expression and ideas imposed impromptu censorship on themselves.
“I chose this passage,” said one middle-school teacher carefully, “based on the fact that some of my students might attend tonight. This does not exemplify the… reasons… for Song of Solomon being banned, but it does highlight important themes, and it will do. It will do.”
She proceeded to relay a passage describing the racist, but otherwise rather understated, procedure for naming a street in a small American town.
Even the Lady Chatterly’s Lover reader managed to find a relatively boring passage about factories, in which the narrator’s penis only stirred once, “like a bird.”
My friend did not need to censor sex out of her selection from Brave New World, but gave us the full awful benefit of Huxley’s vision, in which babies are electrocuted to condition them to fear books and reading. Similarly, the scandal of Fahrenheit 451 was not sex, but the destruction of a Bible.
My son endured all of this politely, quietly, leaning his head against my shoulder, either napping or daydreaming. He sighed now and then. He might have even half-listened, as the babies got electrocuted.
“Last one,” I whispered to him, “and then we’ll get ice cream.”
He perked up for a moment, nodded emphatically at me, then put his head back on my shoulder and drifted away again. Practice-pitching in his imagination, probably.
The last selection we heard was from Grapes of Wrath. The reader in this case pulled no punches. In the book’s moving climax, the Joad family is completely bereft, and Rose of Sharon has just birthed a stillborn baby. She pities a starving man and suckles him at her breast.
Which might seem outrageous to an adult, but to a boy who is awaiting escape and ice cream, the impact of the Pietá-esque scene was totally lost.
In the hail of applause, we ducked back out into the velvet evening. Temptations awaited around the corner–the restaurant and ice cream parlor named Temptations, that is. A Nyack institution. We slipped inside and ordered a chocolate shake for me, and for my son, a scandalously huge waffle cone with two scoops: French Roast coffee and mint chip.
He waited until we were safely settled on the cement tree planter outside to tell me.
“Mom,” he said, with a wicked gleam. “Would you have got me ice cream if you knew? I didn’t have dinner!”
And he dug in with the special pleasure of one who knows he’s accomplished something a little bit naughty.