When I was a kid I brought home a paperback book that my parents didn't think I should read. Mind you, this was during an era when our neighborhood drugstore's book racks never sported anything but the most innocuous (by today's standards) sorts of pulp fiction, from detective stories to romance novels to true crime. So you can be assured that my selection was about as tame as, say, a Disney animated movie. But it had a lurid cover photo and a rather suggestive title, suggestive, at least, to my 12-year-old sensibilities. Also to my mom because when she spotted it on my nightstand she freaked. She asked my dad to speak to me about it and confiscate the book.
So Dad came to my room and began by explaining that he and Mom felt this was a book unfit for a young girl -- a Catholic schoolgirl no less -- to read. He suggested that I hand it over to him.
Before I go on maybe it would help to know that my dad was an electrical engineer. He was nothing if not an enormously -- sometimes frustratingly -- logical and calm person, unflappable to the nth degree. So after I protested he relented a bit and offered to buy the book from me. He even promised to round the cost of the book upward, overcompensating for my financial loss. Still I held out, arguing in my best pre-teen logic that only the cover was offensive and that if it was for sale out in the open on the drugstore book rack it couldn't be that bad. I could see that my argument was having an effect. Dad liked nothing better than an intellectual challenge. What he did next changed my life forever.
"Okay," he said. "You can read the book. And I will read the book too. And then we will talk about it." I did. And he did. And we did. And ever since, to this very day, I have been attracted to books that other people think should not be read. I love banned books and I'm not ashamed to say I have worked my way through many of the titles on the American Library Association's Banned Book List as well as books from other lists of challenged or banned books. A few years ago I even joined a book club that drew its monthly selections solely from those lists.
I hope you don't think this blog entry is just a paean to banned books, because it is not. What it is and what I hope to convey is what I learned from that exchange between Dad and me in that summer of 1959. What I took away from our discussion was that no book is inherently bad (evil or dangerous) but that its worth rests in how much gives its reader to think and talk about and how much it challenges what the reader believes. Even if it only manages to skew the reader's perspective a little bit a book is a valuable resource.
It turned out that the book in question really was nothing more than a poorly written pulpy exposé of a famous criminal. But it was the open discussion, the no-holds-barred exchange of ideas about the book that Dad encouraged which opened my mind and made me a lifelong seeker of books and ideas that challenge my intellectual comfort zone.
Do remember the first book that changed your perspective?
In addition to reviewing for BookBrowse, Donna Chavez is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, and reviews books for Publishers Weekly and Booklist. She is also a freelance writer with numerous publishing credits, including the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun Times, and is a writing coach. Visit her at thewritecoach.com.