There's a civilized duty to buy and read banned books

BOOKS: THE ARGUMENT

Even the youngest reader -- especially the youngest -- is nourished by the forbidden mystery.

May 23, 1999|By Clarinda Harriss | Clarinda Harriss,Special to the Sun

Because James Joyce's "Ulysses" had been banned in the U.S., I read it when I was 12 years old. Because Vladimir Nabokov's novels were banned in the USSR, a Russian Jewish woman in my Towson University freshman comp class had read them all before she left the Soviet Union -- one tattered, furtively-passed-around mimeographed page at a time. Because Salman Rushdie (along with everyone involved in publishing or selling it) had been condemned to death,, "The Satanic Verses" lured my octogenarian parents to Gordon's book store where, by telephoned pre-arrangement, a clerk sold them a plain-brown-paper-wrapped copy.

Leaving aside the horrors of actual book burning (not to mention book-related burnings-at-the-stake), even well-intentioned forbidding of books is unconscionable. "Huckleberry Finn" contains offensive language (hell, it isn't Mark Twain's best book), but forbidding its presence on some public school shelves is appalling.

The resistance of many women's prison libraries to gender-issue literature is downright weird. I was indignant when an anonymous student phoned me concerning a [false] rumor that poet Nikki Giovanni had been "banned from the campus" after some controversial remarks during a reading last month. As for the current to-do over the children's book "Nappy Hair," its banning on racial grounds is an equal-opportunity affront to all nappy-haired people's self-esteem.

I know. My gray-blond European hair is so nappy it tries to form dreadlocks, even though it's waist-length and Medusa-like. I have bought a copy for my blond nappy-headed son and grandson. Mine is a family that believes only this of forbidden books: (l) buy them (2) read them.

Those are dramatic instances. But everybody needs a secret garden full of mysteries that move only in shadow, and every reader can have one. Frances Hodgson Burnett gave "The Secret Garden" to generations of preteen readers. Persian poetry has presented grown-up readers with several thousand years' worth of double-entendres about the genitalia of flowers, in a society full of sexual taboos.

A wisteria vine overgrowing a small second-floor room at the corner of Lovegrove Alley and St. Paul Street made a secret garden for this reader. It was a dusky paradise easy to shiver in, easy to imagine "forbidden." Nowhere have I ever felt more alone and more at home.

The little room that the wisteria vine all but carried off each spring in a tornado of purple fragrance was my father's den/office/study. He was a writer from North Carolina. In the '20s -- and he was then in his own '20s -- he made a vow to buy books by other young writers. Their books crowded the room. So by the time I was barely into double digits, I had read just about everything Zora Neal Hurston and Thomas Wolfe ever wrote.

And you know what? These books were just fine for a kid to read. In them I heard the voices of people my family and I knew, black and white, old and young, educated and distinctly un-.

Full of wisdom and complaining, croons, curses and belly-laughs. Studded with stuff I didn't understand -- just like adult conversation you overheard on the front porch when the grownups thought you'd fallen asleep on the glider.

"Mules and Men" and "You Can't Go Home Again" were filed in my brain side by side with "Swiss Family Robinson" and "Tom Sawyer." To this day I line up Poe's feverish "Tales of Mystery and Imagination" with my fat, scary-smelling old copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales and marvel that it took folklorists and Poe scholars so long to do the same.

It was my glamorous mother who contributed the Poe book to the collection, leather-bound and rich with exotic, erotic, Gustav Klimt-like illustrations that were "tipped" in with glue, not sewn into the covers. She had been an art student in Greenwich Village, where throngs of admirers had wooed her with gifts of handmade, limited edition books.

So (also before my teens) I had memorized Aubrey Beardsley's nifty (also "perverse" and "decadent") black-and-white drawings, whose style was seductively easy for a kid to imitate even before the magic of Magic Marker; lots of perverse dialogue from Oscar Wilde's "Salome"; and an unshakable sense that all ladies should have waist-length, Medusa-like hair.

Well? So? Do you know how interesting it is to a pre-pubescent to study the palpable naughtiness of little naked beings (Male? Female? Black? White? All and none of the above, just like one's elementary school friends?) who almost-but-not-quite have teensy-weensy breasts and things? Oh, please. Maybe you've just forgotten the joy of forbidden -- or forbidden-feeling -- books.

Or maybe it really is odd to have read most of James Joyce before turning 13. At about quarter past 12, I made an extraordinary discovery. On a twilit shelf in my father's secret garden-room was one truly perplexing volume. Its mottled paper covers showed something textbook-like as the title, but the inside title page read "Ulysses."

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