I Read Banned Books as a Child and am Better For It

During my elementary school years in the early 1970s, I read everything. Books about Roman gods and teen detectives (male and female) and gruesomely martyred saints, but also ancient encyclopedias bought at Goodwill, used Reader’s Digests and my grandmother’s Penny’s catalog.

In the time-honored tradition of nerds everywhere, I read the backs of cereal boxes with the same rapt attention I devoted to Huckleberry Finn and Nancy Drew. If there were words before me, I read them. In a volume of a 1963 World Book Encyclopedia, I learned how babies are made.

By fifth grade, I had exhausted the school library’s appealing options and moved on to the local library. When youth books proved too short to hold me through the long summer days without television, I started choosing books from the adult sections—just to have enough to read until the next trip to the library.

“Horror Story” A Sketch by Randy Elrod

My mother paid little attention to the books I chose. When she once did, she discovered that tucked among books like “Dracula” and “Tom Sawyer” and “The Iliad” were titles like “Stranger in a Strange Land” and “See No Evil” and “A Clockwork Orange.” Mom wasn’t thrilled about the sexual subject matter of Heinlein and Burgess’ books, and once, she gently expressed concern about my reading them. But she never told Dad and forbade it, so my ongoing curiosity and budding sexuality kept me reading.

During Banned Books Week, I’ve been thinking again about those books. My parents were old-time Pentecostals—perhaps the most conservative sect of Evangelical Christians. And yet, for my Mom, the idea of policing my reading was laughable. What parent, liberal or conservative, doesn’t want to raise a reader? My Mom trusted that I understood the difference between fiction and my life, and I did. And I am better for it.

My goal for the past two Banned Books Week is to buy them all and have them in my library just in case Fahrenheit 451 (another banned book I read as a young boy) comes true. And I have determined to read all 36 of the top banned books. I only have eight more to go, and so far, not one of them is as sexually explicit and violent as the Old Testament I was encouraged to read as a very impressionable young boy.

If we ban books, the one with incest, mutilation, innumerable rapes, senseless mass murders, brothers marrying sisters, kings having 700 wives and 300 prostitutes, and child sacrifice to please a god seems like the one we should probably begin with.

Ah, the hypocrisy never ends. Wouldn’t you love to see the Internet history of the Republicans who support banning books?

When The Washington Post analyzed 986 complaints against specific books filed during the 2021-2022 school year, it found that the majority were issued by the same 11 people. (You read that right. 11.) Across the red states, hundreds of popular titles have been removed from public school and community libraries, in many cases, on the basis of a single complaint.

We must stand against those people and politicians. Every child should be able to read what they choose. Children can access horrific, murderous, and bloody video games and every pornographic act imaginable on the Internet.

Books provide the magic of childhood. Let’s not spank, preach, legislate, and comb the magic out of our children.

*Special thanks to a fellow southern writer from Nashville, Margaret Renkl, for inspiring this post and the foundational words to express it. She and I have had remarkably similar lives. And we are better for it.