In Praise of the Forbidden: Reading Vampire Romances at 12

To celebrate Banned Books Week (September 25 – October 1) in a slightly more substantial way (not that my other post wasn’t fun to write), I thought I’d talk a little bit about why I value the freedom to read.

I grew up a pretty sheltered kid. My dad died when I was young, and my mom moved us twice in the five years following his death. We eventually ended up in suburban New Jersey, and I went to small Quaker and Catholic schools. I’d always liked reading; I could bring my books with me in a way I couldn’t do with my friends, and the books I loved were filled with a depth of purpose, a sense of direction, that I didn’t yet feel in myself.

There were a lot of rules structuring my childhood, but my mom never monitored my reading. We didn’t have much money, but we went to the local Barnes & Noble at least once every couple weeks. I was always allowed to buy one or two books, and while my mom usually asked me about my choices in the car, she never vetoed any of them.

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Me as a pre-teen with my book stash

I started off in science fiction and fantasy, where there’s plenty to offend, if you’re looking for it. Many of the books I ended up with were a blend of world-building and erotica (Laurell K HamiltonJacqueline Carey). They were real doorstoppers, paperbacks five hundred pages and up, and they had strong central female characters. They also had relatively complicated plots with an extended cast of characters and many interwoven threads to keep track of. Kushiel’s Dart wasn’t going to win the Pulitzer, but it wasn’t trying to. It was trying to tell a story, and in reading it, I learned how to listen to a story. (That might sound simple, even innate, but as a tutor, I can tell you it is not.)

Did I need to read horror-romance or page-long sword fights to prepare for adulthood as a reader? No, of course not. I could have read Christian fiction, or YA, or inspiring PG-rated memoirs. But what mattered was that I made the choice for myself.

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I promise the cover I had didn’t look this obvious.

The first classics I read, I found through my interest in SFF. 1984Fahrenheit 451Brave New WorldOne Hundred Years of Solitude— all of these are books most parents would be thrilled to see their child reading (although, funny enough, many of them do show up on the banned lists). Author interviews and “recommended reading” at the back of the SFF novels inevitably led me down the same path the authors had taken themselves. I wasn’t reading these books for the deep philosophical message or the social commentary, and I certainly wasn’t doing it because someone else was making me; I was reading them because I wanted to hear the story they were telling. I’d learned from experience that books were fun and rewarding, so even though these were more challenging than the books I’d read before, I was willing to put in the effort. Although I did hate One Hundred Years of Solitude the first time I read it…

I went on to major in English and creative writing at Princeton University and get a master of fine arts at the University of Virginia, so I turned out okay. Even so, as an adult looking back, I sometimes marvel at the content of the books I read as a child– graphic Holocaust memoirs, accounts of mental illness, adult romance– but I think that’s a dangerous path to go down. It’s the nostalgic and inaccurate path that leads to banning books. The truth is, by the time I was a teenager, I’d lost a parent, moved halfway across the country twice, and witnessed 9/11. I knew the world was an uncomfortable place– I didn’t need a book to tell me that. Refusing to give a child (or an adult) access to books that include trauma, sex, and pain doesn’t protect them from it in the real world, it just ensures that they are unprepared for it when it happens in their own lives.

People might say I couldn’t have spent my time reading anything worse than tens of thousands of pages of fantasy and romance. But they’d be wrong. I could have been reading books that didn’t challenge me to learn new words, books without badass ladies in them, books that didn’t introduce me to new ideas (both exciting and terrifying). I could have been reading nothing at all.

 

(Credit: The “Defend the First Amendment” image at the top of this post is from ALA)

 

 

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