Sunday, March 19, 2023

Banned Books Will Set You Free

 Something in us is drawn toward what we are ashamed of being drawn toward.

--George F. Will

At a very small Southern Baptist College in the Panhandle of Texas, in 1962, I enjoyed the company of a history professor who used to say off-hand, cryptic things in class, like "You must never, ever read The Decameron" and "You are forbidden from reading Candide." But I thought I saw a wink when he said those things. I don't remember what other books made his banned-and-condemned list, but he was always pointing us toward material that the Southern Baptist preachers who ran that school would not have approved of. 

That excellent history prof always prompted a scavenger hunt. I managed to get my hands on both Bocaccio's collection of 100 risque -- sometimes outright raunchy -- tales, known as The Decameron, and Voltaire's satire of sunny privilege, Candide. (The Decameron was especially easy. I found a cheap paperback edition in the tiny college bookstore. Go figure.)

Voltaire tickled my itch more than any other book at that time. Voltaire's bizarre sense of humor and cruel imagination made mincemeat out of what one character was always saying, "All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds." Candide presented human misery and hardship to a sheltered young man as shocking but necessary education. Every incident becomes an ironic joke (for all the best lessons contain irony!), so we could justifiably propose that Candide began my slide to perdition, though it took years to pull both feet out of Southern Baptist concrete.

Banning books doesn't work. Don't the screaming Moms For Liberty and the gun-toting Proud Boys know that? (Maybe they know that, but those people get their ya-yas from force and cruelty, not from religious philosophy.) The more they ban and persecute what they don't like/approve of, the bigger those things grow in the imaginations of spooked individuals who can't grapple with secretly desiring what is forbidden. Tell any functioning American teenager worthy of his smart phone that he "must not" and you'll guarantee he will.


In my high school, which was pretty much all Southern Baptist with a smattering of other Christian denominations, the underground in forbidden material brought stuff into my hands that my mother would confiscate if she found it. (She didn't like my having comic books, even.) 

One of my best friends handed me a copy of Auntie Mame and said "You've gotta read this. It's really funny." Forbidden fun. The novel featured racy people doing racy things and looking very glamorous while doing them. Auntie Mame was actually very tame, especially by the standards of today. It was published in 1955 with plenty of restraint, implying far more than it ever depicted. My mother found that borrowed copy tucked under my pillow, and it got gone, disappeared from my life. I never saw that book again, and I was only half-way through it. My very religious, sainted mother strived to keep the world and "worldliness" far away from the likes of her baby son. She failed.


I believe the most violent, truly disturbing piece of smut I ever read in high school had to be Foxe's Book of Martyrs "a polemical account of the sufferings of Protestants under the Catholic Church," including the most graphic descriptions of torture, beheadings, disembowelings, and auto-de-fe action involving that theatrical centerpiece, burning at the stake. You come away from Foxe's Book of Martyrs hating and fearing Catholics, which was exactly its purpose when it was published in England in the mid-16th Century. My older brother was going to a different Baptist college at the time, and he brought Foxe home with him on one spring break. I couldn't resist picking up any new book.

My mother's obsession with "worldliness" reminds me of Mr. Worldly Man, a bad seed in Pilgrim's Progress, another super-Protestant piece of propaganda preaching the earliest version of WWJD ("What would Jesus do?"). Book made a big impact on me, since this was pre-Voltaire while I was still at an age and nervousness that wanted to avoid hell.


The big banned hit of 1956 (when I was still in middle school) was Peyton Place, a scandel of a novel described in a 50-year-anniversary story by AP: "Grace Metalious' sensational story of sex, violence and other scandals in a small New England town ... made the author an international celebrity.... It transformed an otherwise obscure township into a symbol of decadence and hypocrisy and rivaled Elvis Presley as a shocking breach to the official decorum of the 1950s."

The book was banned in numerous places, but somehow the local druggist in little backwater Silverton, Texas, managed to keep a paperback rack well stocked with the latest best-sellers, and soon one of my older friends had a copy of Peyton Place, and it began to make the rounds and even more importantly began to expand a bunch of teenaged boys' anatomical and biological knowledge -- or at least their fantasies.

By the way, whatever became of "the official decorum of the 1950s"? Does anyone know where that went? It's disappearance -- poof! -- is pretty much all the evidence I need for how banning stuff doesn't work, how the act of banning in fact produces exactly the result the censors where trying to forestall.


The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1960), by Max Shulman, really engaged my imagination more than Peyton Place ever did, probably because Dobie and everyone else was college-age, like me, not some Martini-guzzling society people in New England (what did I know about New England?). I loved that book, laughed out loud at the everlasting teenager quest of "getting laid." This book I kept well hidden, and finished it, and went looking for more Max Shulman.

Dobie Gillis wasn't even that raunchy, not at all as raunchy as Shulman's earlier sex romp, Rally Round the Flag, Boys (1957), which I also sought out. Max Shulman, I reckon, was the first author I ever crushed on.


Wolf's Head said...

Curious choice of forbidden reading material, it explains a lot about this blog.

Banning books is unnecessary, trash will eventually edit itself from people's interest and die out unless forced upon them.

As for school libraries, I'd rather they not spend their limited dollars on current leftist societal dogma as it is the specious and transitory ravings of idiots who think they can control human nature.

I've said before that weapons should be treated like books; both will keep you free if you use them.

And like books, banning guns doesn't work.

After all, this is the best of all possible worlds.

Anonymous said...

Candide is an all-time favorite! So many books in the to-be-read stack, but I think I'll grab this one again.

Maryrose Carroll said...

As a result of one newspaper heading, "Filthy Writing on the Midway," the U of C Chancellor censored a Chicago Maroon edition in 1959. All the editors quit. Paul Carroll started Big Table Magazine. which produced headlines from London to San Francisco. The authors damned were Jack Kerouac and Wm S Burroughs. Two years later, my Comparative Religions teacher recommended reading Naked Lunch which I found odd but humorous. When I met Mr. Burroughs, I thought he had ice in his veins. He had shot his wife "in an accident," and the Burroughs Machine Corporation whisked him from Mexico to Tangiers. Big Table won in a Federal court against the USPS.