“If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?” (Franz Kafka)
There is a paradox to my formative years that I vividly recognize but cannot fully understand.
My parents weren’t well educated or prone to intellectualism, and they raised me in some truly toxic ideologies that stunted the human I have been trying to be ever since I recognized those ideologies as toxic.
But my dear parents also — and this remains baffling — allowed and even supported for me an intellectual freedom that completely contradicted everything else about my upbringing.
No book, magazine, film, music, or comedian was ever off limits, denied to me — or banned. In fact, my parents despite out modest working class budget eagerly bought me anything I wanted to read or listen to, including a subscription to Playboy and albums by George Carlin and Richard Pryor.
And because of this great fortune of my youth, I am compelled by all bold art — what some call adult or explicit, even profane — and concurrently, by radical, confrontational ideas. Along side the regrets I feel for much of my early life, this gift from my parents rises above everything else as something for which I could never repay them.
As a voracious reader and a would-be writer as I entered college, I fell in love with Franz Kafka, nearly a cliche for would-be writers, I suppose, but incredibly important for me none the less.
I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.
My home state, South Carolina, remains too much like the very worst of my early life — notably the coastal city Charleston.
Charleston has a rich but deeply scarred history of racism and economic inequity that remains in many ways today. Charleston is also notorious in contemporary times for the horrific shooting at the Emanuel AME churchand a police officer killing Walter Scott.
Yet, like William Faulkner’s Emily, some despite that context persist in clinging to the corpse of race and class bigotry, blinded by James Baldwin’s “rigid refusal” — as in this case highlighting that the fear of books is the fear of ideas that is the fear of Truth:
Two books causing controversy in Charleston County are All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. They are on the summer reading list for Wando High School’s English I class.
In The Hate U Give, the main character’s best friend is unarmed, and shot and killed by police. In All American Boys, one of the main characters is brutalized by a police officer after a misunderstanding when the character is falsely accused of stealing. Both books address racism and police brutality which is making some local law enforcement officers upset.
President of the Fraternal Order of Police Tri-County Lodge #3, John Blackmon, says, “Whether it be through social media, whether it be through text message, whether it be phone calls, we’ve received an influx of tremendous outrage at the selections by this reading list.”
He says in just the past two days, he has received hundreds of messages from police and community members.
Blackmon says, “Freshmen, they’re at the age where their interactions with law enforcement have been very minimal. They’re not driving yet, they haven’t been stopped for speeding, they don’t have these type of interactions. This is putting in their minds, it’s almost an indoctrination of distrust of police and we’ve got to put a stop to that.”
“In the summer of 1997, when I was eleven, I had an abnormal appetite for books,” recalls Carmen Maria Machado. Specifically, she fell in love with Lois Duncan — despite the problem Duncan’s genre created:
Horror novels had been banned in my family since I was seven, when an older kid on the bus let me borrow his copy of “Night of the Living Dummy,” and it gave me such terrible nightmares that I insisted on sleeping with the lights on for a week. So, when my mother picked me up from the library, I pleaded my case. Most of them had been written in the nineteen-seventies, I told her. (I had checked.) How scary could they be?
Machado’s story represents the journey of many writers, how falling in love with writers and books combined with an exhilarating freedom to read as one pleases leads to a life of becoming and being a writer.
To a life of unconventional ideas, a life adult, explicit, profane.
For Machado, Duncan appears to have been a doorway into unconventional ideas about gender:
Her prose is unfussy and clean. She centered her books on young women, and her writing considers themes that have come to obsess me as an adult: gendered violence, psychological manipulation, the vulnerability of outsiders. She writes about folie à deux and mass hysteria, doppelgängers, sociopathy, revenge. She portrays psychic powers and past-life regressions with a kind of realism; she recognized that even a supernatural evil must have a human heart.
In hindsight, Machado realizes:
After that, I re-read “Daughters of Eve,” which had seemed revolutionary when I was eleven. In college, I’d recounted the plot to a friend and started to wonder about its politics. But now it strikes me as a cautionary tale about the potential of radical ideology to empower or destroy, and about the circumstances under which it can take hold. Second-wave, to be sure, and imperfect, of course, but chilling and complicated and uncondescending to its audience. I realized that her books paved the path toward my adult love of novelists such as Shirley Jackson and Patricia Highsmith. Some of her plots still show up in my dreams.
What if Machado had continued to be blocked from horror novels, banned for being too frightening for a young girl or too radical in their ideologies?
Like Machado, I bumped against teachers discouraging me from reading comic books and outright barring me from choosing another science fiction book when we had novel choices for class.
Yet, comic books and science fiction are my Lois Duncan.
“If you read this story out loud” becomes a parenthetical refrain in Machado’s “The Husband Stitch,” a story about telling stories (“I have always been a teller of stories,” reveals the narrator) and the horrifying messages in those stories about the fate of girls and women; for example:
The moral of that story, I think, is that being poor will kill you. Or perhaps the moral is that brides never fare well in stories, and one should avoid either being a bride, or being in a story. After all, stories can sense happiness and snuff it out like a candle.
Once you have read about Machado’s early love of Duncan, this story blossoms even from the tips of the many blossoms built into the narrator’s mysterious green ribbon and the interjected brief stories punctuating the main story.
Early, the story is about unconventional ideas, the sexuality of girls, the tension between being fully sexual and “good”:
The boy is not facing me. I see the muscles of his neck and upper back, how he fairly strains out of his button-down shirts. I run slick. It isn’t that I don’t have choices. I am beautiful. I have a pretty mouth. I have a breast that heaves out of my dresses in a way that seems innocent and perverse all at the same time. I am a good girl, from a good family. But he is a little craggy, in that way that men sometimes are, and I want.
It then becomes a story of awakenings, the inevitable demands of men on women, and the brutal consequences of the world for any, or every woman — like the narrator.
I think Machado’s story is brilliant and awesome, in the purest sense of the root “awe,” and I hesitate to dig deeper, share more because much of that awe is in the reading and the very careful unveiling, the lust and the terrifying.
But as a teacher and a teacher of English teachers, I bring this story here because it is the exact sort of story young people should read, must read, but because it is graphic in its depiction of young sexuality, I can hear my former students who now teach high school explain to me that they can’tteach this story.
It is the sort of fiction that is an “axe for the frozen sea inside us”; it is meant to stir our bodies, our souls, and our minds.
And like the novels challenged by police in Charleston, this story is frightening to the social order, the sort of things police, schools, and churches seek to maintain.
Adults with authority, if truth be known, are terrified of young people aroused in mind, body, and spirit.
In one story within the main story, the narrator concludes: “I don’t need to tell you the moral of this story. I think you already know what it is.”
And this is why fiction is frightening; it presents us with inconvenient truth. It isn’t so much that we don’t know it, but that it must not be uttered into reality.
As poet Adrienne Rich has confronted: “The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable” (p. 150).
Fiction is almost always terrifying, and it certainly is far more dangerous than fake news.
Fiction tells the inconvenient truth about the police.
Fiction tells the inconvenient truth about the dangers a man’s world pose for all women.
Banning books is banning ideas, the very ideas that liberate anyone to recreate the world in the name of justice and human dignity. There simply is no place for banning books among free people.
That, in fact, is yet another paradox: banning books is an unspeakable crime against human dignity.