What was Your First Forbidden Book?


152405Jackie Collins has died at the age of 77.

Properly speaking, she was a writer of no talent whatsoever, and certainly of no interest to those of us who have gathered here to discuss conservative politics. As The New York Times explains, “She wrote more than 30 books, many of them filled with explicit, unrestrained sexuality, and sold more than 500 million copies worldwide. Her first novel, “The World Is Full of Married Men,” was published in 1968. Australia and South Africa banned it because of its frank depiction of extramarital sex. Other earlier works included “The Stud,” in 1969, and “Rock Star,” in 1988.”

No, Jackie Collins is not especially relevant to the concerns of Ricochet.

And indeed not relevant to my concerns, either — except that for a moment, when I read that she had died, I confused her name with that of Jacqueline Susanne, author of Valley of the Dolls, and a rush of memories came back to me.

Mind you, Susanne died in 1984 and is of even less interest to anyone here than Jackie Collins:

ValleyOfTheDollsValley of the Dolls is a novel by American writer Jacqueline Susann, published in 1966. The “dolls” within the title is a euphemism for pills, and was created by Susann. The term dolls also represents the women in the novel and their mishandling by the patriarchal world in which they are “played” by and dealt with as mere toys. The term also represents the women’s reliance on stimulants, depressants, and sleeping pills, and how substance abuse is reminiscent of children clinging to toy dolls for comfort. …

The book’s narrative is direct and often blunt in confronting social issues such as non-marital and extramarital sex, abortion, mental illness, shunning and shaming, patriarchal male sexism, the “Casting couch,” elitism, male homosexuality, lesbian sex, and classism. It contains profanity, obscenity and sexual slurs, including gay men being referred to as fags.

There is not one word of redeeming literary, moral, or cultural merit in that book. I know that for sure.

But when for a moment this morning I thought she had died — forgetting that in fact she was long since dead — I was saddened. For you see, Valley of the Dolls was the first book I was ever forbidden from reading. And in forbidding me from reading Valley of the Dolls, my father taught me lessons about literature that shaped my life.

LastExitToBrooklynNow — technically, truthfully — Valley of the Dolls was the second book I was forbidden from reading. I was forbidden from reading the first when I was about eight years old. My father had been reading Last Exit to Brooklyn, and it was on the living room coffee table. I picked it up out of curiosity. My mother hadn’t read it, didn’t know what it was about, and thought my precocity in wanting to read a grown-up book like that both adorable and a sign that I must be very gifted and special. As mothers will.

My father, on the other hand, had been reading it. He knew better.

I remember the whispered words “She shouldn’t be reading that, Toby,” followed by an even-more-whispered explanation of what I’d find if I did. I wasn’t supposed to be able to overhear that, but I recall it distinctly, even now. I won’t say what it’s in it: Perhaps some of you might wish to discuss this post with your own kids. An effort to distract me followed. It involved a promise of letting me watch television in the afternoon, which usually I wasn’t allowed to do unless I was sick.

I later (of course) snuck back into the living room, found the book, and read it. I’d never have made it past the first page had I not been told I was too young for it, and I was too young to understand any of it.  I went back in adulthood and read it again, though, and my father was right: Not for kids — no way, no how. Still, since I didn’t understand it at all, it did me no lasting harm.

But the fight we hadShakespeare-and-Co.-Paris-Bookstore about Jaqueline Susann had a lasting impact. I was eleven by then, approaching puberty and on the verge of full-on adolescent rebellion. My father was taking his sabbatical year in Paris. We were on our own; my mom had stayed behind in Seattle. It was 1979, well before the Internet Age. Every week, my Pop would take my brother and me to Shakespeare and Company, the famous bookseller by the Seine, and we’d get to choose a few books to keep us busy all week.

While he and my brother were browsing the other shelves, I opened Valley of the Dolls — which was on prominent display — and was hooked from the first page. I’d never read anything like that before. So when it came time to ring up our purchases, I trotted over with my fascinating new find. My father took one look, curled his lip in disgust, and said, “No.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s dreck.”

I was shocked. Like most upwardly-mobile, middle-class parents, mine had taught me that reading was inherently good. The more I did of it, the happier they would be. It had not occurred to me before that day that this was only true of some books. I did not know that others might be dreck.

We had a fight in the bookstore that resulted in tears (mine). I refused to select another book. I sulked for an entire week. We had long discussions that week about why some books were literature and others dreck. “The only talent Jaqueline Susann has,” my father said, “is for putting words on a page, one after the other.”

When we returned the following week, my father chose the book I was to read. “Take this,” he said, giving me a copy of 1984. “Then you’ll understand the power of literature.”

He was correct about that, as he tends to be on all matters literary.

I don’t remember how, but somehow I managed to get my hands on a copy of Valley of the Dolls, as well as everything else Jaqueline Susann had ever written. My father’s fear that I’d get hooked on dreck — presumably moving from the gateway dreck of Valley of the Dolls to binge-watching The Apprentice — proved unfounded. When I saw that Jackie Collins had died — and before I remembered which dreck-writer was which — I went back to look up Valley of the Dolls. I’d forgotten every word of it.

wallpaper-580707Yet I remember every word of 1984.

I guess the lesson — if there is any — is that the fastest way to get a kid to read a book is to ban it. But they’re going to read it anyway, so you may as well explain, in detail, why the book is dreck, give your kid a good book to read instead, explain why the good one is literature, and wait until your kid is nearly fifty, at which point, she’ll think, “Thank you, Pop, for teaching me the difference between literature and dreck.”

So, what was the first book you were forbidden to read? How does it stand up to time? What books do you forbid your kids from reading now?

Published in Culture, Education, General, Literature
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  1. Mike Rapkoch Member
    Mike Rapkoch

    Catcher in the Rye when I was in junior high. I read it as a senior, though, and wondered what all the fuss was about. I thought it was simply awful, and don’t much remember it now.

    • #1
  2. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Member
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    Mike Rapkoch:Catcher in the Rye when I was in junior high. I read it as a senior, though, and wondered what all the fuss was about. I thought it was simply awful, and don’t much remember it now.

    Isn’t that a mandatory book, as opposed to a forbidden one? That was one of the books I was forced to read in high school.

    It’s an okay book, I guess. I remember a few scenes from it were funny.

    • #2
  3. Mike Rapkoch Member
    Mike Rapkoch

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Mike Rapkoch:Catcher in the Rye when I was in junior high. I read it as a senior, though, and wondered what all the fuss was about. I thought it was simply awful, and don’t much remember it now.

    Isn’t that a mandatory book, as opposed to a forbidden one? That was one of the books I was forced to read in high school.

    It’s an okay book, I guess. I remember a few scenes from it were funny.

    It became mandatory at some point. I did read it as a senior. Another parent banned book was A Clockwork Orange, but I read that in a high school satire class. Saw the movie too. Not impressed. I did laugh my head off reading Swift’s essay “A Modest Proposal.” The other students thought I was a ghoul.

    • #3
  4. Zafar Member

    The Persian Boy, by Mary Renault – which is sort of dreck, but very well written dreck.  My parents forbid it when they finally noticed I was reading it (half way through) and the results were what you might expect. (I read the rest in the afternoons when they were at work, thereby providing an object lesson in how children whose mothers’ work outside the home are sneaky, disobedient and probably destined for a lifetime of libertinism and homosexuality.)  On the bright side it left me comfortable reading any genre that appealed to me (the early chick lit imprint, I guess) and also got me interested in history.

    • #4
  5. Douglas Inactive

    When I was 11 or 12 I’d discovered that my mom and her circle of mom friends had their guilty pleasure books that they traded like contraband behind Soviet lines. Kind of a mom’s book club. The moms would get together and while they thought the kids couldn’t hear, they’d talk and laugh about adult things, and of course, the books. All I really knew was that these books were adults doing what adults do and what we weren’t supposed to know about, and of course, since I was heading into puberty, and they tried to keep this stuff from their kids, that just made me want to see it even more.

    I knew where she kept the books she’d already read, and decided to sneak off with one to see for myself. I didn’t even get to read it, as a few days later, my dad comes up to see me about something, and sees the book laying there on my dresser, and oh man, the look on his face. He snatched it up and went “You’re too young to be reading this” and just walked off. Pretty sure he went straight down to talk to mom about it, because the stash of mom books disappeared after that.

    Never did read it. The book? Judy Blume’s Wifey.

    • #5
  6. Mama Toad Member
    Mama Toad

    My parents, surprisingly, never banned a book.

    When I was about 12, I borrowed Sophie’s Choice from the library. Late one night I was reading it. A knock on my door. I shoved the book under my covers. My mom came in and sat down next to me…on the book.

    She was shocked, but she didn’t take the book away.

    As a mom now, I know I would take the book. Twelve is too young for that book.

    My 14 yo daughter and I have had some good conversations about dreck, literature, and age appropriateness…

    • #6
  7. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Member
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    Douglas: Never did read it. The book? Judy Blume’s Wifey.

    Totally inappropriate for kids. Your dad was right.

    • #7
  8. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Member
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    Mama Toad: As a mom now, I know I would take the book. Twelve is too young for that book.

    Do you think? It obviously depends on the twelve-year-old, but I would think if she wants to read it, she’s probably ready for it. It’s obviously a deeply disturbing book, but it’s not dreck. What makes you feel that’s too young?

    • #8
  9. Mama Toad Member
    Mama Toad

    Are you familiar with the story?

    It is all about sex and the Holocaust.

    No, it isn’t dreck, like The Story of O that was passed around in college, but it is a challenging story for adults never mind adolescents.

    • #9
  10. Douglas Inactive

    Mama Toad:Are you familiar with the story?

    No, it isn’t dreck, like The Story of O that was passed around in college, but it is a challenging story for adults never mind adolescents.

    I’m always amused at how stuff like God’s Little Acre and Tropic of Cancer are considered literature (snobby pretentiousness emphasis on the word) despite swaths of some passages being just beyond something from Penthouse Letters. “Dear Henry Miller, I never thought it could happen to me, but …”.

    • #10
  11. Zafar Member

    NSFW French and Saunders parody of tribute to Jacqui Collins.

    • #11
  12. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Member
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    Mama Toad:Are you familiar with the story?

    Very, I think I read it at about the same age, maybe a few years older.

    It is all about sex and the Holocaust.

    No, it isn’t dreck, like The Story of O that was passed around in college, but it is a challenging story for adults never mind adolescents.

    It is. But it’s a challenging story about something that really happened, and which all the world struggles to understand. Difficult at any age. Impossible at any age. But people do have to learn about it, and that’s a book that might be appropriate for a kid who’s beginning to grasp the horror of it.

    • #12
  13. Mama Toad Member
    Mama Toad

    Too much sexual tension for a 12 yo. Maybe 17 youngest. I would tell my daughter no today since she’s only 14.

    • #13
  14. Mama Toad Member
    Mama Toad

    I don’t think young people should be shielded from all difficult stories.

    But sex is so beautiful and sacred, and I do not want her grappling with intimate and arousing stories of deviance and twistedness at the age of sexual awakening.

    It could harm her until she is stronger.

    • #14
  15. Mike LaRoche Inactive
    Mike LaRoche

    North Dallas Forty.

    • #15
  16. iWe Coolidge

    My parents never, ever, banned a book. And I was reading everything I could find by the age of 8.
    In hindsight I know they must have resisted some pretty stiff social pressure when I openly carried “The Key To Rebecca” around. I was young. The explicit scenes were totally lost on me anyway. I remember asking my mother why a woman would go to all that trouble to shave herself… everywhere.

    • #16
  17. Dave L Member
    Dave L

    The Harrad Experiment….. I remember a confrontation with my dad, a voracious reader, he had evidently picked it up wondering what I was reading. He wanted to know what sort of “trash” is this, and where did I get it. He never out right banned it, but let it be known he did not approve, and that my time would be better spent reading other books.  I finished reading it, but not in his presence.

    • #17
  18. Podkayne of Israel Inactive
    Podkayne of Israel

    I remember checking “Fear of Flying” out of the school library as a high school freshman, feeling both titillated and smugly amused that I was the first student to discover it.
    That was the same year we read “Romeo and Juliet” aloud in English class. I was pretty stunned that they were letting us read that at all, let alone in school. I got a lot of my erotic education from (unillustrated) books back then, and I don’t think it did me any harm.

    • #18
  19. Stephen Dawson Inactive
    Stephen Dawson

    No banned books because I wasn’t drawn to such material. I was busy getting a libertarian education from Robert A Heinlein and wondering where Isaac Asimov’s head was at.

    The one book that I did regret was an assigned one: Sons and Lovers by D.H.Lawrence. I’ve read nothing so disturbing since.

    • #19
  20. Stephen Dawson Inactive
    Stephen Dawson

    Podkayne of Israel:I remember …

    Podkayne, it looks like I wasn’t the only Heinlein reader.

    • #20
  21. Mike Hubbard Inactive
    Mike Hubbard

    The first forbidden book I read was Silence of the Lambs, which I read before the movie came out. As soon as the movie did come out, I wanted to see it, and when my parents refused—you’re only 12—I made the mistake of telling them that I’d already read the book.

    • #21
  22. Podkayne of Israel Inactive
    Podkayne of Israel

    Wow, Mike Hubbard, now I really feel old.

    • #22
  23. Podkayne of Israel Inactive
    Podkayne of Israel

    I was my children’s chief librarian when they were growing up. We were much more worried about television than we were about any books. I find it ironic that, in my experience, genuine “adult subject matter” tends to concern responsibility and money.

    • #23
  24. JustmeinAZ Member

    My parents never forbade me from reading anything. I think they were too busy with my five siblings who were all younger. I remember devouring all of Ayn Rand around the age of 13 (no doubt where I get my libertarian leanings). Also read the Suzanne Collins dreck but I don’t remember them saying anything. Read Sophie’s Choice a couple of years later but I don’t think they knew the content. I think I was blessed with the gift of objectivity at a young age, especially about literary sex – I always knew the difference between right and wrong.

    • #24
  25. Hank Rhody Contributor
    Hank Rhody

    Man, I was traumatized by a GI Joe movie as a kid. My parents never had to ban anything.

    • #25
  26. aardo vozz Member
    aardo vozz

    I was never banned from reading anything. My parents always felt I could make up my own mind about what to read.

    • #26
  27. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator

    Alan Drury’s Advise and Consent was in our house with a pile of reputed “conservative” books that my grandfather was selling as part of a mail-order business.  I took a peek inside a copy and soon realized that although it may have been on some lists of top conservative books, nobody in our household actually knew anything about the contents.  I read it in a closet, taking care not to soil any pages or break the binding.

    My parents didn’t explicitly forbid any books that I can remember, but that was only because they didn’t need to.   I read some things they probably should have forbidden.

    • #27
  28. Percival Thatcher

    The only time I recall there being any question about what I was reading was when Mom found me reading Mad Magazine at age eight. She expressed concern to one of my school-teaching aunts, who replied “If he’s reading, leave him be.”

    When I was eleven or twelve, I bought a paperback copy of The Godfather (for the dirty bits).  I was in the process of reading it cover to cover (initially looking for more dirty bits) when my dad caught me with it. He gave me grief for spending my own money on a book that the library already had, since that is how he had read it.

    • #28
  29. DocJay Inactive

    Nothing was banned in book world by my mom. Penthouse Forum on the other hand….

    • #29
  30. PsychLynne Inactive

    When I was 9 I checked out Are You There God, It”s me Margaret by Judy Blume out of the library. I now know that the face my mom made was “I will not over-react while I figure out a way to solve this. Shortly thereafter romances by Grace Livingston Hill appeared in my room. I read those an Judgy Blume as my “snack food” reading.

    I will also point out that the Judy Blume book Forever, which depicts first time teenage sex probably discouraged my friends and I from teenage see!

    • #30
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