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Jackie 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:
Valley 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.
Now — 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 had 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.”
“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.
Yet 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