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. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Front Seat Cat: dredge –

    Dreck! It’s yiddish, and like all yiddish … untranslatable. Examples of use:

    “Don’t buy that cheap Chinese dreck, it’s not worth a penny — it will break in two weeks.”

    “I stepped in some kind of dreck and now I can’t get it off my shoe.”

    “His dissertation was dreck. I can’t believe they gave him a Ph.D.”

    “I’m the only one who gives her a whole can of tuna for lunch, and I’m not talking dreck, either, I’m talking Chicken of the Sea, Alex.”

    • #61
  2. Kay of MT Member
    Kay of MT
    @KayofMT

    Stephen Dawson:

    Podkayne of Israel:I remember …

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

    I still have Podkayne on my shelf, one of my favorite books. I was never forbidden to read any book. On occasion I would be informed a book I was reading was “trash” but couldn’t understand how they would know if they hadn’t read the book. I was never allowed to buy any books, so was stuck with my grandmother’s small library, most of them published in the late 1800 and early 1900. My mother started buying the the Modern Library Classics. I was moved around to a lot of different places so my reading was generally school assignments, most of which I found boring.

    • #62
  3. Jules PA Inactive
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    I was never forbidden to read anything. My grandmother was very good at pointing out the badness of dreck-ish culture, and probably helped me be more discerning in all areas.

    I probably read The Diary of Anne Frank too young at age 11. I did not understand how people could be so horrid to one another, but even at that age I understood the heroism of those who protected the Franks, and hated the people who took them away when they were found. It was frightening to realize that Anne Frank was just one story from that time.

    I read Judy Blume Are You There G-d It’s Me Margaret in  6th grade too. While she didn’t know I read it, my grandmother have been joyful that my response was, “Bleh.”

    I come from a large family, and when I was a teenager we had no television, just the radio and subscriptions to US News and World Report, National Geographic and Reader’s digest. I had to fight my younger sibs, 6-year old twins, to read those magazines.

    • #63
  4. Podkayne of Israel Inactive
    Podkayne of Israel
    @PodkayneofIsrael

    Stephen Dawson:

    Podkayne of Israel:I remember …

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

    I loved Poddy, but it was “Stranger In A Strange Land” that hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks.

    • #64
  5. Kay of MT Member
    Kay of MT
    @KayofMT

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: What about the cultural suicide of failing to ensure that kids have a solid grounding Shakespeare? The great unifying figure in our shared Anglophone heritage?

    In my grandmother’s library was “Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare” by E. Nesbit and illustrated and published in 1907. A total of 20 of his plays. Another book was, “Operas every child should know: Edited by Dolores Bacon.” Published 1911, 13 operas. I spent many happy hours high in a giant water oak, immersed in these books from her library. In reading these plays and operas as a whole, at age 12 and 13, some of them saddened me, some made me laugh, and some I thought was plain stupid. I don’t think reading any of these would inspire a teen to commit suicide. They get those ideas from all the TV junk they see. My dad and my daughters never had those ideas. The books are fragile now so nobody handles them. But I wouldn’t hesitate to hand reprints to my great grandchildren. Except, The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka. Never give that book to a child with a vivid imagination.

    • #65
  6. Jules PA Inactive
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    Kay of MT: Except, The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka. Never give that book to a child with a vivid imagination.

    hated that book.

    • #66
  7. Jules PA Inactive
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    Kay of MT: I don’t think reading any of these would inspire a teen to commit suicide. They get those ideas from all the TV junk they see. My dad and my daughters never had those ideas.

    I can see MarciN’s point about the Romeo & Juliet, only because the characters are the same age as the potential teenage readers.

    In my youth, the R & J story would not have the same connections to the popular culture of the day, we watched Mork & Mindy on TV for crying out loud.

    The culture our teenagers have access to today, in terms of music, books, magazines, movies is so much darker, and puts them much closer to the lines of tragic choices.

    I believe MarciN might be right that in a group of 30 kids, 1 is probably thinking about suicide. I’d be curious to know if there was data out there to support that number.

    Actually, the number of suicides between 14 and 18 would be a better measure, since those are successful attempts.

    • #67
  8. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Front Seat Cat: dredge –

    Dreck! It’s yiddish, and like all yiddish … untranslatable. Examples of use:

    “Don’t buy that cheap Chinese dreck, it’s not worth a penny — it will break in two weeks.”

    “I stepped in some kind of dreck and now I can’t get it off my shoe.”

    “His dissertation was dreck. I can’t believe they gave him a Ph.D.”

    “I’m the only one who gives her a whole can of tuna for lunch, and I’m not talking dreck, either, I’m talking Chicken of the Sea, Alex.”

    Like I said….Dreck!!  Now I know what it means – come to think of it…..I’ve stepped in a lot of dreck in my life, literally and figuratively! Incidentally, it is underlined in red meaning Word doesn’t recognize it either. It’s growing on me – I am going to start using this word and see how many people get confused – love it!

    • #68
  9. Jules PA Inactive
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    suicide is not even on the CDC cause of death chart until age 10, but the numbers are quite high and only grow after age 10.

    http://www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars/pdf/leading_causes_of_death_by_age_group_2013-a.pdf

    I’m sure the suicides are not because of Romeo and Juliet, and more likely from an overall sense of hopelessness, but still the close connection of the age level, and the impetuousness of teenagers does cause me to pause.

    Shakespeare seemed to have his finger on the pulse of humanity in creating his work though.

    leading_causes_of_death_by_age_group_2013-a

    • #69
  10. HeartofAmerica Inactive
    HeartofAmerica
    @HeartofAmerica

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    HeartofAmerica: As long as I was reading, my parents didn’t really care

    That’s how things were in my home — until the Valley of the Dolls incident.

    I think the discovery that some books were good and some were dreck was considerably more shocking to me than anything I could have learned from reading Valley of the Dolls.

    Set me up for a total lifetime of literary snobbery, too.

    It’s funny but it seemed that my folks were more concerned about keeping me from watching certain TV or movies rather than books. The one I remember most was: Tom Jones with Albert Finney. I was absolutely forbidden from watching it which was like a challenge to me. When I did finally sneak a peak on late night TV one night, I never really saw anything that shocked or confused me. To this day, I think the only scene of any question must have been the dinner scene. It’s all in the eye of the beholder or reader.

    • #70
  11. Douglas Inactive
    Douglas
    @Douglas

    Podkayne of Israel:

    Stephen Dawson:

    Podkayne of Israel:I remember …

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

    I loved Poddy, but it was “Stranger In A Strange Land” that hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks.

    I was mostly an Arthur C. Clarke kid early on… Childhood’s End had been my favorite sci-fi book… but Dune was my ton of bricks book. It’s the first book that I can ever recall feeling like a different person after having read it. It sounds cheesy to put it this way, but the sleeper awakened, so to speak. I immediately knew that I could use it as a marker for my teenaged years. There were the pre-Dune years, and the post-Dune years, and I felt like different people in both.

    I re-read it years later well into adulthood, and while it’s still a good read, it didn’t have the oomph it once had. Maybe because I went on to better stuff as an adult. But there was just something about that book, at that age, that seemed to flip a switch in me.

    • #71
  12. Mama Toad Member
    Mama Toad
    @CBToderakaMamaToad

    Papa Toad and I hid a Bloom County comic book away in the attic when we heard our seven-year-old talking about honkies.

    • #72
  13. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    No banned books Here, but I know one that should be banned.

    It was third grade and throughout the year Mrs. Bailey would select a book for reading time, read a chapter or two a day until the book was completed, then find another.

    The only book I remember, well, the only part of the only book I remember is from Where The Red Fern Grows.

    *spoiler alert*

    When She reached the pages when Old Dan died and Ann wouldn’t leave His grave the entire class was traumatized. The girls crying, hugging, consoling one another. The boys had Their faces buried in Their arms on Their desktops, shoulders quivering, wiping Their eyes and nose with Their shirtsleeves. Mrs. Bailey kept reading while weeping.

    The principal was walking by and stuck His head in the door:

    “Everything all Right?”

    Mrs. Bailey, hand shaking holding the book and a box of tissues in the other,”Yes..[sniff].. just reading.. [sniff, sniff]”

    “Oh. Okay.”

    Shakespeare’s “tragedies” couldn’t hold a candle to that story and its impact on Us.

    • #73
  14. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    None.  I was a voracious reader from the time I could read, and I don’t remember my parents ever mentioning anything I was reading.  I read all of Heinlein as a kid, but didn’t discover Asimov until I was an adult (during a spell of unemployment, I spent all my waking hours reading at the local library).

    • #74
  15. SpiritO'78 Inactive
    SpiritO'78
    @SpiritO78

    I read the officially banned Tropic of Cancer in high school. I don’t think I knew it was banned at the time when I picked it up at a garage sale but found out at some point while reading it. I like reading classics and I imagined it to be one since I had heard of it before I noticed it on the table for a buck and decided to give it go. I should have left it alone. It’s a slog through the mind of a deviant man who tries to be poetic about the disease known as ‘humanity’.  No more banned books for me.

    • #75
  16. Podkayne of Israel Inactive
    Podkayne of Israel
    @PodkayneofIsrael

    And you think you are going to be able to prevent teenagers from considering suicide by not letting them read R&J?

    • #76
  17. Douglas Inactive
    Douglas
    @Douglas

    HeartofAmerica:

    But the book that had the most influence (and scared the bejeebers out of me) was The Exorcist. None of my friends were reading this in ninth grade, so when the movie was released and they all freaked out over various things, I just laughed. The movie was not nearly as scary as the book.

    I read it when I was 14… straight through, over two days, alone, in a dark basement room. Because I’m an idiot.

    The movie was visually shocking, but the book was scary.

    • #77
  18. Mama Toad Member
    Mama Toad
    @CBToderakaMamaToad

    Jimmy Carter: When She reached the pages when Old Dan died and Ann wouldn’t leave His grave the entire class was traumatized. The girls crying, hugging, consoling one another. The boys had Their faces buried in Their arms on Their desktops, shoulders quivering, wiping Their eyes and nose with Their shirtsleeves. Mrs. Bailey kept reading while weeping.

    You old softie you…

    • #78
  19. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Podkayne of Israel:And you think you are going to be able to prevent teenagers from considering suicide by not letting them read R&J?

    No. I don’t.

    But in some kids I think it creates a “go ahead and do it” mindset.

    Especially the kids who are angry at their parents and want to get back at them.

    And by the way, Leonard Bernstein, in writing West Side Story, stopped short of a suicide ending. Responsible adults realize that it’s unwise to put that idea in the head of a teenager.

    • #79
  20. Lady Jane Grey Inactive
    Lady Jane Grey
    @LadyJaneGrey

    Book read at the age of 12 that would have traumatized my parents to know had gotten into my hands: Fanny Hill. (As best I can figure out, my dad had picked it up in Toronto during a 6-month stint away from the family on a contract job. I pulled it out of the bookcase because it was the only paperback with no title printed on the spine. An example of an unintended consequence of a diversionary tactic.)

    As with HeartofAmerica, my folks were more interested in keeping me away from movies and TV; in particular, all the Sean Connery James Bond movies were a sore point. There were also musical issues…. after their appearance on Ed Sullivan, The Beatles were dubbed purveyors of “jungle music” and unwelcome in the house.

    • #80
  21. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    Mama Toad: You old softie you…

    Softie?!

    I’ll have You know that I read [after I just wrote it down] that even John Wayne choked up after reading it.

    • #81
  22. Mama Toad Member
    Mama Toad
    @CBToderakaMamaToad

    Hey! I just read that too! It must be true ’cause I read it somewhere…

    • #82
  23. DrewInWisconsin Member
    DrewInWisconsin
    @DrewInWisconsin

    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.

    But at least you remember it correctly: “simply awful.”

    • #83
  24. danok1 Member
    danok1
    @danok1

    My father banned my older sister from reading The Godfather. Somehow he forgot about the ban when I picked it up.

    The only book my parents tried to ban me from reading was The Happy Hooker. I was around 13, and my brother somehow got a copy. My parents took the book away, but didn’t throw it out. We found it where they put it and stashed it in a new hiding place.

    • #84
  25. Kozak Member
    Kozak
    @Kozak

    Stephen Dawson: 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.

    I loved Heinlein too and received my baptism of libertarianism from him as well.  But man some of his later stuff had some really weird obsession with incest…

    • #85
  26. Kozak Member
    Kozak
    @Kozak

    Mine was, I kid you not, “The French Art of Sexual Love” which I found rummaging around in the basement of our 6 flat.  Talk about an eye opener for a 12 year old….

    • #86
  27. Mama Toad Member
    Mama Toad
    @CBToderakaMamaToad

    Papa Toad recently pulled some old Heinlein down from the attic and gave the kids The Rolling Stones. Fun, right?

    I asked him to please look through the other books before he gave them to the tadpoles. He started re-reading The Cat Who Walks Through Doors  [edit: of course it is Walls, not Doors, thank you John Hendrix] (in which the grandma from Rolling Stones shows up, doesn’t she?) and Number of the Beast and realized that not all Heinlein is Have Spacesuit Will Travel

    • #87
  28. Jules PA Inactive
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    Podkayne of Israel:And you think you are going to be able to prevent teenagers from considering suicide by not letting them read R&J?

    no.

    just having a conversation.

    • #88
  29. John Hendrix Thatcher
    John Hendrix
    @JohnHendrix

    Mama Toad: I asked him to please look through the other books before he gave them to the tadpoles. He started re-reading The Cat Who Walks Through Doors (in which the grandma from Rolling Stones shows up, doesn’t she?)

    I think you meant The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.

    While I enjoyed The Cat Who Walks Through Walls I thought the weirdest thing about this book was that, on one hand, the characters’ intelligence seemed to range from smarter than average to brilliant yet, on the other hand, not one of them showed the least interest in how a house-cat managed to routinely pass through solid walls when no human happened to be looking. Really? A group of highly intelligent folks just all casually accept they have an apparently magical kitty and none of them can be bothered to investigate this apparently supernatural phenomenon?  Please.

    • #89
  30. James Gawron Inactive
    James Gawron
    @JamesGawron

    Claire,

    How I envy your trips to Shakespeare and Company with your father. For two highly educated people for some reason when it came to me they assumed that I would read by osmosis. No books no nothing. In Kindergarten I took matters into my own hands. We were given an approved list of paperback books we could order. “Our Sun” a large picture book with lots of data about the sun and planets was $1.98. Not the $.99 like all the other paperbacks. I had a great deal of trouble convincing my mother to fork over the cash but I won out. I knew every single detail about the planets and the sun soon there after.

    However, all could not be cured by a simple fund raising campaign. I was to experience the cold totalitarian mind that Orwell was referring to in 1984. There was a small library at the grade school. We had a short period to go in and find a book and take it out. This was the first grade now. Not that “Our Sun” wasn’t quite a prize but I was looking to move up. I found a three book series of Historical Fiction. The first one was about a pioneer family and the building of the Erie Canal. I took it out. It seemed quite large and a little forbidding. However, it was very nicely written with some sketch illustrations. I sat myself down and chugged my way right through it. The next week I went back to the library. I returned the first of the series and got hold of the second of the series. However, I had dealt only with a minor official of the state the first time, the librarian’s assistant. This time the librarian herself was there. She was not about to let freedom ring. The series was for third graders. I was too young to read it because it was too advanced for me. I protested immediately that I had already read the first in the series and enjoyed it very much. She would have none of my free market high jinks. NO! I was astounded by the sheer stupidity of this. Of course, back in the bad old fifties one didn’t challenge authority. I thought it bad form to actually tell my parents and make an incident of this getting the petty tyrant in trouble.

    So the patterns are set. I still want that second book in the series.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #90
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