Friday, October 01, 2010

Confessions of a Book Burner



I've debated and dithered over whether to do this post for most of this week for though the acts, having been committed in my teens, are well in my past, the shame is still sharp. But how could I let Banned Book Week go by without talking about my own experiences with destroying books for the express purpose of preventing other readers access to them?

The recent news of the Florida pastor planning to stage a bonfire of copies of the Koran gave me the chills but also reawakened the memories of the times I participated in tossing a book into the flames. Then today, watching J. K. Rowling being interviewed by Oprah, I was reminded of how more than once Christian churches in American had staged bonfires of the Harry Potter books and my resistance to writing this post began to crumble. I wanted to talk about these events and others like them but as long as I was unwilling to admit to my own past participation there would be a whiff of hypocrisy even if only I could sniff it.



One of the church bonfires of Harry Potter books


I did not participate in a church sponsored bonfire but the motivation was derived from religious sensitivities. The faith community in which I was raised was adverse to making a spectacle of themselves. The did the things they did that drew bright boundaries between themselves and the 'other', the 'world', the 'not of the Lord' behind the closed doors and in the back yards of their homes and their Bible Chapels.

To my knowledge no book burning events were ever perpetrated on a chapel property either. And I never heard of any official sanctioning of the act by the elders. Our way was to eschew the things of the world by quietly choosing to not have them in our homes or our lives. We were not interested in changing others by force or forcing our views on the outside community. In fact we took no small amount of pride in the stark contrast between ourselves and those not of our belief. Given that, I am mystified as to why the two book burning events I instigated happened at all.

The first took place in the dark of night in the back yard of my maternal grandparents home in Tehama County California. I was 11 or 12 and had, shortly before bedtime, finished reading a horror story. I owned the paperback novel having bought or traded for it at the used book store across the street from us at home. I'd known from the first that the book would not have been approved by my parents and so had read it in secret. I don't even remember the title only that it was about a young boy whose best friend was a rat who defended him from the bullies who had terrorized him and was then hunted down by the local community. I remember, faintly now, that there had been some gruesome scenes involving death and devouring of humans by hoards of rats.

Reading that story so close to bedtime was probably one of the first sparks of the future fire. If I had finished it in the bright afternoon and had then had hours of playing with my cousins in the sun and maybe fifty or so pages of a different story to put between turning its last page and attempting to close my eyes in the dark of a room not my own, that book might have survived to be traded in for another one after I got back home. But instead I ended up confessing to my parents what I'd done because I was too afraid to have the light out which was quite atypical of me and they needed to know why.

The idea of burning the book was not mine. It came from one of my parents and was presented as a gentle suggestion not as anger induced punishment. I can understand why I might have been traumatized by one of my parents yanking the book from me by force and tossing it in a fire. But it surprised me when, after I'd dropped that book into the burn barrel under the supervision of my parents and watched it burn, the expected serenity inducing sleep was even more elusive. Instead of man devouring rats in dark shadow filled tunnels I was haunted by the bright flames haloing that book and the pile of ashes they left behind.

And the shame.

The second time happened a couple of years later when I was 14 or 15. I was reading a long novel about King David that covered his life from birth to death. I think the title actually was King David or David the King. I can't remember the author but do remember it was a woman. The book had been on my step-grandmother's shelf and she'd loaned it to me. I'd reached the part where David was at war with Kind Saul and Saul's son Jonathan who was David's best friend had risked his life to meet with David in a cave between battles. Then there was a scene that confused me and I ask my Mom for clarification and when she read the paragraph I pointed to she was horrified. She did explain to me that the scene seemed to be depicting David and Jonathan as lovers. I don't think she would have used the word lovers but that's the gist. She got the point across in some fashion to a girl who would not know what a hickey was until she was twenty. I was grossed out as the teens today would put it.

Mom phoned Grandma and explained the situation to her. When she got off the phone she said Grandma wanted us to burn the book. That time it was Mom and me in the afternoon in the living room laying a fire in the fireplace and placing this fat hardbacked book in the midst of the tinder and logs and setting it on fire and watching it burn to ashes.

That time I felt grief as well as shame. Grief over the death of a book and grief over not getting to finish the story. By that time I'd read Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and was awakening to the implications of such an act.

Besides, my first exposure to the concept had come at a very early age and in such a way the indelible images that horrified me more than the content of any story I've read since were imprinted on my imagination and haunt my dreams still.

At age 4 I was watching the TV at my paternal grandparents house from under the dining room table unbeknownst to any of the adults in the living room. We didn't have a TV at home nor had I yet been to a movie theater both were verboten by the strictest of our elders. I was enthralled by the images on televisions. It didn't matter what they were of. They were watching a WWII movie. I saw scenes of books being thrown from upper floor windows and being carried out in big armfuls by men in uniform and tossed into a big pile in the street and set on fire. Those scenes have haunted me ever since. By then I was already a lover of books and had been taught to respect them. The sight of people tossing them into the street and trampling on them and then setting them on fire was devastating as well as confusing.

Those images have been with me ever since haunting my dreams and my imagination. Sometimes the dreams are so vivid it is as though I were living through it. And even though the movie had been in black and white--at least the TV had been--the dreams are often in technicolor.

There was a third event though it did not lead to a burning of the book in question. This time I was 15 and no adults were involved. I found a paperback copy of The Exorcist on the shelf in the school library. It was not a library book nor shelved with them but was behind the row of books on the shelf. Hidden like contraband. At the time my friends had been having lively conversations outside my presence about the movie that was in the theaters. Conversations that would come to a halt or become whispered behind hands into ears as I joined them. 'You really don't want to know.' They would assure me. Probably they really believed that but I imagine now they also did not want to risk the sermon I might have imposed on them if they'd shared with me. The years I was 15 to 18 were the years I was at the height of my piety and attempts at righteousness which inevitably became self-righteousness.

But on the day I found that book I was feeling irked by being left out of the group of my best friends at school and had heard enough about the story to be curious to know more. So I took the book home, fully intending to bring it back and return it to the same place I'd found it. I did read it. At home in the middle of the night. Sometimes under the covers with a flashlight and sometimes locked in the bathroom. And it did give me bad dreams. But I did not let on to my parents.

The morning after I finished it I was returning to campus (our back yard abutted the school parking lot) with the book tucked inside my binder. I often hung out in the library before classes started if I got there in time so I was planning to unobtrusively slip that book out and back onto the shelf where I'd found it. But I was too late to go to the library first. The warning bell for the first class was already ringing and I had visions of opening my notebook in class to reveal that novel or having it fall out onto the floor as I scurried down the halls. I feared that getting caught with the book would damage my witness for Jesus beyond repair and I panicked. I dropped the book in the first garbage can I passed.

The shame that time was multiplied by the factor of that book not belonging to me and thus not being mine to dispose of.

0 tell me a story:

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