Those Beautiful Stories

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When I entered high school I was three months away from becoming a teenager and my reading habits reflected my naivety. I mostly spent my time with books from the Nancy Drew series of mysteries, biographies of saints, and a variety of stories about pioneer times. The summer reading for my freshman English class upped the ante and forced me to begin an exploration of literature of a more polished nature. It was then that I began a journey of enlightenment through the brilliant words of great authors. 

I instantly became addicted to discovering a world unlike any I had ever before imagined. Because my English teacher required me to read one book per week and then compose a review of it, I spent many hours concentrating on themes and ideas that were new to me. My vocabulary expanded and so too did my views of the world. Those books carried me far beyond the insular little neighborhood in which I lived. Over the next four years I would become more and more daring in choosing books to read, and as I did I expanded my own ideas about the variety and possibilities of living. 

To this very day reading is one of my passions. When asked which books I most enjoyed it is quite difficult to choose only a few titles, but I see a kind of cohesion in the ones that most impressed me. I remember being stunned by the antics of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye and becoming enthralled by Cry the Beloved Country. As I became more and more aware of the power of words, imagery, characterization I was literally blown away by The Great Gatsby. I viewed that book as a metaphor for life. I was unable to push it out of my mind and over the years I have kept going back to it as an exemplar of brilliant writing and characterization. 

When I read To Kill a Mockingbird I felt as though I knew Scout and her family. Having lived in the south and seen the segregation and other horrors inflicted on black people, I adored Atticus Finch for standing up for justice. I cried when I realized that in truth we have not yet overcome the prejudices of our country. This book encapsulated one of the most profound tragedies that I have witnessed during my lifetime.

I continued reading long after my formal education had ended. I asked for a copy of The Kite Runner for Christmas one year just as I always put book titles on my wish list. The holiday when I received it was particularly cold and wet so I spent the days after the Yuletide revelry sobbing over the political and religious upheaval of Afghanistan as seen through the eyes of a family that endured the tragedy. Of course that led me to researching more and more about the history of the Middle East and the rise of religious dictatorships. 

One of my grandsons was enrolled in his first advanced placement English class and was struggling a bit to analyze a book that he was reading beyond just summarizing the story. He reached out for some help and I agreed to read Things Fall Apart along with him. Somehow I had never before known about this novel, but even as I read the poetic rhythms of the first chapter I knew that I was engaged with one of the great works of literature. Surely enough, the novel about the evolution of a village in Africa and a man’s fate as colonialism changed his world was life changing for me and perhaps for my grandson as well. I suspect that my enthusiasm for the story and the brilliant use of figurative language vividly demonstrated the power of storytelling in describing history.

Imagine my bemusement when I learned that virtually every one of these titles has recently been included on the various banned book lists that are cropping up in school districts and town libraries all over the United States. I have wondered how it could be possible that such beautifully crafted stories would be considered somehow harmful to young people when I consider them to have been so inspiring and meaningful to my growth as a thinking adult. The irony to me is that these books opened my eyes to the wider world and to the difficulties and challenges that we humans must face as a part of living. They gave me strength and understanding that would not have otherwise been there. I wondered why anyone saw their messages as negative or immoral when they had simply been honest in moving ways. 

When I read lists of offensive books I saw that many more titles that had influenced and molded me for the better were included. I wondered if the those demanding that these books be removed from libraries had even read them, analyzed them, discussed them. Surely if they had they would have realized that their purpose was indeed to ask us to see life from the many points of view that exist around us. Closing our eyes or looking away from tragedies wherever they may be, is hardly a way of dealing with them. Ignorance may be bliss, but it does nothing to improve our ability to navigate through life. 

I count myself fortunate to have read these great books and so many others. I really abhor the idea of hiding them from the young people of today. I want them to slowly expand the horizons of others one beautiful story at a time just as have done for me. These books all still live in my mind. I know that they have enriched me, but never hurt me. I’m thankful that nobody attempted to take them away from me when I pulled them from a shelf and became lost in their eloquence and beauty.