The other day I read an article in the news about parents in Tennessee and elsewhere rallying to have books removed from their teens’ school libraries—books that reference race, sexuality, or the Holocaust in ways that made them (the parents) uncomfortable. I wondered how those kids felt, watching their parents on social media pitchforking up to the school board meeting to make sure their fifteen-year-olds never stumble onto Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Art Spiegelman’s Maus.
And I thought of that moment when I was in sixth grade and asked if you’d take me to the library in Kearns, Utah, where you raised me, so I could check out Christine by Stephen King.
Since you’d read most of King’s novels, you knew what was in Christine: swearing and boozing and teens trying to tear each other’s clothes off and homicide by demon car. But you drove me to the library anyway and led me to adult fiction, where all those big lovely scary Stephen King horrors lined the shelves.
You gave me the freedom to pick my own book, even if that book might shock or scare me. Christine did both. Thanks for trusting me.
I knew books mattered to you—you had a shelf full of them. You and Aunt LouAnn and Uncle Rand swapped grocery store paperbacks. You’d been a member of a women’s book club from before I was born. Throughout the 1980s, twice a year, ten or more poofy-haired, puffy-shouldered moms, all in their thirties, crossed State Street to the west side to sit in our living room and talk about popular novels like Watership Down or Fried Green Tomatoes.
Sure, you took the time to read out loud to me and Kevin in the summers, like many parents do, but I also watched you tear through books meant only for yourself. I never saw any adult read more than you.
Do you know I still have your nearly-destroyed paperback copy of James Clavell’s novel Shōgun? In the front you wrote your name and the phone number to the house in Kearns, as you did in every book you owned. You loved that novel passionately, and I remember how closely you watched NBC’s miniseries adaptation on our 15-inch Zenith color TV. (I suspect you thought Richard Chamberlain was hot.)
I kept your copy of Shōgun when Dad and I cleared out your books, over ten years ago. You two were moving to a new house, and you had evolved to all-digital reading, on a Kindle Paperwhite. I hope it won’t hurt your feelings if I confess that I’ll never get around to reading that 1200-page cinder block. The front cover’s come off.
Though you hated the violent video games I played, discouraged me from watching rated-R movies, and once banned the industrial metal band Ministry from the family stereo, you never told me what to read or not read. You taught me, by example, that book culture is sacred—ecumenical, persistent, personal, discerning but not snooty, at first solitary and silent and then social. You taught me to sit still, lean over a book, and enjoy the wild uncensored canopy of storytelling.
Considering the urgency people feel to keep certain books away from kids, and since, as Dad told me recently, illness has made it hard for you to hold even the lightest e-reader, I felt my own urgency this week to thank you for letting me read Christine.
Your reader son,
This post was written by Brian Jackson, a Humanities Center faculty fellow.