Thursday, March 10, 2011


I'm using an essay this morning that I wrote nearly 20 years ago -- long before we knew anything about blogging!
by Charlie Leck
I wrote the following essay nearly 20 years ago. It is about my own bibliomania, about book-burning (or book banning) and about one of the finest, dearest men I've ever known. The essay comes from a book we privately published in 1994. I came upon it because we are now republishing the book because a number of people have expressed a wish to own a copy.
Books are dangerous. Oh, not the ideas they present or represent. That’s ridiculous. I’m no book burner. Can’t imagine how such things happen. Kurt Vonnegut writes about his books being burned by angry school administrators and the parents of students. Gad! Slaughterhouse-Five is one of the most important and extraordinary books I’ve ever read. That anyone could think ideas and propositions can be destroyed by burning the vessels which carry them is well... well... Well, what would we call it down here on the farm? Horsefeathers? Vonnegut writes:
“When I was new at such discussions [about the First Amendment] I insouciantly asked a fundamentalist Christian opponent (“Oh, come on now, Reverend”) if he knew of anyone who had been ruined by a book. (Mark Twain claimed to have been ruined by salacious parts of the Bible.)...

“The books he and his supporters wanted out of the school, one of mine among them, were not pornographic, although he would have liked our audience to think so. (There is the word “motherfucker” one time in my Slaughterhouse-Five, as in “Get out of the road, you dumb motherfucker.” Ever since that word was published, way back in 1969, children have been attempting to have intercourse with their mothers. When it will stop no one knows.) The fault of Slaughterhouse-Five, James Dickey’s Deliverance, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, several books by Judy Blume, and so on, as far as the Reverend was concerned was that neither their authors nor their characters exemplified his notion of ideal Christian behavior and attitudes.”
I am troubled by any attempt to attack or weaken the First Amendment, but I am most disturbed by those who would ban books. Nevertheless, there are times when it is a temptation to suspend our right to the freedoms of speech and press. For example, this morning’s Wall Street Journal carries an eerie story about a publication we all knew as children — The Weekly Reader. It seems this esteemed, old, children’s newspaper is now controlled by RJR Nabisco Holdings Corporation (one of America’s largest cigarette manufacturers). So, last week a story ran in the Weekly Reader, which defended smokers’ rights. Anyone smell a rat? Or a cheap cig? It’s tempting, under such circumstances, to want to censor such articles, to protect our malleable children, even from The Weekly Reader. However, we civil libertarian types (me, not you) must bite the bullet and remember our own staunch defense of the sanctity of freedom of expression. You do remember what the First Amendment says, don’t you?
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for redress of grievances.”
I have a passion for books — a bibliomania. (The word is defined by John Carter, in his forty year old book, ABC for Book Collectors, as: “Literally, a madness for books. A bibliomaniac is a book collector with a slightly wild look in his eye.” )

The notion that anyone would destroy Ulysses, by Joyce, or Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover, or any book, really raises my hackles. But, in fact, thousands and thousands of copies of each of these novels have been burned all over America.

One morning, early this spring, I stopped into one of my favorite bookstores/coffee shops for a cup of coffee and some quiet time over the newspaper. An angry woman approached me. She is the mother of one of our child’s fellow students. She wanted to divulge to me the kind of books our kids were being subjected to at the venerable private school they attend. With a strong sense of urgency in her voice, she explained that we needed to form a parents’ committee to review and approve or disapprove the reading lists given to students. One book, which her son had been assigned to read, particularly offended her. The book? A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris. I wanted no controversy that morning, so I avoided sharing with this mother my dislike for book burners. Nevertheless, she went on. She showed me a photocopy of a short story taken from an anthology her son had been forced to buy from the school.

“Just read this,” she stammered at me, “this underlined part.” She pointed to the words under which she had carefully drawn thin straight lines. I should have refused to read the words out of their context, but I didn’t. They were explicit and erotic. I grunted out some kind of surprise that her son, a ninth grader, would be assigned such a reading.

“Oh, he wasn’t,” she told me, “it’s just included in the collection. I found it when I examined the book.” She spoke with the smugness of a health inspector who had just found nests of roaches in the pantry of the nation’s fanciest restaurant. Her lips pursed in distaste. I grew impatient. I struggled to remain polite. She pushed across to me the entire reading list for the high school. Next to the titles of the books that offended her, she had placed tiny, neat, little asterisks.

“I don’t want my son to read these. He is not prepared for such language and such descriptions.”

I tried to explain how inadequately parents understand their children during these teenage years. She did not concur. She knew her children, by gosh! She let me know that, boy! I drew slowly on the big cup of café au lait (now only mildly warm). My participation on a committee to review the reading list was desired. I was curious about the other participants on the committee. Well, there were none yet, she told me. I would be the first. I grew nervous. I could see waves in my coffee cup as I lifted it for another sip. As politely as possible, I explained that I could not participate on such a committee. Such an organization, I told her, would not be wise. The angry mother grew discouraged and began to gulp her coffee. She brushed muffin crumbs from the lap of her skirt. I could see that, in her mind, she was grouping me with the perverted teachers in the high school.

She departed in such haste that she left behind the photocopy of the offensive short story. Though I should have been heading back to the farm, where some chores were awaiting my attention, I slowly read the fourteen page short story, called The Babysitter, by Robert Coover. Indeed, it is filled with erotically descriptive prose. However, it is a spectacularly accurate portrait of a teenage boy’s fantasy-filled mind. In short (the pun is intended), it was a very good story. I found it hard to believe that any youngster would be pushed over the edge, into a life of sexual perversion, by reading it. Quite the opposite, I supposed that the story would help young boy-men understand that the fantasies and images alive in their brains are quite normal to all of us.

I needed to hit the road, but I found and purchased a copy of the “condemned” Michael Dorris book. Walking to the car, I read the publisher’s review clips printed on the book’s cover and inside front page
“Memorable! Marvelous! Powerful! Dazzling!” The critics’ raves seemed unanimous.

“Remarkable psychological density,” the New York Times said.

And our paper, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, wrote: “Dorris handles his theme with as much delicacy as he does power.”

These newspapers must be controlled by commie, left-wing pigs dedicated to the moral corruption of our children and the overall destruction of our society. Must be!

“A flat-out, wonderful book,” the New York Daily News said.

“Funny,” I thought, “I’ve never associated this paper with the radical left before.”

“A strong, beautiful tapestry... a pleasure to behold,” wrote the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Again, the Plain Dealer is not a newspaper normally linked with the Northeastern cabal dedicated to controlling the nation. Geez, what would they think of us in Cleveland if we banned this book from our school. I chuckled and drove back to my town, to begin the spring clean-up around the farm.

Early next morning, I read A Yellow Raft in Blue Water. My initial reaction, upon putting it down, was that I needed to be a woman to fully understand it. Wait though! The author is a man. He rose high enough to see clearly beyond his masculinity. For many days after that, the vivid descriptions that the novel pressed into my mind kept streaming back. What an extraordinary, sensitive account. I would be proud to know that any child of mine had read and understood it.

Books are dangerous because they can lead to a mania. One can enjoy the sight and feel of them so much that one can become irrational about collecting them.

I inched across the border from my town this morning, to visit my friend, John Daniels. It was a vigorous, beautiful October day. Though the sun shone brightly, without a single cloud in the broad, blue sky to interfere, the air was crisp and chilly.

“Perfect,” the weatherman shouted through my car radio. “This is the reason we live in Minnesota!” Indeed, it was that kind of morning. Glorious shades of gold, yellow and red were spread across the countryside. The lakes and ponds glimmered dazzlingly beneath the unabated sunshine.

As I turned into the Daniels’ driveway, my heart began to pound excitedly. The colors around their lovely house were breathtaking. I couldn’t believe that John was nearly all packed up, ready to make the trek back to his winter home in South Carolina. This was no time to leave Minnesota.

I suppose John Daniels is 30 years my senior. I have tremendous respect for him, but it has nothing to do with his age. He is exceedingly bright. He is invariably composed — unceasingly a gentleman. He is a golfing buddy. He is a bibliophile.

John is exciting to observe. He is constantly vibrant, enthusiastic and optimistic. He appears to savor each breath of life. He displays a constant smile across his lips and cheeks and in his eyes. It appears that he doesn’t know how to walk. Instead, his gait is a half-trot. Very short, his body is strong and square. He still has a full head of black hair that he slicks straight back. His eye-brows are massive, bushy and tangled. They haven’t been trimmed in years. Obviously, he likes them that way. He wears half-glasses when he reads, so they won’t interfere with the extensive amount of hair on his brow.

The Daniels’ home is wondrous, but not huge. Nor is it elaborate. It is artistic and tasteful. It was designed for contemplation, meditation and study. It was built for books. Across from a modest but welcoming foyer is a large, round drawing room. A very big window gives a panoramic view of a small pond and a spectacular pre-settlement forest. The room is lined with white bookshelves. There my bibliophilic friend keeps one of the nation’s finest collections of rare English and American sporting books. Each volume has a history of ownership that John seems to know intimately.

On this day, we discussed bindings. It is because I mentioned to John that I was taking a class in the subject. Excitedly he invited me to inspect a variety of styles produced by many of the master book binders (Zaehnsdorf of London; Birdsall of Northhampton; Riviere & Son of Bath; René Kieffer of Paris). John glowed with excitement each time he pulled another from its spot on the bookshelves. Quickly it became clear that he was ascending a ladder of quality and planned to culminate this private exhibit with his pièce de résistance. I touched each volume carefully, allowing myself time to feel the textures and to examine the craftsmanship. The sunshine beamed through the expansive window and warmed the large room. The extraordinary volumes, accumulating on a large table, warmed by soul. What glorious, stupendous works of art.

I watched John carefully and saw the “slightly wild look in his eye.” He had “literally, a madness for books.” My pulse also throbbed maniacally. I tried to will the earth to slow its revolutions so that the sun would not move so high, that it would continue to toss its rays into the room. But, John looked at his watch and reminded me that we had a tee-time.

Carefully, we restored each volume to its own particular place on the shelves. As I handled them, I thought of the “madness” of those frightened little souls who tried to dash ideas and explorations of the mind by burning books. Their mania is destructive and corruptive. John’s mania? Wondrous! Let me explain.

As we lunched before our round of golf, John announced his decision to donate his entire collection to a library in Virginia. He heard the catch in my breath. He explained. “So other bibliophiles will enjoy them! So researchers in sporting history may examine them. So they will remain together and be protected for as long as possible.” He spoke as a father about to let go of a child because the time had come to set him free.

As he spoke I saw in one of his eyes the slightest hint of a tear, not completely hidden by his vast, bushy eye-brows.


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