Last summer, my 15-year-old son sat at the kitchen table reading Vladimir Nabokov’s book Lolita. About 14 pages into the thing, he put it down in disgust. “Jeez, what kind of parent are you? I can’t believe you’re making me read this!”
I was not “making” him read it. My son and his friends had started a book club as eighth-graders. They planned to read three books every summer, with me as facilitator. Coincidentally, all their choices that first summer were banned or challenged books: Catcher in the Rye, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Of Mice and Men. So they remade themselves into the Banned Books Club, the bad boys and girls of the library.
In their second summer, when the local children’s librarian got squeamish about their club name, we moved our meetings from the library to Giovanni’s Pizza and became the Banned (from the library) Banned Books Club. This was better yet. They were real readers, making their own choices, holding lively and funny talks and eating a lot of pizza. Getting kicked out of the library was an added benefit. I approved.
In their third summer, wanting to up the ante, they decided to read Lolita. I see myself as a mom who supports her sons in reading against the grain. I think books are dangerous, in a good way. But when the group announced its plan to read that book, I felt a great big balk coming on. Was I really going to read Lolita with a bunch of 15-year-olds? Was I going to discuss a grown man’s rape of a 12-year-old with teenagers at a pizza parlor? I e-mailed the parents, and they all gave their OK. (Thanks a lot.) I told my son I was uncomfortable with Lolita, since it was, well, you know, about pedophilia. His response: “Wait, you encourage us to have a Banned Books Club and then you tell us what we can and can’t read? Really, Mom?”
He had me there. The kids read the book. Over pizza, they shared their disgust for Humbert. They thought that the topic was creepy, that the book was often difficult to understand and that they had never experienced such a dark topic presented with such a humorous voice. But nobody in the group concluded that pedophilia was a good or strangely funny thing, though they did conclude that Lolita was a good and strangely funny book. They were smart readers. They saw the difference between art and life.
I believe that reading is an earned pleasure. If my sons will do the very hard work of reading a good, challenging, complicated book, then they certainly have earned the right to discuss the content of that book with someone who will respect their ideas. I think that we can help intelligent, responsible adolescents to grow into intelligent, responsible adults when they are allowed to safely confront disconcerting ideas in books they are ready to read and then discuss them with adults they trust. I believe in teenagers who read banned books, and I believe in the adults who read with them.
Shelley Blanton-Stroud is a lecturer in the English Department at CSUS. She lives in Sacramento with her husband, two sons and a dog named Woody.