The school librarian leaned close and whispered in my ear.
This was nearly 50 years ago. We were in “reading lab,” a break from our regular English class in which we students gathered in a quiet room to read books.
It was one of my favorite parts of school. I’d always loved to read, which in those days was the easiest way for a curious teenage boy to wander beyond the confines of a small Indiana town. Having an hour each day in school to dive into book after book seemed almost like a vacation.
The lab also had machines to measure a person’s reading speed. They seemed, in the 1970s, really high-tech. A narrow horizontal band of light moved down the page, line by line, while the reader raced to keep pace.
During these reading time trials, the whole class sat silent in the dark, heads hunched over books, following little beams of light.
It was fun.
We got credit for the books we read during the lab. A certain number of titles earned an A, a slightly lesser number a B and so on. To prove that we’d read the books—and understood them—we had to take comprehension quizzes at the end.
And—this was the beauty of it—we got to choose the books we wanted to read.
For the most part, that is.
The moment that led to the librarian whispering in my ear came when I brought in a book that wasn’t in the school library.
It was Charles Webb’s “The Graduate.” I had seen the movie with Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft. It spoke to me the way it spoke to many other teenage boys. After seeing the movie, I wanted to read the book.
So, I asked the librarian if I could.
She said she would have to check with the administration.
The next day at the beginning of lab, she came over to my desk.
Speaking in a voice loud enough for others to overhear, she said she had talked with the school’s leaders.
“We cannot give you credit for reading this book,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
All around the room, heads dropped back down to books. The show was over.
That was when the librarian leaned close.
“Read it anyway,” she said in a soft voice only she and I could hear. “Don’t ever let anyone tell you what you can or cannot read. Trust your own mind.”
God bless librarians.
Every year when Banned Books Week rolls around, I think about that moment, that reading lab and, most of all, that librarian. This Banned Books Week is no different.
I didn’t know that librarian well—and she knew nothing about me other than that I was a young guy who loved to read.
She certainly didn’t know me well enough to know whether I’d talk about what she whispered. I didn’t.
If I had, and word got out that she’d encouraged a student to read a book her bosses didn’t want him to read, it wouldn’t have helped her. She could have been disciplined. She might even have lost her job.
I suspect, though, that she didn’t become a librarian because she wanted to discourage people from reading books. Librarians become librarians because they want people’s minds to be unfettered and they know books are the keys that unlock chains.
She whispered those words because she believed them. She believed a person’s mind belonged only to him or her.
There are attempts in a lot of places to keep young people from reading the “wrong” things. Censors always have the best intentions. They say they want to “protect” us.
Thus, when they blindfold and gag us, they always think they do it with love in their hearts.
Right now, some people want to “defend” young minds against explorations of America’s racial history, about LGBTQ citizens, about what they think of as hateful rhetoric from the right or the left…the list could go on.
The common theme in all of this is that these would-be censors think they have the right to tell everyone what to read and what to believe.
Because that librarian long ago was right. When someone tells you not to read a book, you should read it anyway. You shouldn’t let anyone tell you what you can or cannot read. Trust your own mind.
And God bless librarians.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. The opinions expressed by the author do not reflect the views of Franklin College. Send comments to [email protected].