In Praise of Illicit Reading

Artwork courtesy of the American Library Association

Artwork courtesy of the American Library Association

Banned Books Week starts today! It is my favourite literary celebration of the year. There is nothing like illicit reading to get your heart pumping. Especially if you do it knowingly 😉

Like most bookworms, my earliest experiences with forbidden reading were reading after lights-out at bedtime, and reading (novels) in class when I was supposed to be listening to the teacher.

I really upped my game when I had “read out” everything of interest in the children’s department of the library, and I started accompanying my mom to the adult section at age 11. I started with Agatha Christie and authors my mom liked, such as Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr (whom I later discovered were all the same person!!) But it wasn’t long before I selected my own books. I knew very well my parents would have forbidden me to read some of them. Therefore, when I read The Exorcist alone in my room at age 12, and it scared the crap out of me, I suffered in silence and wouldn’t ‘fess up! (In retrospect, I’m sure they would have understood, and used it as an example of why some limits were appropriate!)

In junior high, I read the teen books now known as “problem novels,” in which the main character always personified a teen issue: drug abuse in the now-discredited Go Ask Alice, teenage sex in Judy Blume’s Forever, and a lesbian relationship in Happy Endings Are All Alike. Of course, these books all taught me that everything ends and everybody dies 😦  My sister and I got a particular kick out of reading John Benton’s Christian Problem Novels in which the naughty teens do all the bad things under the sun and then get Born Again 🙂

By grade 9, I was reading all the potboilers of the decade, such as Jacqueline Susann (Valley of the Dolls, 1966), Sidney Sheldon (The Other Side of Midnight, 1973) and Judith Krantz (Scruples, 1978). My search for smut knew no bounds as I devoured Penthouse Forum letters, and stashed Playgirl magazines in my closet (not yet knowing that its key audience was gay men).

But something happened as I sped through thousands of pages of light, bawdy entertainment: I got tired of it. I wanted something more. I read Diary of a Young Girl, and  Night, and I Am David and The Hiding Place. I read Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry, and Underground to Canada and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I read school-curriculum books like Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird. I read books that I’d heard were controversial, like The Catcher in the Rye, Lolita, and Marian Engel’s Bear. I read books I thought were funny like those by Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan and Tom Robbins. I read supposed erotica like Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer and Portnoy’s Complaint. I read supposed classics like Huckleberry Finn, Brave New World, and Walden. I read Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen and Margaret Atwood. And along the way, I became rather well-read.

It’s now cool to like risqué books. Every 70-year-old has read 50 Shades of Grey. But as soon as And Tango Makes Three shows up in a school library, a ruckus ensues. I don’t think that reading banned books warped me. Unless you think that thrice-married, somewhat androgynous, open-minded, humanist librarians are warped?

Enjoy Banned Books Week and tell me all about your sneaky, guilty-pleasure, and outright wrong-headed reading!

Further Reading:

Banned and Challenged Classics

Top Ten Challenged Books This Year


  1. Fiona

    I had a really similar reading trajectory! It was such a thrill to finally feel grown-up enough to move from the kid section to the teen section of the library and almost the same time onto the adult section.

    I went through the “problem novels” stage at about 13, but it confused me. I thought there were enough real-world problems around me and wondered why authors want to be ‘cool’ and write about it. It mystified me. I wanted books to transcend and show a way out.

    In Year 8 there was a phase we went through in class of passing around what we thought were incredibly steamy romance novels! Mainly the girls were involved but sometimes our works were intercepted by the boys, who naturally didn’t rat us out. We would all read a set few pages or section and pass it silently to the next person under the desk, mainly in very traditional classes where speaking was not allowed and we were seated in single desks. The discussions afterwards were educational!

    • I think the problem novels were morality tales meant to engage us with the story and then warn us off the behaviour. Very manipulative. I agree that the best teen books do show you there’s a way past the drama of the teen years. But also that they matter in themselves. I like your collaborative education plan 🙂

  2. Mmm, didn’t know play girl was aimed at gay men.

    Another who read illicit material, both as an adolescent and adult. But not 50 shades.

    I did ask my son to wait a few years before he read Russell Brand’s autobiography. I thought his view on sex and females unhealthy. As it turned out so did Brand who admitted to sex addiction. My son agreed to wait. (I had bought the book for him but read it first after I read some reviews. Don’t know if he ever got around to reading it. My son is now readings classics.)

    • I asked Link to wait before watching the movie Transamerica (funnily enough, because of the son’s behaviour, not the parent’s) but that didn’t work so we had a good discussion about it anyway. In retrospect I wish we had watched it together. I have read the first Bookywook and didn’t find it had many redeeming qualities, but a discussion starter, I’m sure!

  3. I am so glad that I learned to appreciate books so young. I am so glad for the existence of the library. I am so glad for parents who recognized the value of taking us there nearly every week and allowing us to take to bring home a giant pile of books each week, offering no judgement of the books in the pile.

  4. Juhli

    I had to laugh at the reading books in class part! My lap always held a book to keep things from being too boring.

  5. Banning books reveals our intolerance and ignorance. The banned books are read more than they would have been otherwise. It is akin to when ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ came out a movie. The studio fueled discord about it before hand to drum up ticket buyers.

  6. Dar, I am just like a child who wants to do exactly what you have told him not to do. Which means any banned book was fair game and I read it. Not only did I read them but I often suggested them to my children when they sought titles that would make them think.

  7. I don’t remember not being allowed to read anything but I’m sure I had limits. I do remember my shock when I was looking through the magazines in the bathroom at my aunt and uncle’s house (to find something to read while I was in there) and opened a Playboy magazine. I could not understand why the women in the photos were laying all over each other, naked!

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