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COLUMN: Banned books are often the best ones to sink into and explore

Books about lives vastly different from our own are important stories to keep on library shelves
Amanda Darrow, director of youth, family and education programs at the Utah Pride Center, poses with books, including “The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

I devoured a most captivating story over a recent rainy weekend.

I ordered it from the public library system and when I got the email that it was set aside for me, I ran through the raindrops to snatch it up. I’d heard about this title all of my life. Now, at 46, I could finally carve out the time required to connect with it and work through the eventual feelings that society has promised — even threatened — it would elicit within me.

A weekend with a frequently banned book? Be still, my heart.

These are the books of the highest order, almost as a rule. Reading them has been a particular thrill of mine dating back to my literary crush on Judy Blume in the 1980s, and speaks sweetly to my oh-so-contrary heart.

“What don’t they want me to know? That’s what I want to know!”

That night I curled up and entered the world within The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison’s first published novel.

I encountered the difficulty of the book on the very first sentence. I simply didn’t understand the context. It was a vernacular very distant from my own. It was a Black voice written by a Black author in the 1960s, in a time and space, politically and socially, that I’ve never walked in.

I didn’t know what she meant and I knew I was missing a nuance. Blessedly, Morrison explains that first sentence at length in an epilogue, but it was the first stumbling block on a marathon filled with despair for the children in the book, but mostly anger and contempt for the adults who befuddled, ignored and damaged them.

This book is not even close to my lived experience. And that’s exactly why it’s important for me to read it. I longed to be beautiful and loved as a young woman, but not to the extent of Pecola Breedlove’s need to escape her body, and eventually her mind.

The Bluest Eye recently had would-be censors running to the RCMP in Chilliwack to be removed from high schools there. That’s what drew me to it, along with dozens of my friends. I found it has moments that perfectly capture the faults of humans in a certain time in America, specifically. But it also exposes the most repugnant corners of the psyche that can exist anywhere. Child molesters, perverts and psychopaths run amok through 1940s Ohio, and the writer goes inside their minds as they carry out their dirty deeds, exposing their terrible souls to the reader in first person.

It’s like nothing I’ve ever read, and yet, something is familiar.

I have seen some of these passages. The most possible explanation is that this is not my first time reading The Bluest Eye. There are bits and pieces, phrases, literary devices, that are so specific to this story there is no way my déja vu could otherwise be explained.

And that would mean that as a child or a teenager I picked it up, tried to read it, and put it down again. It would mean that the first time I encountered the book I couldn’t finish it. It either perplexed or bored or scared me. Maybe I ran out of time, or lost it. It’s hard to say.

But one thing is for sure. It was available for me to read as a child, as a teenager and a young person. And it’s comforting to know it was also there for those who would know what to do with the author’s words.

I grew up in a home filled with books and was encouraged to read, write and explore ideas in all art forms. I was exposed to so much as a child, through the real word and the arts. So I was only 45 pages in when I put it down for the first break and said out loud, to nobody: “I can see why people foam at the mouth over this one.”

The book is bound in chaos on its pages, and for five decades, has been defined as both a triumph and a piece of filth.

Love it, hate it, despise it, speak badly about it, praise it.

But leave it be. Let it live on, let Pecola Breedlove and the horrible cast of characters around her remain on the library shelves for the right eyes to see.

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Jessica Peters

About the Author: Jessica Peters

I began my career in 1999, covering communities across the Fraser Valley ever since.
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