Books were not plentiful in Elizaville, the tobacco-farming town in Kentucky where I grew up. Most people did not have shelves and shelves of books, and neither did the schools. There was no public library until I was a teenager.
But there were comic books available at Gene Wood's general store, from which I accumulated Disney and superhero fare. When we visited my sister Georgia, a student at Morehead State, the drugstore there sold copies of Classics Comics for students to use as trots in English classes. I was a regular customer, and thanks to that drugstore I will never have to read Ivanhoe.
At home there were some volumes of the Bobbsey Twins series that had belonged to Georgia, and I read them all because I would read anything. Recognizing the insipidity of Nan, Bert, Freddie, and Flossie pointed to a nascent critical faculty. After that it was the Hardy Boys, which my grandmother would buy me as a treat, at a dollar each, on her shopping trips to Maysville.
One summer the county school system set up an improvised library with some sketchy holdings. Always interested in history, I selected a book of profiles of twentieth-century authoritarian leaders. My mother, thinking it might be too advanced for me, asked the supervising teacher if it was the sort of thing for me, and, to my enduring gratitude, she answered, "If he's interested, let him give it a try."
From that day, no one has ever set limits in what I might read, and I have indulged that freedom fully.
In time bookmobile service came to Fleming County, and I was allowed to ride along with Ms. Betty Jean Moss as a volunteer assistant. My mother would make pimento cheese sandwiches on salt-rising bread, and we would take off to the towns around the county. Women and children would pour out of these towns and carry off armloads of books.
Finally the county put up the funds to establish a public library, of which I became a regular patron. Moreover, I spent a year working as a volunteer assistant to the librarian, Ms. Margaret Davis, checking books out, shelving returns, and recommending titles.
In high school and college, and since, I have read voraciously; history and biography, high literature and low. I was a teenager when I discovered Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe murder mysteries, and in my professional life I discovered that after a long day of working with journalists, nothing gave more pleasure than a comfortable chair, a strong light, a drink at my elbow, and a book in which disagreeable people meet violent death.
"Reading maketh a full man," Francis Bacon wrote. Books have been my life, my education, my career, my greatest pleasure, and they have been that because from my youth I was granted the freedom to explore them.
Today I see reports of efforts to remove titles from educational curricula and public libraries, efforts to restrict students' and adults' access to information about the world around them. There is a blatant and monstrous dishonesty in claiming that freedom to read widely is a kind of indoctrination, and that limiting that freedom is not. It is an attempt to create what Milton in the Areopagitica dismissed as "a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexerecised and unbreathed," unequipped to cope with the seriousness of life.
Milton was right in 1644 to argue that people should have the freedom to read all manner of books and to sort out their merits, and that freedom is right today. Let the children read. Let them discover what quickens their interest, speaks to them, enlarges their understanding of the world they encounter.
Take the blinders off.