The Power of Books

This page will be added to as stories come up, but it's where I hope to collect accounts of why books seemed so powerfully important in my own Sandra Dodd life while they don't in my children's, in part, and to tell some of the stories of how afraid adults seemed of my reading when I was a kid too, which shows it's not just a generational thing.

These ideas are part and evidence for my still-developing thought about books in our society, people's revulsion or desire or worship of them.

Another thought here is that "old wives' tale" was equated nearly with "ignorant superstitious lie," and so even learning from personal experience was considered beneath someone who was serious about science or learning or who wanted to be considered "intellectual." One should only trust one's observations in cases of formal research, so without a book of personally-made sketches of nests, eggs, feathers and beaks, one couldn't *really* be learning about birds. Without a laboratory full of glasswork, one couldn't learning about science. Without a sample of over 210 subjects and test-designs and statistical analysis, one couldn't really be learning about human behavior. Reading books, though, was automatically deemed "study."

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I was nine or ten and my mom had a set of booklets from Art Linkletter about child development. They had the same angular graphics on the front, but each in a different pastel color. I was reading one and she kinda freaked. That made me really curious so next chance I got I went to try to read them all quickly. She caught me after a while, and ended up destroying the books, because, she said she was afraid if I read those I would know more than she did and so be able to manipulate her.

Cordie's stove looked kinda like this, but there were two stove lids on the left and it didn't have the back. This picture is from Miles Stair's Survival shop, which you might want to check out: gardening, greenhouse info, beekeeping, solar oven...

I was eleven or twelve, my parents went on a pack trip, deer hunting with friends, and hired a neighbor we didn't know well to stay with us for the weekend. Cordie was her name, and I think she was thirtyish. Cordie Williams, I was told later, was her name, but she wasn't Anglo. She was widowed, I think. She lived in a two-room adobe just in front to the north of the little church in Lower San Pedro, our neighborhood. The four of us girls walked with her up to her house for some reason, for her to change, I think probably, and I was in the kitchen room. There was a wood stove right in the middle of the room and she lit it, because it was a cold fall day, and I was on the cooking side. Table and food were on the other side of it, toward the front room/bedroom. I was bored, and it was a very empty-looking house. There was a big woodbox, and so I opened it. There was a book in there. I picked it up. I don't remember the name or the cover art, but I remember it was kind of fat for a paperback and cost $3 and some, which was REALLY expensive for a book in the 60's.

I opened it and hadn't read a dozen words of page 1 before Cordie saw me, rushed over, snatched the book away, lifted one of the stove covers, and and threw it in the fire. She was clearly afraid. REALLY afraid.

I felt sorry for her then, and as years passed I felt even sorrier. It must've been a novel with some porn in it, and for a young widow lving alone, that might've been a good thing to have. But she was apparently very religious too, and maybe the caretaker for the church (which was one of the churches that only had mass once a month, and for purposes of maintaining its sanctification. I'm guessing she was afraid I would tell people, tell other kids, but I didn't. I mentioned it to my mom, but my mom wasn't Catholic. She's the one who told me it was probably a book with some sex scenes. It took me years to fill in all my thoughts about it. I suppose she thought she wouldn't get more babysitting jobs, too, if I ratted her out. I wish she had just casually taken the book and said "That's not a kids' book, sorry," and distracted me some other way, but she panicked.

The stories above were written from the point of view of a middle-aged woman with teenaged children. When I was a kid, I thought "Books are powerful! Adults will destroy books rather than let me read them!!"

Church reinforced that. There were sermons talking about the good old days when people only read the Bible and weren't distracted or confused by secular writings, "trash," and the liberal press.

Someone wrote of her daughter:

She also has been known to get Captain Underpants. I think what is funny is that she doesn't have that differentiation of this is a "classic" and this Captain Underpants is not. To her they are all just books. Some are older and have more difficult language. Often she will ask what a word means and I don't know so we'll look it up.

[—Heather Woodward, on an an unschooling list]

When I was a kid I used to do that, but my friends and teachers would question it, or make fun of me. Not Captain Underpants, though I really like those and they're well done. It would be picture books, or the time I remember best was when I checked out The Complete Works of Edgar Allen Poe and On Beyond Zebra, by Dr. Seuss, at the same time, when I was 13 / 8th grade.

I wasn't brave enough to go into a long defense, so I told my detractors I was going to be a teacher so I needed to be up on children's literature. They settled for that, and it was true, but what I didn't know how to tell them was that I got it for ME, because I liked the art, because I liked the way he would make up words to get a rhyme or rhythm in the poetry, and that I had a "collect the whole set" mentality and once I'd read half his stuff I felt compelled to read the other half.

Part of the reason I remember this is that the Poe book disappeared, and I couldn't find it, and had to pay for it.

Then my friend Charles Montoya shot himself. Much trauma in all my social groups; his dad was our art teacher; much trauma.

A few weeks later, his dad brought me the Edgar Allen Poe book, which had been in Charles' stuff, but had some of my papers in it. I took it to the library and instead of getting a refund, wrote a dedication to Charles inside it.

For me, as a kid, nearly every book had a big story. I used to buy Doc Savage books with my allowance. Those I didn't take to school, because not only would they have probably been confiscated, people would have teased me because they were "boys' books." I remember them not for the stories, but because the books cost 50 cents, and my allowance was 35 cents, so my range to spend in the first week was only five or ten cents, if I wanted to be able to afford my book for sure the next week. That was shortly before the crazy inflation of the 70's. We could still get candy bars for a nickel (5 cents: note for Brits) or a dime (Almond Joy and Mounds were the only ten cent candy bars). Bubble Gum was honestly a penny. But I bought books instead.

There just weren't books at my house, and that's why, for me, school and the library seemed like fairy land. I've often looked back and thought I liked school, so school must've been good, but it was good in comparison to home, in several ways.

Yesterday Marty came home for lunch and was watching the Tony Danza show. They showed a school in Los Angeles they called "the homeless school," and were talking to some of the kids and teachers. They said for some of those kids, school was the only safe part of their lives, the only fun part, and I knew that feeling. (My house was safe enough, but not as safe as my own children's house is. My younger cousin was unpredictable and hit us sometimes, and molested my sister, though I didn't know until a few years later, and we were spanked and yelled at, but we had the possibility of privacy, at least, which the homeless kids seemed to lack.)

Sometimes when people are considering whether they want to unschool they're going on and on with questions about whether it will be perfect, whether it will be utopia. They forget to ask whether it will be better than school, and whether it will be better than buying and trying to enforce a school in a box. And this isn't to say I think they should settle for "just better," but that IS the initial question: What are your options, and what do you want out of this?

My kids don't have to worry about watching The Borrowers or Follow that Bird and Pulp Fiction (Doc Savage reminded me of that ) or a Jet Li movie or Tombstone on the same day. Marty's reading American Gods and Batman comics. The book goes with him when he has to wait in a reception area. He's not in a hurry to finish it, because he wasn't deadline trained. His mind is devoid of "semester" or "unit" or "book report."


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