There is a smell in old paper that causes a sensory echo once inhaled, slinging minds backwards in time to drift down the Nile past limestone pyramids baking in hot, dry sunlight; where papyrus grows and the laughter of deep tanned children rings out over the distant shallow whipping of slaves hauling stones for a giant temple built to honor some half-forgotten god.
Every deep whiff you take would prompt another journey, another land arriving over your visual horizon as startlingly clear as the one before it. A bookworm in a library absorbing the energy of countless creators and artist and poets and dreamers, engaged wholeheartedly in the endeavor.
Mr. Kursk the librarian was always there to give you a snooty look when you brought up the ten book maximum, having just barely beaten the clock in returning the last pile of them, still warm from your arms, clutched while jogging haphazardly over the black asphalt of the parking lot. “What are we reading this week?” he asks, knowing by the titles what treasures you have found. “I am learning about the Egyptian pyramids and mummies and all of that stuff, plus I found a really cool book on the last days of the Russian Czar before the Leninists came and shot him and Anastasia dead.” You tell him with sincere glee, this ability to take home and cherish these resources still a shock to you in its simplicity.
You learn and learn about what interests you, and take from the different topics knowledge of what ever strikes your fancy; one week sailing under the oceans for 20,000 leagues with Captain Nemo, then the next reading about the real USS Nautilus breaking through the arctic ice under nuclear power. Despite all of the confusion and noise and violence of high school, you always had the chance to find your own voice here, in this clean and quite room with its thousands of books.
One day, looking through the new selections you came across a curious little book that seemed entirely out of place in the environment of welcome here amongst these volumes of literature and knowledge. The book was called “Curing the Gay through Jesus,” in your mind sniggering at the concept of gay being something that had to be cured, and by no less a celebrity than Jesus Christ himself. Picking it up you began to turn the pages and read things that made no sense, that upset the fundamentals of what you thought books were. Here in plain English was a thing written with a mind tuned to hurt, not to help. Reverend Anthony R. Buamgartner seemed to think that young boys and girls somehow chose a life of suffering and damnation and that only though his particular sect of Christianity could they be put on the right path.
You read about barbaric methods of “positive reinforcement” and other unsavory concepts that match the stories set in some dark dungeon patrolled by iron helmeted Visigoths bent to torture captured Romans for joy and merriment. This book was a tool of evil. It should not be here, in this place, where young people like you should find it and fear about their own lives and question their own development. You have decided to perform an act which previously only barely registered in the reptilian portion of your brain; for like a vandal you have decided to burn this book.
Heart racing, you visualize all of the nightmare scenes of censorship: The early Christians setting ablaze the Great Library of Alexandria for the heinous crime of a woman being brazen enough to run the place, films of Nazis burning piles of beautifully bound books simply because the author was a Jew, the spectacle of Southerners banning Mark Twain and JD Salinger and Jack London because they spoke out for truth in a world grown accustomed to lies. Small beads of sweat roll down your forehead; could you too do the very thing you despise?
But the argument in your mind keeps coming back to the idea of preserving the mental health of your classmates, maybe even spiting Mr. Kursk who no doubt supplied this horrible book in the first place. You decide that moral courage outweighs moral conscience. But how to get the book out with no one being the wiser? The exit doors are rigged with an alarm for foolhardy thieves…you fully expect to lose this battle before it even begins.
Looking around you think of your course of action, finally deciding that the window in the staff bathroom might be pushed up enough to allow the book through. “Mr. Kursk?”
“May I use your bathroom; I had the special today at lunch and I might not be able to make it down the hall!”
With squinting eyes he nods his head and you walk back to the inner sanctum, where the books are repaired and re-covered, the smell of glue and black coffee in your nostrils, the hard little copy of “Curing the Gay through Jesus” poking you in the ribs. In the bathroom you turn on the faucet to mask the sounds of you clashing with the window stopper and attempt to slowly push it up, but from age and decades of repainting, it barely moves. With a great inner burst of strength you manage to force it up in inch and a half and you slide the hated book out, noting the shrubs outside so you can find it when you leave.
The first part of the battle over, you walk out of the bathroom with renewed purpose. Old Mr. Kursk has no idea what you were doing and hopefully never will. He stops you right before you saunter out of the library doors, “Hey!” Guiltily, you stop short. “All that time looking at the books and you don’t check anything out?” You take a slow gulp and swallow. “I have never seen you not get a book!”
“Erm, Mr. Kursk, I am not feeling too good, so I gotta go.” Pushing open the twin doors you rush down the hallway and through the front doors, out into the main yard, running up to where the bathroom window is and what’s waiting in the bushes under it. Pushing though the thin leaves and moist dirt, you grab the book and carry it back to your locker; pending its date with destiny, or infamy.
You make it home without incident, not really believing but believing that the guilt you felt would follow overhead like a literal black cloud of suspicion. Book burner is all you can hear, spitted out at you by victims of such violence.
In your confusion and self-disgust, Mark Twain himself appears standing before you, his suit white as snow- a circle of curling cigar smoke over his sainted head-“how can a man burn a book just because he doesn’t care for what it says?”
“Why I am always reading immoral books on the sly, and then selfishly trying to prevent other people from having the same wicked good time.” “Would’ya have burned Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer up too?”
“Then don’t do it!”
You push through the ghost of Twain and change direction, no more specters to follow you, when out of the corner of your eye you see a pudgy bearded and bespectacled Allen Ginsberg begin to scream “Howl” in full didactic glory; “Are you here also to destroy minds?” “Are you here to close a mouth before it can have its say?” “Sure you don’t like the words, but he’s gotta right to say em!” His hands waving in the air, finger cymbals clanging: “They burned my poetry, my dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit!” You turn away as he checks out your ass.
Impossible as this was your desire to burn the book increases, you shout back that “I’m helping people, not hurting them by doing this!” But only the trees overhead hear you, shaking their leaves in disappointment until you reach your home.
Running inside you grab some matches and go up to the fireplace, you open the flue and place the book on the black metal of the grate. You sit back on you haunches and look at it. It is slightly bent from the abuse it has so far endured. The pages are torn along the bottom and the back cover flops over the side of the grate, lolling out like a white and blue tongue. You ponder again the point of all of this, this race to destroy. What will you accomplish by setting aflame this one piece of distasteful literature? Are you going to burn every book you come across that tells a tale you don’t like? If you don’t want Dorothy to click her heels three times, but four; are you willing to burn Oz to the ground? When a fact comes to your attention that disagrees with another you have read, will you rip out the offending pages and hide them away where no one can see them?
No. No you will not do that.
You pick up the book, dust off the ashes and soot, and put it gingerly in your backpack; you are going to talk to Mr. Kursk about this tomorrow. Explain what you wanted to do to this silly pile of ink and paper.
The next day comes soon enough, the sun shining on you as you briskly walk through the doors of Harry S. Truman High School, up the stairs to the left and down the hall to the library. You are fully prepared to set off the alarm with the copy of “Curing the Gay through Jesus,” held out in front of you as a mark of honor and a badge of shame. But the alarm does not go off; the big scene you tried to engineer fails to occur. You walk sheepishly over to the check-out desk and plop the book down in front of Mr. Kursk, his long gray eyebrows arching up in curiosity. “What’s this all about?”
You look at him with his ponderously asymmetrical face, his crooked smile and the smell of vanilla pipe smoke hovering around him like an antique shawl. He isn’t a very stalwart opponent when you think about it.
“I stole this book yesterday, with the intention of burning it.” You look him right in the eye, “After due consideration I have decided that to burn it goes against my principles, but I still believe that it should not be allowed here in this school as great harm can occur to its students,” the words poured out of you smoothly, as though you had practiced them all morning, which of course you had. Mr. Kursk listens and nods his head. He looks down and picks up the bent and mangled book and turns it over in his hands. “I have no idea where this thing came from; I certainly would never allow such garbage in here.” You look at him with surprise. “Most likely one of the kids in the Christian club put it out there for some poor schmuck to find.” With widening eyes, you watch him take the miserable thing from the counter and drop it unceremoniously in the “Outer Office Memo” box. “I’ll make sure it gets back to its proper owner,” he says with a curt smile, “I’m sure Reverend Buamgartner would like to try passing it on to yet another confused generation of teenagers.”
“I think that solves your particular conundrum, no?”
You smile sheepishly and turn on your heels to leave, when right before you push open the doors, Mr. Kursk tells you to stop.
“I have just finished re-binding a book that you might like, it’s a little bit science fiction with a whole lot of poetry thrown in. I know you like poetry from the Ginsburg you got last week.”
“What is it?” You ask with sincere curiosity.
“Fahrenheit 451 by a Mr. Ray Bradbury,” he said with a knowing grin. “I have a strong inclination that you might find the plot to be very interesting, considering.”