Few parents would recommend “Ball Four” as the optimum introduction to the world of reading. I’m reminded of this because we’re in the midst of Banned Books Week.
Probably the first grown-up book I read, when I was 9 or 10 years old, was “Ball Four,” Jim Bouton’s 1970 behind-the-scenes account of professional baseball.
It was a little spicy, even for a precocious prepubescent like me. With lines like, “One day Joe Pepitone inserted a piece of popcorn under his foreskin and went to the trainer claiming a new venereal disease,” there was plenty to snicker at.
There was also a goodly dose of G-rated humor, such as this discussion after a pitcher gave up a long home run:
“There are a lot of parks that ball wouldn’t have gone out of.”
But “Ball Four” was touted as an expose, revealing that professional ballplayers — those crew-cutted guys on cereal boxes and in soft drink ads — swore, drank, took drugs and chased women.
I found it riveting not because the material was racy, but because the story was so entertaining. It got me reading. At 400 pages, it was about 10 times as long as the comic books that made up the rest of my library. I couldn’t wait to see how it ended. Would Jim pitch in the big game? Would the Astros win the pennant? I finished the book and tracked down other baseball-related works. Then books in other categories. I was becoming a reader.
My mom eventually noticed “Ball Four” in my room and — vaguely recalling stories about its sensationalism and unabashed language — suggested she’d have my father vet the material. I was uncharacteristically cavalier, seeing as I had finished the book months earlier.
When next I spotted “Ball Four,” it was in the hands of my dad as he sat on the couch, laughing out loud. He later asked me if I’d learned any new words from the book. I told him no and he nodded resignedly before saying, “Yeah, I didn’t think so.”
The paperback eventually reappeared in my room and the topic of its suitability never came up.
I’m reminded of this little episode because we’re in the midst of Banned Books Week, which runs through Oct. 2 this year. Since 1982, the American Library Association and other opponents of censorship have held Banned Books Week to highlight continuing efforts in this country to suppress reading material.
The library association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom charts challenges to books and released a list of the 100 most-challenged books for the past decade. Students could do worse than to consider it a required reading list — “The Catcher in the Rye,” “To Kill a Mocking Bird,” “Of Mice and Men” — even “The Chocolate War,” because, among other objections, there’s nudity. ... In a novel?
“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “The Kite Runner,” “Song of Solomon,” “A Prayer for Owen Meany” — all great works; all on the list.
Perhaps most disappointingly, series that ignite young imaginations and create lifelong readers are well-represented; J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” collection, in fact, topped the list. Also named are the Goosebumps series, the Captain Underpants series, Gossip Girl and The Stupids. Even the Twilight series has joined the annual lineup, being the fifth-most challenged work in 2009.
It all seems a counterproductive waste of energy. If you’ve a child who would rather hold a book than a TV remote, be thankful. If she’d rather scroll through library shelves than social-networking sites, you’re doing something right. Content, of course, can and should be reviewed and discussed — that’s what books are for.
Few parents would recommend “Ball Four” as the optimum introduction to the world of reading. But it was my first step on the trail to a lifelong love of literature. I can only be thankful some right-minded do-gooder didn’t block the path.
Contact Kevin Frisch at (585) 394-0770, ext. 257, or at email@example.com.