Behind The Stories

NPR Senior Washington Editor Indulges In The Forbidden Fruit Of "Brave New World"

Ron Elving i i
Doby Photography/NPR
Ron Elving
Doby Photography/NPR

Last week, NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamberg revealed a streak of "steamers" she managed to check out from her neighborhood library at age ten for our take on NPR Books' PG-13 series, where NPR staffers look back on the Young Adult novels that inspired their own coming-of-age moments.

Turns out, Susan isn't the only one around here guilty of giving in to the gripping pages of Young Adult fiction. NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving shares this week what he found among the scholarly books on his father's book shelf:

"There were not a lot of novels lying around my home when I was growing up. There must have been a few classics kept here and there, possibly some leather-bound Sir Walter Scott, but I was not seduced by these. I had a Chicago library card from an early age, carrying home kid books about war heroes (John Paul Jones, George Armstrong Custer) and other bits of history pre-digested for juveniles.

"Then I began exploring the bookshelves in my father's study, where amidst sober tomes on religion and education I discovered a small paperback. The cover art showed a naked man and woman weeping and an angel with a sword. I figured out the naked people were Adam and Eve, but it would be many years before I realized the picture was "The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden," a Renaissance fresco by Masaccio.

"Anyway, it turned out the little book was not about Adam and Eve, or any other story from the Bible. It was a novel called Brave New World. I did not understand the title, of course, but the author's name, Aldous Huxley, was itself magical. The writing was unlike anything I had seen before, intensely British and hard to understand and clearly not for kids. All that made it more fascinating. And the barren world it described was dark, exotic and frightening. I had not ventured so far into anyone else's imagination before.

"This much of the book I understood: at some moment in the future, children were coming not from mothers but from test tubes. Their characteristics and capabilities were being engineered. People accepted this and much more while they submerged their misgivings in a drug called soma, which was not so much a habit as a lifestyle. Huxley's vision was meant to be horrific, but reading about it was irresistible.

"So I would gulp down doses of this when opportunity presented itself — which is to say when my parents were out — returning the book to its place, half-hidden between larger hardcovers. Not knowing why my father would have such a novel in the first place, I didn't want to answer any questions about how I'd found it or why I was reading it. Nor did I want it to be taken away. Besides, just being surreptitious about it was a big part of the deal. The fruit may have been forbidden only in my own mind, but that made it all the more delicious."

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