Headed to the hospital recently for a rather unpleasant surgical procedure, I figured I’d bring a book to pass the down time. I was about to grab Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy, the novel I’d been reading about a nearly 20th-century Catholic postulant who may or may not have seen a vision of Christ and suffered stigmata on her hands and feet. But the thought of nurses and order-lies glancing at the title, thinking ‘pervert’ and perhaps surmising that my demise really wouldn’t be all that great a loss for human-kind dissuaded me. Instead I brought along the Buffalo News sports section.

I told a Kentucky woman about this titular discretion. She countered with a story of a millennial girl of her acquaintance who brought to the gym a Christian book on the wisdom of waiting till marriage to conjugate. Perched upon the elliptical machine, its oh-so-visible title, Real Sex, raised an eyebrow or two.

Her tale reminded me of my brother’s experience when coaching Little League. His son showed up for a game with a book he’d been assigned in health class. The boy threw it carelessly on the bench, in full sight of teammates and parents. The title? Children of Alcoholics. My brother, decidedly not a boozer, could only wince.

Well, who hasn’t sniggered when espying a copy of IBS for Dummies on a friend’s bookshelf? To read is to invite derision, especially if you grew up in a working-class town. Hey, I didn’t make up the rules.

I put these anecdotes out there, as they say, and my chums took the bait. ‘A couple of years ago my wife and I were visiting her octogenarian father and his second wife,’ writes one Frisian American. ‘On a stand under the stereo was a book entitled Sexual Positions and Pleasure for Christians. I nudged my wife to draw her attention to it. It took her three days to forgive me.’

This seems to be a common theme, or maybe I just know a lot of horny New Testamentarians. An arthritic hoopster tells me, ‘I was reading Lewis Smedes’s Sex for Christians at one of my brother’s high-school basketball games once. It was assigned for a class in ethics. I tried to hide the cover — it was an awful cover — but a buddy’s dad caught sight of it. Abuse ensued.’

From the frozen north comes this dispatch from a Canuck barrister: ‘Strained relations with my folks were made no easier years ago when they saw on our coffee table a copy of Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life by Dr Susan Forward. Mother reacted in a manner rather consistent with the title’s premise. I explained that it really involved my in-laws. They were not fooled.’ I suspect, or rather I fear, that these tales will seem quaint, almost fusty, in the New Age being born. Being caught reading the wrong book will be more than a momentary embarrassment birthing a good story; it’ll be a virtual hanging offense.

I look over at my bookshelf. OK, ever since the shelf in my office collapsed it’s more like hundreds of volumes scattered, in a semblance of order, against the baseboards. Cheek by jowl, as it were, I see H.L. Mencken, Gore Vidal and Mark Twain lined up in defiance of whatever you got.

Mencken’s winkingly harsh animadversions upon any and all ethnic groups (except white Southerners; you can mock them with impunity), Vidal’s mordant broadsides against the American Empire and Twain’s colloquial naming of Huck Finn’s rafting partner more or less guarantee this trinity’s complete and utter ostracism in the land that wit forgot.

Their lively, lambent and real American prose is a certain antidote to sleep, but the woke — whose lineup of litterateurs would win the Sopor Bowl — will not rest in their crusade to stamp out dissent. Twain’s assertion that ‘irreverence is the champion of liberty and its only sure defense’ does not move them, because they don’t give a damn for liberty. The animating spirit of the free-speech leftists of my boyhood — Allen Ginsberg, Nat Hentoff, William O. Douglas — is as dead as an Ibram X. Kendi paragraph.

I suppose the good news is that tweeters lack the attention span to actually read Vidal’s Lincoln or A Mencken Chrestomathy or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The authors may be canceled but the books will endure. We can’t defund the Thought Police, but as long as one pimply teenaged nonconformist tells ’em to fuck off, hope abides.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s April 2021 US edition.