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Spring Break Responsibly

flowersSpring break and books? The idea of reading recommendations is so obvious that it really annoys me that it didn’t occur to me.

Following Julie’s lead, we decided that, instead of adding another assignment to our hectic lives, we would choose to write about books we had recently read. I know, reading a new title shouldn’t feel like a major undertaking in a library-based project, but in these days, when everything and anything can turn into a disaster, one has to be careful when committing to a new one.

What did I read recently that would be interesting for Rutgers students, faculty, and staff? Any book that would meet our criteria of recommending books for public consumption. Let me check the books piled up on my nightstand.

My habit of reading and keeping several books there coincides with the judgment that what you read reflects on your personality. I adopted the idea that you may want to keep books by your bed for the moment when you kick the bucket, because people will go through your belongings. I will definitely look like a snob.

Currently there’s a Hungarian version of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, a title by Roberto Bolaño that I picked up from the SEBS Little Free Library in Foran Hall a year ago, the latest issue of the Alfred Hitchcock‘s mystery magazine as a result of my recent subscription, and finally, Just Say Yes, a Marijuana Memoir written by Catherine Hiller. Now that’s definitely appealing to students forgoing their spring break in 2021.

With the recent New Jersey laws passed only a few days ago on February 22, marijuana is now a hot topic in the Garden State. No doubt the new era that we are about to start very soon is going to be difficult. My fellow librarians from Colorado and Washington State can attest to that, as I observed when we published our marijuana research guide.

So why this book now? Am I hoping that my lack of empirical knowledge is balanced by my professional experience as the subject specialist for addiction studies? Well, it has a Rutgers University Libraries barcode on the spine and I am the one who acquired it.

Managing the generous Anne Webster Memorial Fund to purchase alcohol- and drug-related titles, my scope extends to popular books related to addiction topics beyond the scholarly publications. For the Reading for Recovery project, the team selected books such as biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs of those with substance abuse for our readers to benefit from bibliotherapy (i. e., guided reading) as part of recovering from substance use problems.

image with textPublished in 2015, the 180-page Just Say Yes isn’t hard to spot as one of my acquisitions––it is currently located in the Library of Science and Medicine, as part of the Alcohol Collection moved from the library of the Center of Alcohol Studies. Not that I feel the need to justify my decision, but the book does have more of a literary pedigree than you might expect from the title; a version of the first chapter of this book was published in the New York Times on March 22, 2015, and one version of another chapter in an anthology called Woodstock Revisited in 2009.

The author of Just Say Yes picked a very provocative title indeed. I doubt there’s anyone in this country (at least over 30) who hasn’t heard of the Just Say No campaign, featuring a slogan created by First Lady Nancy Reagan as a part of the War on Drugs. If you went to school in the past decades, you were most likely to be part of D.A.R.E., Drug Abuse Resistance Education. Without going into details about that program’s efficacy, you can be sure that this book will present just the opposite of everything you learnt there.

The author is fully aware of her choice. For a start, she cites the pioneering 19th-century opium memoirist Thomas de Quincy:

I have for many months hesitated about the propriety of allowing this or any part of my narrative to come before the public eye until after my death (when, for many reasons, the whole will be published); and it is not without an anxious review of the reasons for and against this step that I have at last concluded on taking it.

The book claims to be the first marijuana memoir published as a positive account of long-term cannabis use. With a PhD in English from Brown, Catherine Hiller can undoubtedly present her story in an engaging and authentic manner. A great candidate to become a challenged or banned book, Just Say Yes is an authentic first-hand account of what it means to live as a cannabis user under the radar for decades.

Life-long cannabis use as the overarching theme puts a stamp, rather than a stigma, on every aspect of one’s personal and professional life. Writing her story to counteract the shame of using marijuana, Hiller chose an unusual but noteworthy narrative progressing backward, from a full-blown elderly pothead to the innocent young girl, reconnecting us with our own playfully experimenting selves primed for pleasure. The sincere author deploys a great deal of humor and introspection to depict the effect of cannabis on every aspect of her own life.

These details might be shocking for someone who grew up without having to resist the occasionally tempting joint. Some might even be scandalized to read about the everyday challenges of finding the next hit, hiding the weed and the habit, living as a pothead mom, while adding and dropping friends based on this common grounds. The weed trips to locations in New York are also expanded to scenes of music festivals such as the Burning Man and Woodstock, providing intimate personal knowledge of iconic events.

What kind of example does her story set? I am not sure. I still bought the book, because I support the principle that libraries have an obligation to provide access to unbiased information. I believe that books like this play an important role in understanding both sides of the coin.

It is not that easy just to say no, as a popular Byrne Seminar team-taught at the Center of Alcohol Studies (CAS) for several years approached substance use. This is the best time at Rutgers to pick up that conversation, so I will also offer a new Byrne Seminar next year reusing the title of my blog post, Responsibility grows in the Garden State.

With that in mind, what I really like about this book is that it serves as a great conversation starter via adding the author’s personal opinion to the public discussion. I have the privilege to view the current marijuana landscape in a broader context. Processing historical documents for the Center of Alcohol Studies Archives, I discovered that back in the day the Center took some heat for breaking away from the prescribed approach of zero tolerance as they embraced research on responsible drinking. History proved that instead of becoming an advocate as accused, the Center managed to help shift the focus to prevention and risk reduction, a healthy and sustainable approach on a college campus.

Am I recommending to read Just Say Yes? I am not sure. The Rutgers copy is checked out to me anyway. But I do recommend taking a quick look into our collection and finding a memoir for spring break, such as the ones selected for R4R: any of them will allow you to spend time on reflections and perhaps will give you a different perspective on opportunities taken or missed.