My family owns a book I will never read.
Actually, we own more than one book that I’ll likely not take time for: my stepson’s copy of Si-cology written by Duck Dynasty star Si Robertson, my husband’s 150 Years of Baseball, and a borrowed copy of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces I have kept way too long. Those books lie squarely outside my interests, and with so little time and so many books, why bother?
But there’s one book we own that I would probably enjoy but still will never read: John Green’s A Fault in Our Stars. Granted, it’s a young adult book. But that didn’t stop me from reading The Hunger Games. My husband read Fault and liked it. He’s actually watched the movie version a couple of times without me. It’s that good, according to him. But I will never read Green’s book or others like it because it is about cancer and someone in the book dies of the disease. For a cancer survivor who came close to dying of the disease myself, reading about people dying of cancer stirs up emotional turmoil.
Apparently this kind of selective reading has become popular among college students who ask to be excused from assigned readings because of the “triggers” contained in some classic literature. According to sociologist Frank Furedi, “At universities around the world, students are claiming that reading books can unsettle them to the point of becoming depressed, traumatised or even suicidal.” In his Aeon essay “Books are Dangerous,” he lists Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway (1925), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), even Ovid’s Metamorphoses as books students have labeled psychically harmful.
Furedi spends most of the rest of his essay enumerating the many ways over the centuries that others have imposed danger labels on literature to keep students, women, the “uneducated,” the religiously pious, and other readers away from the influences of reading. From the Roman philosopher Seneca, “who advised that the ‘reading of many books is a distraction’ that leaves the reader ‘disoriented and weak,’” to The Lady’s Magazine: Or Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex, Appropriated Soley for their Use and Amusement of 1780 that “warned that novels were ‘the powerful engines with which the seducer attacks the female heart,’” to 20th century Moralisers “who feared the malevolent influence of texts drew the conclusion that censorship served the functional equivalent of quarantine,” reading has a long history of inciting distress in its readers, according to some.
Growing up, my own religious training attempted to motivate us toward a self-imposed “trigger warning” approach to media consumption. For movies and music, the issue lay primarily in the moral arena: sex, nudity, profanity, and violence were to be avoided at all costs, regardless of the merits of the film or composition. But for books, the standard centered more on the ideas they contained. On many occasions, I was presented the metaphor of a counterfeit money expert who is able to identify fake currency not by studying the many different possible knock-offs, but by studying the real thing. In other words, I shouldn’t seek knowledge and truth outside of the texts our religious forbearers had already identified for us. To read books about Islam or atheism or evolution would invite trouble. Reading was dangerous.
Actually, reading is dangerous—possibly in the ways we have been warned about throughout history, where our minds are tainted by new ideas and tempted by knowledge of questionable deeds, but mostly in the ways we are pushed to question and analyze and possibly even reject old notions for new ones. When we read, we change—a dangerous proposition indeed.
“It is precisely because reading catches us unaware and offers an experience that is rarely under our full control that it has played, and continues to play, such an important role in humanity’s search for meaning. That is also why it is so often feared,” Furedi concludes.
But there is another danger in reading, perhaps even a greater danger, that is easily hidden among our preferences and ideologies.
Recently, my husband and I were discussing presidential politics and the primary election season at hand. About one candidate whom neither of us is voting for, we both expressed incredulity over the reasons anyone would make that choice.
“It’s not just that someone would vote for him, but that they aren’t doing any research to find out what he’s really like,” Steve said.
“Well, actually the problem might be that they are doing research but from a biased source,” I suggested, mostly because just the day before, I saw a conversation on Facebook in which two people offered sources to support opposing views about the same issues.
“When everything we read supports what we already know, who can argue with that?” I said.
Dangerous reading indeed. And not just in politics. Of course I’m not advocating only hostile reading, when our books and journals and magazines and newsletters whip us into a frenzy with every perusal. When I read authors who share my opinion and ideologies, I’ve found affirmation and increased understanding. But in hindsight, I also believe that I’ve stunted my own growth when I failed to challenge myself and my opinions by reading broadly and deeply from opposing positions, too.
But reading grows even more treacherous when we limit it not just by subject but by kind, because we have come to believe that our choices are not just morally or ideologically preferable but also intellectually superior. Of course there are many ways to frame these dichotomies. In literature we talk about literary fiction vs. genre fiction. In education, we think of the academy versus vocational training. There are films versus movies. High art versus low art. In “Reverting to Type: A Reader’s Story,” Alan Jacobs, Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program of Baylor University, frames the dichotomy this way: “the guy who talks about ideas” versus “the guy who makes things,” or the Intellectual and the Engineer. In his own reading, Jacobs started out as scientifically curious and increasingly became densely literary. He went from reading for enjoyment to “reading while thinking about what I am going to do with that reading.” When later he came back to both the scientific and science fiction reading of his youth—a reading that differed both in subject and in kind from his own professional reading—what happened surprised him.
“I pursued these matters out of relatively pure enthusiasm, delight in stretching parts of my brain that hadn’t been used much in a few decades. But in devoting so much of my leisure reading to books by scientists, I ended up, quite inadvertently, changing my views about my own profession,” Jacobs writes.
Primarily the change was this:
“Nobody can get a secure grip on this nearly infinite variety of inquiry and vocabulary, but every attempt to read across the boundaries of one’s own preferred practices is a tonic and a stimulant. We tell ourselves that we don’t have time for this kind of reading, but given the multiple rewards, can we afford not to take that time? Often it’s confusing, sometimes it’s clarifying, usually—if you can find the good, clear writers in the various fields—it’s a great deal of fun.
Of course “fun” doesn’t actually preclude danger. Reading of the kind Jacobs suggests is dangerous. But so is the alternative.
Maybe someday when I’ve been cancer-free for five or ten years, I’ll read The Fault in Our Stars. I know I’d like it. But before then, maybe I should pick up Si-Cology or 150 Years of Baseball. It might be fun.