I often come across the argument that unless a person has experienced something for themselves, they can have no idea how that experience really is. When we’re talking life’s true tragedies, or its highest victories, then yes, I agree. But if we’re talking about reading a book, well then, no I don’t.
I don’t have to read a book well known for its gore to know that I do not want that stuff in my head. I do not have to read a book with explicit sexual scenes to know that it has sexual scenes, or that they are too explicit for me to want to read them. This shouldn’t be too hard for people to understand, but there is a proportion of the reading population that asserts this false notion. On the surface it almost looks real: how can you know what this book is like unless you read it??
Well, how can I know what a roller coaster is like unless I ride it? Can I know in advance that I dislike having such things done to my senses, my stomach, and my head? Have I had enough experience with smaller coasters to realize, wisely, that larger ones would simply be a worse experience for me? And in our society, online and elsewhere, can I say out loud that I will not ride a roller coaster (ever) and folks just tease a bit and accept my opinion and go on with their lives? What is different about a book, or a movie, or a party?
Coasters have their effect for a few minutes, perhaps even hours until the body systems settle back down. A book can last a lifetime. The ideas books carry serve as seeds, dreams, and weapons. People want to spread their ideas, and some people want to uproot other ideas and plant theirs in the same place. This is perhaps one underlying statement when someone tells me I can’t know a book I haven’t read. Sometimes they simply want me to enjoy the same book they have, or experience the same sense of enlightenment that they did. Other times what I feel like I am hearing is that I have no right to speak on such issues because I do not choose to read said item. In many cases this is utterly false. Sure, I don’t know the details of every page of a book, but I do know myself. I can make pretty accurate guesses on what I might see in a book. I can also sometimes guess that a book is being pushed not for its own merit, but because it is a tool to attack something else. Sometimes this something else is the way I choose to live my life.
It feels as if this argument, that I can’t speak up about a book I haven’t read, is a method to silence me. The fact is, I can speak up and I will. I know myself, I know how I want to live my life, and I know what kind of society supports these things. I also can recognize those things that do not. Many books today are not just sharing ideas, they are actively spreading lies. They seek to undo huge amounts of civilization. Honestly, I almost don’t care what happens to society, because in my head society is the patina on the metal workings of civilization. But civilization? Do we really want to undermine the very thing that keeps us fed, safe, and sleeping through the night?
Wha…? You say. What does that have to do with books?
Is there anything more civilized than reading a book?
Is civilization based on being able to have stability? Does stability depend on planning for the future, and would that require a certain amount of hope?
In a violent riddled book of explicit suffering and waves of despair and nihilism is there room for hope? Oh, it gets tacked on. This reminds me of that funky social engineering in the 1980s when someone decided children’s cartoons were too violent. They censored Bugs Bunny into some sort of moving Dali artwork and they tacked moral lessons onto the end of Masters of the Universe, or whatever it was called. It was a weird hodge podge of something that couldn’t even be called standards without someone snorting milk out their nose when they heard it. So it is with many modern writings. A little bit of vanilla flavoring in the mud pie officially makes it cake, because some segment of society demands that it is so.
This reminds me again of another tangent, the day when I first read the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to my kids. They were amazed, and loved discussing the many layers there. The story still comes up to this day.
We live in troubled times, and sometimes our collective literature reflects this. But when does a book explore the issue and when does it make that issue more certain in our lives? Here are some questions I ask as I research a book before reading:
Does the book glamorize violence? Does it normalize it, make it feel powerful, and spread the feeling that violence is the answer? I’m not talking about self defense here, I’m talking about violence. Hurting others for the fun of it. It feels so powerful to be angry all the time. It feels like something exciting is bound to happen if we just keep our adrenalin falsely stimulated. You know, like domestic violence, road rage, or cussing out the cashier.
Is the sexual relationship part of the story? Or has the story been cobbled together to make a sling to hold up the sex scenes? Of course this premise exists; read up on the history of television and see how many shows were created to be the framework to hold the commercials in place.
Does the book wallow in darkness for the sake of darkness or does it teach useful skills to live a healthy life? A book can be pretty dark in a way and still teach a person how to avoid the dark things addressed within in the book.
The amount of research available these days makes my effort much easier. From sites that discuss issues in books to readers’ reviews online, I can study the book pretty carefully before making the commitment to read it (or deciding to not read it at all). This can take some time, but it saves me from stepping into some filthy pit and having to work even harder to get that stuff off of me.
I would ask a few more questions:
With depression a rampant problem in our society, does it make sense to feed into it with stories that push the idea that things must be tough, that joy is a myth, that nothing matters, that it’s every man for himself or dog-eat-dog? And especially, for teens who are especially susceptible to emotional extremes, is this really what we should be assigning them in required readings?
If we can understand nutrition for the body, that broccoli is good for you, that heroin can kill you, etc. etc., then why can we not consider the things that go into our minds? For heaven’s sake, we even assert that omega-3s are good for brain development, yet we see nothing wrong with explicit rape scenes that do nothing to fight against rape but instead work on awakening an appetite for the thing. And then schools choose from book lists that have these very issues in them.
And if schools have to choose, if they get to choose, then why should I not also read and approve/disapprove of what my kids will/ will not read? I make sure they get their iron and vitamin C, and I make sure they have books that teach real skills for life, and have a solid moral standard to them.
Even if you don’t believe in the soul, you must have heard the various arguments over nature vs. nurture. You may be familiar with the poverty cycle. You may have become aware that the media in all its forms does influence, otherwise there would be no advertising.
When I was in college I loved all things Russian (well, nearly all). The language, the literature, the expanse of their spaces. So I did a lot of reading and writing on their history. Peter the Great cut quite a path when he passed through social events! And nihilism was used to lobotomize an entire society so they would more easily accept the revolution. The revolution was officially used to free men from the oppression of royalty, but then the hammer of socialism came down and pounded the individual, and family, and society of Russia. Just not in a royal way.
Here in America we have so many opportunities, and generally speaking, a culture safe enough to pursue dreams and ideals. We must resist the rising philosophy (as old as the world, to be honest) that everything goes, so nothing matters, and the experts will be more than happy to step into our lives and clear up any confusion we experience when we can’t even find our own feet.
I have lived beyond the halfway point of my life and when I realize that, I realize this: I haven’t got time for literary heroin. Give me my Great English Lit.