Monday, 6 June 2011

"Books can illuminate all those dark corners and rooms inside all of us and improve our thinking, planning, sorting, understanding and behaviors."

Last week I received an amazing response to one of my reviews on Goodreads about The Slap from a reader named April Gavey. I asked her permission to post it here for you all to read as it's certainly worth sharing and poses a lot of interesting questions and discussion topics. It's quite lengthy, folks, but certainly worth your time. Trust me. :o)
Offensive content is required in writing truth. People are complex and layered in everything they do, children included. Babies learn manipulation early but most of us see it as cute. We are animals with observable behaviors as obvious and ritualistic as cats and dogs. Books help us SEE these behaviors and help explain them.
A part of me gets ridiculously annoyed when people say, "I was offended by the bad language" because so often it's as if form is more important than the substance. It's like when there's been a car accident and a victim is bleeding/dying, but a witness is upset because a spot of blood got on her shoes and she feels that's so rude and disgusting. Bad language is transmitting information about internal states of mind of the characters, it's plot movement and development. It's emotion generating, maybe causing yourself to become excited. It's also a fact of human expression in all languages of the world.
Other irritating exclamations are those in the category of "this doesn't really happen." I know for a fact some women kill their babies, and I despise people who refuse this obvious fact. Though I am also annoyed by people who basically feel, ooh, that's too icky, I understand that one.
I've felt that skin crawling nausea, for instance, when I heard about the poor Syrian 13 year old boy tortured to death by Syrian "Security" agents. However, books are a voluntary occupation. In theory, choosing to read a book is free will in action. Read what you want. I've never understood complaints from people who hate the frank language or sexual descriptions or human depravity in books yet read them from cover to cover. 
I don't understand the compulsion to ban a book for everybody else if yourself hates it. Denying reality is criminal, in my opinion. Denying someone the opportunity to learn and explore another mind through a book is a civil crime, in my opinion, even if all the characters are imaginary. Denying enjoyment of language, sex, depravity (for some people), rude tasteless comedy or horrifying politics or general human condition situations that MIGHT be catering to the lowest common denominator or wonderfully illuminating the mysteries of being people is impossible, since a book is only one firm of media transmitting these cultural memes, idioms, ideas and stories and pictures.
The fact the Internet has billions of websites catering to any and every interest of humanity is a "tell" (gambler giving away his game through unconscious body ticks). Homer was a verbal storyteller and all Literature classes start there with the point, first, people gossiped and talked and lied and exaggerated and explained verbally- and then we put it in writing!
We are a mystery to ourselves even when we are eager to live an examined life, and worse, we are often blind to ourselves. Books can illuminate all those dark corners and rooms inside all of us and improve our thinking, planning, sorting, understanding and behaviors. We are not all alike or similar, but there is a range of possible human behaviors where illumination of those psychological data points has positive impacts on each of our real lives and on society.
For example, I want to recognize predatory behavior, and I want to categorize it as silly, safe, or normal, or dangerous or evil, whether it comes from myself or other people. I need to understand other motivations in order to judge how what decisions I need to make, but if I'm ignorant or blind to motivations my life could be damaged by wrong reading of a person. Books help read people. Books help to see the possible range of behaviors humans display, safe and dangerous.
How often and old is the story behind child rape where Mom couldn't recognize the behavioral signs or wouldn't believe in its possibility because she never heard of such a thing? Do we want to live in such ignorance because it's icky so we don't believe the child? Do we give our money to the smooth con man because he smiles nice, but we ignore the shifty eyes and sweating lip?
To me it often feels like willful stupidity, blindness and purposeful ignorance to demand happy books of sweet people who always win their rewards of good living by not swearing, wearing clothes all of the time and practicing only good faith, love and affection to all. It's idiotic.
Choose the books you want to read, don't read books that "offend" you. It's a free country, choose the self educating as well as the entertaining if you want. I don't want to read only dark, noir plots. I also read plenty of comedies, adventure, spy, science, and celebrity books and biographies. But when I read a dark book about amoral or immoral or criminal behavior it's because this exists in the real world too and I want to learn about it.
I like happy books too, by the way. 

Thoughts? Here are some questions to help you. Answer one, all or none, but I'd love to hear some opinions!

1. Do you ever shy away from 'icky' content in books? Why/Why not?
2. What do you do when you come across a book you dislike for whatever reason, do you stop reading, or do you finish it and complain to the world? Why do you think you do this?
3. Do you think it's right to ban books? Why/Why not?
4. Has a book ever made you examine how you behave? Explain.
5. How are your instincts when it comes to judging one's personality or motivations? Has reading (in any form, news, magazines, novels, non-fiction) ever affected how you judge someone?

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  1. Very interesting post. Key for me was the idea that peopel who find something offensive feel the need to prevent others from experiencing the same (whether they agree to it or not). I don;t think this is just about books, but life in general: religion, nationalism, arguing over sports stats... There's somehing in humans that requires everyone else to validate my feelings by agreeing to live by my rules. Something to do with us being monkeys at heart, I'd guess.

    i think the internet will help break that mindset, although that still leaves the issue of exactly what should be banned.

    Moody Writing

  2. Eloquent comment.

    1) I do shy away from books with ultra-dark topics because I usually want to get some sort of pleasure out of reading. The reality of brutality is always present. I'm not looking to find it.
    2) Often, I finish the book. I may write a review about why I didn't love it. If people are interested in my opinion, they'll read it. Since I find books from reviews of people I trust, I like to return the favor.
    3) It's not right to ban books. It's taking away free speech.
    4) I learn from books all the time. I learned that I'd fallen into family patterns and chosen a boyfriend who had a problematic trait of my family just by reading Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler when I was 18. Deenie by Judy Blume helped me understand my mother's perception of my sister and me. Hello Aurora taught me about feminism when I was 7 or 8. I've blogged about these 3 books and their impact.
    5) I'm sure it has, though I can't think of an example. Reading makes you live in someone else's life. Strengthening empathy can't be bad.

    And I'll add that every time my children had a question or had a hard time with something, I found a book to help them get through it.

  3. Wow that was a brilliant response! Well said April.

  4. I'd also echo mooderino. A political party and politicians tap into people's insecurities and how people want to see life. Books threaten that narrow, skewed view.

  5. I'm not bothered by offensive content, though I can dislike a book if the content doesn't seem necessary for the story. I wish I could say the PC thing, that I wouldn't ban any books, but I can imagine some that really shouldn't be out there, such as 'how-to' manuals for terrorists.

  6. I don't mind the "ick" factor if it works in the story, but I don't usually seek it out. I have stopped reading a book if I didn't like it. My time is valuable and I'd rather read something I enjoy. Only non-fiction books make me think about me.
    Great post.

  7. This is a very powerful opinion. I'm proud she felt the courage to write it. This plays in perfectly with what's going on in the YA area of the market, right now. The whole Wall Street Journal article basically slamming YAers and parents for reading and supporting such stories. Thanks for sharing it with us, Jess.

  8. 1. Yes I do tend to shy away from "icky" content in books. I can find enough ick on the news and in the newspapers to do me thanks.
    2. Usually I'll stop reading unless the story line has gripped me enough to keep me reading anyway. No I don't complain about it. It was my choice to read or not to read.
    3. Definitely not. Freedom of expression must be defended at all cost.
    4. My shelves are stocked with books on alternative medicine and homeopathic remedies and eating for health...absolutely they have affected the way I react to health problems for the better. (not quite what you meant, I know)
    5. My husband has better instincts about people than I do and he seldom reads anything other than the newspaper.

  9. 1) I usually gravitate toward brutal books. I don't know about 'icky.'

    2) I've only ever stopped reading two books before finishing them. It take a lot for me to dislike a book.

    3) No. Why not would take too long to answer.

    4) Nope, I'm perfect.

    5) I don't judge people. But I suppose reading books about people in certain situations has allowed me to empathize with them more easily.

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  11. Wow! Lots of questions there. No, I don't think it's right to ban books. We all the right to say what we wish - we all have the right to be offended. But one should not affect the other, IMHO!

  12. 1.) Sometimes stuff with a lot of violence gives me nightmares. That's one reason I now read fewer thrillers than I used to.

    2.) I try not to call attention to most books I don't like. But there are exceptions. I think it's naive to assume only good things come from reading books. Take a look at "Mine Kampf," for instance, which Hitler used to spread hatred towards Jews and minorities.

    If I read a book which I feel spreads intolerance and prejudice, I will speak out against it. Furthermore, I consider speaking out against it not only a right but a responsibility since blatantly biased fiction and non-fiction can make a lot of bad things happen in real life.

    3. And of course it isn't right to ban books. I doubt very much, though, that Hitler's regime burned books because they had bad language in them or offensive sex scenes. More likely these books didn't go along with his political agenda. Books are powerful and can be used for good as well as for bad.

    4. Yes, self-help books.

    5. This is a hard question to answer. I'm not sure, and would like to think that I don't let my reading effect how I see others. But to this I would ask, do any of us really know?

  13. I just loved her review.

    1. Do you ever shy away from 'icky' content in books? Why/Why not? No. I agree with the reviewer, it's a form of expression. The content of books like Of Mice and Men, In Cold Blood, and The Grapes of Wrath left me disturbed but it's important that those stories get told.

    2. What do you do when you come across a book you dislike for whatever reason, do you stop reading, or do you finish it and complain to the world? Why do you think you do this? What stops me reading a book is rarely the content and mostly the style of writing. I rarely complain about any book though because what I didn't like someone else will like.

    3. Do you think it's right to ban books? Why/Why not? No. Who are we to decide what another should read. If you don't like a book, don't read it and a parent has a right to decide what their children read until they are adults but no one should make decisions for everyone else.

    4. Has a book ever made you examine how you behave? Explain.
    Yes. Isn't that why we love reading?

    5. How are your instincts when it comes to judging one's personality or motivations? Has reading (in any form, news, magazines, novels, non-fiction) ever affected how you judge someone? Hopefully for the better but sadly, that is not always the case.

    Thought provoking post.

  14. 1. Depends on my mood. Sometimes a dark read is just what I need. Allows the emotion that I need to be pulled out and examined.

    2. I used to judge the book and tell everyone how awful it is. Now I am more careful on if I just didn't like it or if the book was awful. I think the world is subjective and rather than complain I offer insight on why it wasn't right for me. I let others make their own decisions.

    3. Never ban a book. With the heart and soul that's placed in every page their words should be heard regardless whether they make some uncomfortable. Those are raw emotions and they have the right to be shared.

    4. A lot of times. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert allowed me to re-examine myself and make sure I was who I wanted to be and not what others expected. I'm a much better person because of it.

    5. Everyone judges I think how you handle the situation after you judge. I do my best to judge less often but I do often take someone's view and make it my own before having a chance to see for myself. It's a live and learn process... I'm still learning.

  15. I've never really "noticed" if I shy away from certain things. There are books I've read that I KNOW would offend people and yet I breezed through it. But there's a book I read that I had to set down at one point because the gore was literally making me ill. Yet I know teens who've read and re-read it without a qualm.

    For me, it comes down to story. Is the story there or not? Is the contest organic or just content?


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