Monday, June 6, 2011

A Reflection on Impactful Books

So the internet is all aflutter with responses to this article about "dark" literature for teens. I heard about this from Maybe Genius, and while her response is short she shares a few links to a couple pieces that pick at the original text in more detail. I don't plan on delving into the issues with the original piece; this is more a story about me. So if it interests you, I suggest reading the original and a few responses if you haven't already.

If you just want the gist of it, basically this woman, Megan Cox Gurdon, wrote a piece for the WSJ complaining that books for teens these days deal too much with rape, abuse, self-mutilation and whatever other thing she deems inappropriate. She argues that it "normalizes" these things. She attacks some specific books as well as the publishing industry and the ALA. I couldn't even read the whole thing the first time I tried because I was too disgusted with what she had to say. But I finally read it all the way through, and she ends with, "No family is obliged to acquiesce when publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze coarseness or misery into their children's lives." So it seems she wants to shelter teens from reading about sad and terrible events and situations, even though we can't shelter teens, or anyone, from experiencing sad and terrible events and situations.

Many have responded to explain that this literature actually helps teens get through these issues. And that is so true. Really, I can't fathom how she feels justified in complaining about this. The fact is (and I'm sure someone out there in the blogosphere or twitterverse has expressed this already) if she doesn't approve, that's between her and her kid (who I'm sure is very normal and well adjusted and happy ALL THE TIME, like most teenagers). Why does she want to limit what others can access because of her opinion? The woman just sounds very anti-knowledge to me.

Anyway, the point of this whole summary (because I haven't added anything to this discussion) is to provide background for a personal anecdote. I started thinking about books that cover "dark" topics and also about the fact that my mom never restricted what I read. And then I recalled there was one book that my mom didn't like me reading but let me finish anyway. The book is Alicia: My Story and it is an autobiography written by a Holocaust survivor.

Now, I'm guessing that Mrs. Gurdon wouldn't oppose the reading of this book by a thirteen year old girl. It doesn't cover any of the topics that seem to rile her, and there's the historical element, so surely she wouldn't be bothered. But my mother was bothered, because I would stay up late reading it (I stayed up late reading a lot back then) and would end up bawling constantly. My mom hated seeing me this upset by something. During certain parts of the books, I would just break down shaking and sobbing. I'd cry out loud. I'd curse the world for making anyone suffer as the Jewish people had. I'd already read The Diary of Anne Frank but had only cried at the end. This story had me weeping the whole way through, as Alicia Appleman-Jurman loses family member after family member, lives in a ghetto, escapes from a train crammed with people heading to certain death, goes into hiding, nearly ends up in a mass grave, and lives through many more horrors. Those are just the bits I can still remember, nearly 15 years after reading the book, once.

This book forced "coarseness" and "misery" into my life, more than any other book I read as a teen, although I did read some featuring rape and abuse. It had a profound and lasting effect on me, making the things I learned in history classes real and terrible. I felt disappointed in humanity a bit (it wouldn't be the last time). But it was so important that I read this. Not because it helped me through something, like many young adult books can, but because it taught me something about the human condition, which is what books do at their best. And those books attacked by Gurdon, don't they provide the same service?


  1. Great post. I've already done my fuming about that article, so I won't go there again. Your point is one I completely agree with, and one Gurdon seemed to miss completely. Even if a teen hasn't experienced some of the terrible events featured in certain books, maybe they can still gain something from reading about them. Like empathy, or knowledge, or insight into lives other than their own. That's important, too.

  2. Yeah I thought the article was vile and ridiculous. I think you put forth a great response - I didn't even think I could address it coherently because it makes my blood boil. I can't abide censorship, especially of books/knowledge... Parents may have the right to shelter their own stupid kids, but not anyone else.

    I think in addition to the good points above about how these things can impact us in a morally positive way - I think teens enjoy some element of the terrible - it's kind of a safe way to experience the horrible/come to terms with things while still being in the safety of your own home (I know that sounds bad, but as someone who was a depressed teen myself, reading of other people overcoming the horrible helped a lot, wallow in and then straighten out self-pity, and was weirdly comforting).

  3. See also:

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful responses!

    Steph: I think empathy was actually the word I was trying to get at with this post, but somehow I just didn't get there.

    NJA: I think you're right about enjoying the terrible, though I wouldn't limit it to teens. I like experiencing the horrible from the safety of my own home as well. Also, that poster? Rad.

  5. Not sure if you will get this or not, but my name is Michael and I am a girl too...liked your post :)