Should Books Make Us Uncomfortable

It seems like hardly a week goes by where there isn’t some report about a book that has been challenged or banned from use in a school. The reasons vary. Unpopular religious views or opinions, gratuitous violence, sexually explicit, language are some of the more frequent reasons listed by the ALA. Banned Books Top Reason For the most part, I’m sure that most of you reading would never advocate banning a book, but I think it is worth discussing what the deeper reason is for people challenging books. In my opinion, it’s because the books make the challenger uncomfortable, and to that I say good!

I’ve been following the controversy surrounding the 13 Reasons Why series on Netflix, and I do understand the concerns. Certain subjects are all that more vivid when brought to the screen (big or small), and can really hit home in a way that reading it on a page may not. We all have emotional buttons, and it’s an individual choice whether or not the series is right, and I think Netflix did the right thing by posting warnings.

That being said, I have had many discussions over the years with Parents and Teacher Librarians who take it upon themselves to censor and refuse to put a book on their shelves or let their child read it because they are not comfortable with the subject matter and it’s this kind of reaction that disturbs me to no end.

In a post from a year or two ago, I talked about the difference between Gatekeeper and Censor. A Gatekeeper is someone who makes sure the books getting into their child or students’ hands are age-appropriate. Gatekeepers are important.They make sure that 13 Reasons Why doesn’t end up in a k-6 library or going home with their 10-year-old. A Gatekeeper puts parental controls on their Netflix account to keep young children from accessing adult content.

A Censor on the other hand (and again I say this largely from personal experience & opinion) is someone who is made uncomfortable by the content of a book or movie, etc… and believes that this discomfort should result in nobody else being allowed to access the content in question. Aside from a personal objection to someone else deciding for me what is or isn’t appropriate, censorship also bothers me because I think that it’s important to occasionally be made uncomfortable by a book. There are many things we see on the news and read in the paper that make us uncomfortable and that are disturbing or upsetting, but it’s only through exposure to those things that we can form a personal framework for what we believe and how we conduct ourselves as citizens of the world.

13 Reasons Why is an uncomfortable book to read. Hannah’s story is heartbreaking and it makes me extremely sad and angry to know how many people have had similar experiences. I would like to think that teens reading this would be equally as heartbroken and angry about the way that Hannah was treated, and maybe it caused more than a few to consider how they treated their peers, or let someone else going through it feel less alone.

For me, books that make me uncomfortable are eye-opening experiences. Reading about rape or the brutalities of war or suicide should never be comfortable. They are difficult subjects that fictional stories can help readers to decode. For some, reading about people with different sexual orientations or religions may also be uncomfortable, but again- through those stories, we gain an understanding of other people, and that understanding can make us more compassionate and accepting of differences.

Not every book is for every person and I’m not advocating forcing any person to read a book that isn’t right for them, but until someone can definitively prove to me that being made uncomfortable while reading causes the reader mental or physical harm, I think that anyone who wants to censor a book for any reason should take a hard look at themselves and remember that their own discomfort doesn’t mean that these books don’t have a place in the world.

2 Responses to Should Books Make Us Uncomfortable

  1. Heather Villa May 10 2017 at 10:23 am #

    Yes, it’s important to feeling uncomfortable. That’s how we learn to have empathy. I truly appreciate this post. I like how you distinguish the diffference between gatekeeping and banning. Recently, I felt like a book banner, but really I’m a gatekeeper of a particular book, which I explained to my young daughter that she should wait a couple of years before she reads it.


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