So. The other night I was writing my review of A Year of No Sugar and was a little baffled to come across this snippet in a review:
“One thing that I wish was cleaned up a bit more was the language. There’s several people I know who would like this book but I can’t recommend it to them while it has both minor profanity (D’s and H’s and words like crap) and, more “moderately” (S, three times) and even the euphemism “motherfreakin” (that one kind of shocked me). I just know it would turn them off. And it really isn’t necessary for the story telling. The “S” words especially were entirely unneeded, if you took them out no one would know where they ‘went’, they’re that superfluous.”
The ‘S’ word is “shit” not “sugar”… just in case that wasn’t clear. Allow me to further clarify on the book… I didn’t care for it, but the language is no worse than you would find on daytime television.
This review unfortunately led me down a rabbit-hole that turned into the hellscape of ‘clean reading’ blogs. An entire evening of my life is gone. At first I was merely amused at this one reviewer being so appalled by the shocking use of ‘motherfreakin’ that she was unable to recommend this book to others.
But the more I became mired in not just this one reviewer’s thoughts on ‘profanity’ and other ‘icky things’ the more incensed I became. I became more concerned when I realized that this wasn’t just one reviewer, but a whole legion of reviewers and bloggers, alike.
That being said…
I guess I have to start with talking about why we read, or maybe why I think we should read, or most accurately why I read. I blame Bryan at Still Unfinished (Why Do I Read What I Read?) for these thoughts. I think that Andi at Estella’s Revenge deserves some of the blame about confronting versus comforting reads, too.
Personally, I read widely. I don’t necessarily like to get out of my comfort zone but I do think that it’s important. Why? At the risk of sounding cliché, it’s important for me to get out of my comfort zone to find out (and subsequently experience) foreign and awful things. By ‘experiencing’ these things through literature we push our boundaries, learn empathy, and expand our horizons in ways that we never could otherwise.
Does this mean that I feel sorrow for Stephen King’s murderous monsters? Usually not. Or that I agree with the morality of characters that engage in child abuse? Not yet. Did reading Lolita make me feel completely revolted? Yep. Am I still glad I read it? Definitely.
To dismiss a book, especially as an adult, just because a character smokes 37 cigarettes or characters are engaging in an extra-marital affairs (Madam Bovary, Anna Karenina, The Scarlet Letter, The Canterbury Tales) or swearing (also The Canterbury Tales) just seems short-sighted.
Life can be hard and ugly. There will be situations where you will have to deal with people who do not ascribe to your morals, who do not follow what you consider to be the proper way of life. By reading about these people and situations we are preparing ourselves for these encounters. Hopefully by preparing ourselves we can act with more poise, grace, and even compassion when we encounter these people.
Example: Here’s what one clean reviewer had to say about Wild by: Cheryl Strayed
“Also had to recently stop reading “Wild” which was really unfortunate because her description of her mother really moved me. But I couldn’t tolerate the F bomb, and her negative view of God and response to Him when her mother died.”
This reviewer has missed an opportunity to examine the pain and anger that some may feel towards god(s) when a loved one is unfairly taken. Couldn’t that experience be useful not only in empathy, but in better assisting friends and neighbors that will inevitably experience similar losses?
The last blurb from a clean reader I want to share with you is this:
“There are people who would say I can’t make a judgment on a book I haven’t even read. I happen to disagree. I think it’s like demanding that I take poison to see if something’s going to poison me. I know about things without having experienced them first hand, and we all do. I know about the horrors of the third reich, and I know about the beauty of the aurora borealis. I also know which one I want to experience for myself. The trouble is, when people I disagree with refuse to accept it.”
Specifically on the issue of The Third Reich here, you know about the horrors because you have experienced them – in the only way we can experience history. Literature and media. This whole statement is an oxymoron. We feel compassion and horror at distant wars (distant in time, culture, and actual mileage) because we are willing to subject ourselves in some small way to the horror of the Rwandan genocides, the Holocaust, and life under the Taliban by partaking in literature that speaks of ugly things in ugly ways. If we are lucky enough never to have been hurt or abused we feel empathy with victims because we have read fictional narratives that helps us understand only the palest shade of their pain.
What I’m not saying.
I’m not saying that every book you read should be wildly outside your comfort zone. I’m not saying that every book with sex, drugs, and swearing is worth reading. You definitely should read books that bring you pleasure, that are within your idea of ‘comfortable’. After all, more so than any other art form, reading requires a commitment from the reader and I want people to continue to read.
But I do think that every now and then we should make an effort step outside our own echo chambers and explore things that make us a little uncomfortable or that we find a little bit ugly. Those are the places where we will learn the most, where we will grow the most. We will learn not only about the ugliness and terror to be found in the world, but also the empathy, compassion, and love that we, ourselves, are capable of.
So, Reader, what are your feelings? How often do you get out of your comfort zone?