Books are often banned for making readers uncomfortable. Sometimes that discomfort comes from having your worldview tested — Is your position on gender/sex/race/politics/religion/parenting valid?
— and other times it’s inspired by how much you relate to a certain character or situation. Occasionally, this uneasiness derives from the intellectual and even physical pleasure of reading a good book about terrible things. Whatever the reason, almost everyone encounters a book at some point in their reading lives that makes them feel a little suspect.
This year for Banned Books Week, we asked our booksellers to share the reading experiences that have made them uncomfortable. Here are some of our favorite responses:
Justine; or, the Misfortunes of Virtue
by the Marquis de Sade pushed me out of my comfort zone. I tried to read it as something that would give me a more complete picture of 18th-century literature and was horrified — it's such an appalling portrayal of women! This is how far it took me: I began to question my "liberal" credentials when my first thought was that perhaps some books should be banned. I never finished the book and stopped after two or three chapters and did my best to bury the memory and haven't thought about it till now. — Sheila N.
I read horror (Joe Hill
)! Graphic crime fiction (Jo Nesbø
)! Books on war and prison. I read Ruby
by Cynthia Bond, which was really hard to take, and A Little Life
by Hanya Yanagihara, which was excruciating. I even read Empire of the Summer Moon
by S. C. Gwynne, which was brutal! I had been wanting to read The Wolf and the Watchman
by Niklas Natt och Dag. Right from the start, it was rather horrific. I was halfway through when I paled and thought I was going to faint! I almost had a panic attack and I wished I hadn't read what I just did! I had to stop reading this one. And I still felt bad about quitting it. — Adrienne C.
As a kid (and to this day) my favorite comic book arc of all time is the original X-Men Phoenix Saga
. Published in 1980, it was the first superhero comic book I was ever given and it meant the WORLD to me. It many ways, it still does. As the first superhero comic I ever read, it pushed me out of my comfort zone, previously occupied exclusively by the Archie
comics you buy at grocery stores, and challenged my idea of what comics could be. Suddenly, comics could be sad, scary, or heartbreaking.
However, as I get older, my challenge is trying to make peace with the racist, sexist and other social ideologies that were acceptable when it was written. As someone who exclusively read used comics written in the ’60s through the early ’90s, it can be so difficult to read them as an adult. They are riddled with post-Civil Rights-era ideologies and ways of thinking. For example, it is hard to read and be okay with the adult-teen relationship between Peter and Kitty or the comments on race. The uncomfortableness comes from both the content and the tension between my love for these comics and the social context in which they were born.
I like to believe that there is risk in some literature, especially as it ages and the world moves onward. For me, this risk is to take books for what they were and draw out what they can still be. It can be hard to do so. While I disagree with points of the earlier X-Men comics’ approaches to such topics as race or religion, it’s important to acknowledge the grand metaphor they made with mutants and the social change they have attempted. And how much that metaphor, for an outcast like me growing up, helped change my childhood and help me feel like I belonged. — Emma A.
by Connie Porter is the first book in the Addy series, about a young black girl who flees a plantation with her mother to escape slavery. I read it when I was around seven or eight and probably learned more about the horrors of slavery from one tiny book than I had in school. At one point Addy is force-fed tobacco worms by a foreman because she is distracted while she's working. Of course, as a child I was incredibly disturbed and almost put the book down, but to this day I remember it whenever someone tries to make the argument that, "Not all slave owners were bad." Yes, they were all bad. — Grace C.
The book that immediately comes to mind is A House Like a Lotus
by Madeleine L'Engle. I was raised as a conservative fundamentalist evangelical, and L'Engle was known as a Christian writer. So I was really disturbed by the sexuality in the book. As an adult I did thoroughly examine and renounce the homophobia I was raised with, and I relaxed my opinions about teen sex. But I still find the book troubling and off-putting. In the very useful parlance of our time, this book has #MeToo moments that are not presented as such. It's really inappropriate for a 30- or 40-something adult to hit on a teenager, especially one they've been mentoring. And it's also inappropriate for a dude in his mid-20s to seduce a 16-year-old. So I still don't know what to make of the book, the author's intent, or what I feel about it. — Suzanne G.
by Rosa Guy was the first book I ever read with a queer romance. I didn’t relate to Ruby’s experiences as an immigrant from the West Indies growing up in Harlem, but something in the relationship between Ruby and her new friend Daphne felt like a kick in the gut. So much so that at the point in the story where it becomes clear that these two young women are falling in love, I dramatically threw the book under my bed (where I threw all the things I didn’t want to deal with) for many, many months. Never before or since have I thrown a book in discomfort. — Emily A.
Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town
by Jon Krakauer is my pick. I never thought a subject so offensive, repulsive, and sad could be so compelling to read about. There are many horrible details and people in this book, but Krakauer writes it in such a way the reader is yearning for justice on the next page. Missoula helps uncovers a horrible epidemic that has plagued college campuses more and more in recent years. — Jeff J.
My most uncomfortable reading experience was Donald Ray Pollock's The Devil All the Time
. His books have a bunch of super icky violence, and I normally hate that so much I won't read any book that has it. But Pollock is such an amazing storyteller — I was absolutely hooked and could not put the book down no matter how freaked out it made me. As evidence, I've read every other book he's written and he is one of my favorite authors ever.
— Dianah H.
by Toni Morrison pushed me beyond my comfort zone. As a parent, a human, an American, and a woman, this book had me almost wanting to stop... I did for a moment, but I felt it was important and imperative to digest the novel in its entirety. It broke my heart wide open.
In middle school, Fahrenheit 451
threw me off in a huge way, only to see some of it pretty much become reality; I therefore returned to the book years later. — Hillary B.
The book that made me extremely uncomfortable was Tampa
by Alissa Nutting. This book is about a woman who is attracted to young boys and starts teaching at a middle school with every intention to seduce children. For anyone who has kids, siblings, or does anything involving children, this book will make your skin crawl. Reading this book was like listing fears I have for my siblings, which does not mean the story itself was badly written.
— Seanna C.
(or Rape Me
) by Virginie Despentes is the brutal revenge story of two women who, through cosmic happenstance, team up to unleash the violence that has been done to them and others onto the world at large. It was hard to be confronted with such intense rage and to ride alongside protagonists who murder with such joy, but what was even harder was finding my own anger reflected back at me through them. The writing of Virginie Despentes is like watching a natural disaster: a world bending to immutable laws of physics, as amoral and unstoppable as a hurricane. In a society so profoundly violent toward women, the bloodshed our heroes leave behind should have been expected. — Cosima C.
My book is Faithful Ruslan
by Georgi Vladimov, which at first was a samizdat book — it was absolutely not printed, but circulated underground in Soviet Russia, eventually making its way to Western readers. There is a lot of cruelty in this book: by humans on humans, humans on animals, animals on humans, and animals on each other. It takes place as the dismantling of the Soviet Gulag camps begin (mid-1950s) and tells the bitterest truth about what happens to the victims of an insane and barbaric system even after that system is apparently destroyed. A great but intensely depressing book. — Aimee A.