Freedom of Choice is What You Got*

Have you ever read a book that made you feel uncomfortable? I don’t mean uncomfortable in the sense of being put off by a lot of violence or gore, for instance. I mean uncomfortable in that the book made you confront your own ways of thinking. If you have, then you know the experience can be a bit unsettling. In the end, though, your thinking is expanded and you see things differently. And that means the book’s  had a positive impact. You’ve grown.

We all have a different list of books that have had that effect. Here are a few of mine. Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone is the story of the disappearance of four-year-old Amanda McCready. When she goes missing, there’s a major search, and the public is encouraged to come forward with any information. But so far, the girl hasn’t been found. Then, her aunt and uncle hire Boston PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro to find Amanda. Kenzie and Gennaro don’t know what they can do that the police and thousands of citizens haven’t been able to do, but they agree to take the case. As the search for Amanda goes on, we learn that there are a few possible explanations for her disappearance. And as Kenzie and Gennaro find out the truth, Lehane confronts the reader with real moral ambiguity. Not only does the story raise the question of, ‘What would I do?’ but it also invites the reader to re-think what ‘the right thing to do’ really is. The book confronted me with my own opinions, and that, to me, was a good thing.

Racism can be a very uncomfortable topic to address. But if we’re going to deal with the issue, we need to have lots of potentially very painful conversations about it. I was invited to confront my views about racism in Dwayne Alexander Smith’s Forty Acres. That’s the story of Black Washington, D.C. attorney Martin Grey. When he wins a major case, his opponent in the trial, Damon Darrell (who is also Black), invites him and his wife, Anna, to dinner. It turns out that this dinner is an opportunity to ‘vet’ Grey for membership in a sort of club that’s made up of some very successful, wealthy Black achievers. The group could be very helpful, both socially and professionally, so Grey’s inclined to join. Then, he’s invited on a whitewater rafting weekend. Anna has concerns about the trip, but Grey doesn’t think he really has a choice but to go. He soon finds that the members of this group are under the leadership of an enigmatic man named Dr. Kasim, who has his own ideas about racism and what should be done about it. When Grey finds out what’s really going on, he faces some wrenching moral decisions. The book is uncompromising, and it invites the reader to really think about what is needed to heal the wounds racism leaves. It certainly made me think.

Both Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar and Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective address the topic of young people getting involved in the sex trade. The stories are quite different in some ways. Behind the Night Bazaar introduces Bangkok PI Jayne Keeney. She gets involved in a murder investigation when a good friend is accused of murdering his partner, and then is himself killed by the police. Keeney knows there’s more to the case than the police are admitting, and she decides to get some answers. The solution is linked to the Thai sex trade, especially the trade in young girls. The Sea Detective is in part the story of Preeti and Basanti, two girls from the same village in India. Their parents are paid money in exchange for the girls’ sexual services, and it’s understood that after a certain time, they’ll return to their village. They’re sent to Scotland, where they are separated. When Basanti goes looking for her friend, she finds out that Preeti is dead. No one’s done much in the way of investigation, but Basanti wants to find out what happened. She finds an unlikely ally in the form of Edinburgh oceanographer Calladh ‘Cal’ McGill. Since Preeti’s body was found in the water, he’s able to trace its movement back to the people who brought her to Scotland and who were responsible for her death. It’s easy to judge those who allow their children to be a part of the sex trade, especially when one comes from a background of privilege. But these two books show that the choices are not always that easy. For some people, it’s a matter of survival – of being able to get food and shelter. Both books made me think about the tragedy of child trafficking, and the ways we might go about addressing it. And it’s not going to help to be sanctimonious.

There are other books that have made me think, too, as I’m sure there are for you. But what would happen if those books weren’t there? What would happen if books that address controversial issues (however you define that term) weren’t published? What would happen if books that made people uncomfortable weren’t published? For me, anyway, it would mean my thinking would be stunted. And there are many difficult, even painful, issues that need to be faced. If books that take up those topics aren’t published, we can’t do that.

This week in the US, it’s Banned Books Week. It’s a time (at least for me) to renew a commitment to the freedom to read whatever we wish, and the freedom for authors to write what they wish. I invite you to take some time and read a book that makes you question your own assumptions, or that makes you a little uncomfortable with your beliefs. That’s how we learn and grow, and books play an important role in that process. Anything, including challenging and banning, that limits the relationship we have with books detracts from what we can learn. And that impoverishes us.

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Devo’s Freedom of Choice.


18 thoughts on “Freedom of Choice is What You Got*

  1. Excellent post, I think for adults no books should be banned. I do understand why some books would be banned in the classroom if they contain really disturbing content that could traumatize school children. But overall, censorship does way more harm than good.

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    1. Thanks, LiziRose – I’m glad you enjoyed the post. You have a well-taken point about the difference between children and adults when it comes to books. Children – especially young children – are not mature enough to read, as you say, disturbing content. But for adults, censorship has far too many negative consequences.

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      1. Yes and high school becomes the area of much debate because arguably students are old enough to read thought-provoking books even if they have some mature themes. Two books come to mind that I’m grateful I read in high school: Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” and Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye”.

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      2. You make a good point, LIzRose, about high school students. They are often ready to read more mature books, so they should arguably have access to more mature books (and the freedom to choose what to read). ANd thanks for mentioning both the Alexie and the Morrison. Both are excellent novels, and there’s no reason high school students shouldn’t have access to them.

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      3. Thanks for creating this discussion! Your post reminded me of those provocative books which I haven’t read in a while. I think I am due for a re-read soon 🙂

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  2. Book banning is awful. Some of my favorite books by Tony Morrison, Alice Walker and other authors are banned in some schools and libraries. Even the groundbreaking book on women’s health, “Our Bodies, Ourselves” is banned in some places. Sometimes I meet people who don’t want their children to read books about cultures or religions different from their own. I’ve read a lot since age 13 and I’ve learned a lot of perspectives and my vieew of the world has been broadened. And my ethical code and understanding of other people’s lives have only been strengthened. I think it’s threatening to some people to have others, including youth, even children, actually think. They are the same ones who don’t want the history of enslavement taught and discussed in schools. Books are just eye-opening and expand one’s thinking. And as for challenging one’s views, good! But my ethics and moral code have never been overturned no matter what I read. I do not want to read racist or misogynist books or xenophobic books either. And I skip authors who promote these views. But it’s my choice.
    When I was 15, my fathere, a great reader, told me not to read a book because “it was trash.” So, being 15, and rather adventurous, I read it. I agreed with him completely, and decided not to read books my friends read just because they liked them. I learned critical thinking about what I chose to read.

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    1. That’s the thing, Kathy. Critical thinking comes from experience books from different perspectives, and books that are excellent and books that…aren’t. When books are banned and censored, we don’t have the opportunity to experience what the books have to offer, and that means we don’t broaden our view and learn about other perspectives. You make an interesting point, too, that it can be threatening to people to have other views expressed. But the reality is, we move forward as a society when we hear other voices, experience other viewpoints, and so on. Banning/removing/censoring books limits our thinking.

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  3. Some things are written that I strongly disagree with, but I don’t think banning books or opinions contrary to our own is healthy for any society.

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  4. An excellent post, Margot and one that has made me think. Of late I have avoided books that deal with ‘controversial’ topics because a lot is going on and I just want to relax and be entertained when I read a book.

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    1. Thank you, Neeru, and I think that exhaustion is probably true of most of us. Everything that’s been going on is exhausting, and it’s hard to summon the energy to read something that’s controversial.

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  5. Margot: I used to worry about strong conservatives wanting to ban books. In recent years I have been disturbed by the actions of people who would call themselves progressive and want to prevent books being published. I dislike people pushing hard upon publishers to deny publication to authors such as Linda Fairstein. Few people which means few authors are pure in all ways. I greatly fear conservatives and liberals launching campaigns against publishers. Make all the criticisms you want of the work but let books be published.

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    1. You make a well-taken point, Bill. It doesn’t matter whether one’s conservative, liberal, or something else: banning books (or preventing their publication) is wrong. Putting pressure on publishers in that way limits the sharing of ideas. As you say, once a book is published, any and all of its points are fair game for criticism. That’s where ideas can be discussed and debated. But we can’t have that discussion if those ideas aren’t published.

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  6. I do think we should be allowed to ban all books written in the first person, present tense, though… 😉

    Forty Acres certainly made me think about my attitudes to race, and my lack of understanding of the history of race in the US, as did Beloved, which I suppose could squeeze into the crime fiction category at a push. Angela Savage’s recent book, Mother of Pearl, isn’t crime fiction but it certainly made me rethink my views on the question of international surrogacy. In general, though, I don’t think it’s specific books that most affect my opinions, but rather the accumulated effect of books “arguing” with each other and showing different aspects of questions. It’s one of the main reasons I read political memoirs written by people from the “other side” – they challenge my prejudices even if they don’t convert me to their way of thinking.

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    1. Hahaha! I could see banning first person, present tense, too, FictionFan! 😉

      You make an interesting point about the accumulated effect of books. Reading a variety of books on the same topic really does give a person a chance to get a broad perspective on a topic. As you say, it doesn’t mean one changes one’s point of view, but it’s really beneficial (I think) to get a clear sense of different points of view. And that’s best done by understanding those perspectives. And thanks for mentioning Mother of Pearl. The issues around surrogacy are complex and multidimensional; I think it takes some reflection and thought to come to some conclusions about it. Basically, the more you read, the more you know and can think critically.

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