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.