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Jocelyn (The Reading World)

I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;) 


About "sensitive" topics in books

So, there are a few things I've been hearing and reading that has me rethinking something I've long taken for granted. And that is the subject of ideas and themes in books that disturb us--not necessarily in a negative way, but because we can relate so much to them that it's painful, or presents a disturbing side of reality we hadn't previously been aware of.


It first came to my attention in my English class a while ago. Our teacher had us listen to a recording of a (real-life) story told by a man whose two-year-old daughter was dying of cancer, and it was thoroughly heart-wrenching. More than that, actually--it was so pitiful that it made me feel pathetically whiny for everything I've ever complained about in my life. He talked about the wedding he imagined his daughter would have and walking down the aisle with her, or taking her to school for the first time and buying school supplies with her, helping her pick a dress for high school prom, etc., only to have the doctor tell him that his daughter had three weeks to live. Then one of the students asked my English teacher something along the lines of, "Ms. ___, why do we have to listen to such sad stories like this? Why can't we listen to happier ones?" My teacher told him, rightly so in my opinion, that we have to listen to these kinds of stories because to shut out other people's suffering just because it makes us uncomfortable is selfish and petty. All I could think was duh, you idiot, how on earth could you listen to something like this and complain about your emotional discomfort? Are you fucking serious?


Surprisingly though, this issue came up again when I was reading some reviews on Goodreads and Booklikes, although it was usually different. The discomfort came from the reader(s) having experienced the same thing themselves, and not wanting to relive it over again, so they stayed away from books with the topics that made them uncomfortable. I think this was where it started confusing me.


Now, I have never lived through anything traumatic like abusive relationships or bullying, and I haven't yet had any severe drop in self-esteem, though of course, I have emotional problems that need dealing with just like everyone else. The thing is, it seems to me that finding books that resonate so strongly (however painful) is an enticing experience, not a repulsive one. Moreover, isn't it a relief to find an author who understands the issue so well that they can make you relate to it? Yes, if they make you uncomfortable in a stop-writing-about-your-weird-fetishes kind of way, that's annoying, but that's a different category altogether. I suppose this is where it boils down to why we read and what we hope to gain from reading. For me, reading is a potentially transformative experience because it can help us understand ourselves better through storytelling. On a more spontaneous level it's also an exercise in empathy, trying to connect with the author's mind. That's why, if a book makes me uncomfortable because of how much it resonates with my experiences or emotions, then I count that as a good thing. I'm just puzzled as to how and why people would deliberately avoid "sensitive topics," because why would that matter, as long as the author handled that topic thoughtfully? I'm sure I'm missing something here, but I'm not sure yet what it is.