I’ve always had the habit of regularly going through my stuff and throwing out/deleting things I’m no longer interested in or don’t need. My list of books to read especially goes through this revision quite regularly. Every time I finish reading a book (which is not quite often these days, unfortunately) I go through my to-read list. Each finished book gives me a better idea of the kind of literature I enjoy reading. For example, I realized I actually loved mysteries and detectives after reading Jo Nesbo’s The Leopard. I changed my mind a little after reading Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl which deeply troubled me, thinking about the lengths people could go to when hurt. Although I enjoyed the book, I was still quite shook for days afterward and added a lot of humor books to my list because I knew that I wasn’t going to read anything serious for a long while.
Then recently, I finished reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. I loved the book and it came to me at the right time, when I was going through an existential crisis, but even the book dealt with quite dark stuff like the horrors of concentration camps and death, the latter being a topic I try my best not to think about.
I’ve had the following thoughts before, but I couldn’t really get them out of my head as I read the last pages for Man’s Search for Meaning and I knew I had to share them here.
Over the last couple of years I’ve added (then later removed) several books that I thought I ‘should’ read. Literary fiction about characters struggling with depression and anxiety, dark novels about rape or other sexual atrocities, books dealing with other important themes such as refugees, poverty, mental illnesses, crime, and so on. Even non-fiction talking about, say, a well-known rape case in the USA where the victim was treated unjustly and several important things were overlooked, etc. etc.
If they were given four or five stars by someone whose reviews I trusted, I added them to my list. But more than the rating, I added the books to my list when those reviewers said something along the lines of ‘a must-read to understand xyz issue’ or ‘a hard-hitting portrait of people undergoing so and so problem’ and so on.
These were books about important issues and themes and how they affected people, be it through true or fictional stories. I thought it was my responsibility to read the latest novel about Muslims in America and the struggles they face because, given the current political climate, we need to understand what their lives are like. Or, that I ought to read the bestselling book by a psychologist about the latest insights into mental illnesses. Or, a book about pedophilia/homophobia/racism that mirrors the truth of a pedophilic/homophobic/racist society.
I felt an obligation to read these books because for some reason I thought that I was not helping those Muslim immigrants or depressed people or survivors of sexual harassment by not reading the books written about their experiences and struggles.
Sure, reading them might disturb me, make me distrust people in authority, make me less hopeful about the future, make the world outside difficult to navigate as a young woman, but these were important issues and so I ought to read about them. If I wasn’t reading these books, I was being ignorant. I was insulting their humanness by not reading these books and discussing them and asking others to read them too.
The term ‘political correctness’ is in vogue these days. Every single thing you do is examined through a political lens. Your art is political. Your music is political. Your blog is political. Your classroom is political. And I think it’s good that more and more people are becoming politically aware about important issues. What we’re doing wrong, or so I think, is using political correctness – a term Neil Gaiman suggested be replaced with ‘treating people with respect’ – to push your own agenda or make people feel bad about themselves, instead of actually defending people and making positive changes.
It’s suddenly important to have an opinion about everything in the world. It’s as if there’s nothing else to talk about these days. And if you’re not talking about it or tweeting about it or blogging about it, are you even worthy of being called a good human being? How can you say you’ve given up reading newspapers because it’s filled with upsetting news? How can you simply turn away from reading about kids dying in Syria or the latest nasty thing Trump said about women?
Hear me out: I’m not saying these things aren’t important. Journalism is important. People need to know the stories of innocent victims of war, hate, politics and of their perpetrators so that something is done to solve these issues, to put an end to these problems. It is important to spread the word.
It’s also good to write books about these issues and read about them. Books can have a big influence on public thinking. These books are important to open up the world to people who don’t have access to it otherwise. These books are important to give the voiceless a voice, to show people the view from the other side, to clear misconceptions and erase prejudices. These books matter and they should be written. More importantly, these books should be read.
But that doesn’t mean everyone ought to read them. There are so many reasons people pick up a particular book. Maybe they love crime fiction. Maybe they want to understand a different culture. Maybe they’re looking for inspiration. Maybe they’re looking for other people like them who have suffered the same things as them – say a cancer diagnosis or loss of a child. Maybe they simply want to escape into a different world. You can’t tell them what they “should” read. Literature has several purposes and it’s different for every reader.
To be clear, no one was pushing those books towards me, putting a gun to my head and ordering me to read them. But the book reviews discussing the relevance of the book in whatever the context/environment is at that time, spoke to me as if they were indeed telling me that I was doing something wrong by not reading those books. There was an invisible magnet of obligation in those book reviews and commentaries and discussions about ‘important’ and ‘relevant’ books. Or at least, that’s how I read them.
Even when I did not find a book interesting after reading its blurb or reviews, I still added it to my list because I felt a certain social responsibility to read it. But there came a point when I realized that it could be very taxing to read these books. Books like Gone Girl left me really disturbed, and not in a good way. And it was fiction. Non-fiction would be much worse; my to-read list was full of books dealing with disturbing issues that my conscience compelled me to read.
I had to remove those books from my list. At first, I felt guilty for doing so. After all, people had struggled so much and then found the courage to write about their experiences so that more people would realize the impact of problems like war or mental illness or immigration and so on. I keep saying I want to do something to help the world; wasn’t this one way of doing it? Of being more “aware”? Of being “politically correct”?
But somewhere I realized it wouldn’t do any good by just reading about these things. Back when I found the news too troubling, I told myself something: if the news discusses something I can affect in a positive way, then I should take that positive action. If it discusses something that’s out of my control, then there’s no point in worrying about it.
I reminded myself of this little credo when it came to removing books from my to-read list. Most of the books I’d added to the list because I thought I “should” read them fell in the second category. I couldn’t do anything about them at all. So I removed them.
Another type of books that I considered were books that prepared you for something that might happen to you – say, losing a spouse, Alzheimer’s, etc. I thought I should read these books because you never know what might be in store for you. In short, I was preparing myself for something that wasn’t even probable in my life as if it had already happened, for example, losing a spouse when I haven’t even started college. I was suffering in my mind even when there was no scope for actually experiencing that suffering, at least in the near future.
I am the kind of person who turns to books for one of three reasons – to be inspired by reading about writers, to learn something, such as the connection between nature and creativity, or to simply entertain myself and become a part of someone else’s story. Political correctness is invading every single part of our lives and I want to keep reading away from it. I can live without music or movies or other forms of entertainment, but I can’t live without books for long.
And I think it’s important to have something in your life that has nothing to do with politics or being “correct” because sometimes you need a break from all the political stuff around you. Reading gives me that break. For me, it’s self-care. Not a bubble bath or a makeover or taking myself out to dinner. Simply taking a book off the shelf and reading.
Sure, I don’t like books that are blindly sexist or racist or prejudiced in any other way (not because the plot demands it, but because the author is an asshole). But just because I believe in gender equality, just because I’m against racism or xenophobia and other forms of hate doesn’t mean I have to necessarily include those issues in my reading diet.
I’ll repeat myself: books about these issues need to be written and read, but not everyone has to read them. If the right book falls in the hands of the right person, then there can be amazing, sometimes unexpected, results. Maybe the book makes someone fall in love with reading. Maybe the book makes someone change their mind about a long-held belief. Maybe the book inspires someone to take action and bring about social change. We never know.
All I know is that books will eventually find their way. And that by reading these books I’m only making things worse for myself when I struggle to manage the chaos in my mind and am so easily overwhelmed. When reading is self-care for me, I have to keep the political correctness out of it, and I’m not ashamed to do it.
As for the issues that I believe in but am not reading yet another book about? I can better help those causes by perhaps donating to them or volunteering or voting for the people who support those issues, or simply, to echo Mahatma Gandhi, being the change I wish to see in the world.