I saw this article (about publishers going insane, basically) the other day and after the initial shock followed by the usual outrage – increasingly milder these days – I recovered to my usual cheerful self amazingly quickly. Because I remembered something important. Books already written cannot be unwritten.
I’ve got a Tom Sawyer/Huckelberry Finn edition from the 1980s. It’s translated but it doesn’t matter. Little C. will read it in its original glory and learn how people thought and wrote about other people in late 19th century U.S.
I’ve got a cheap Penguin edition of Heart of Darkness and no one will be able to take it from me when they start burning Joseph Conrad books for being racist because I’m lucky to live in what you might call an insensitive country.
I’ve got the almost complete works of Stephen King and everything written by Terry Pratchett. Sooner or later Pratchett will draw the ire of sensitivicists. I will not care because I will still have his books to re-read to my heart’s desire. King might also end up being a target, based on what is currently happening to J. K. Rowling. I will still not care because I will still have his books.
And this is the greatest and most wonderful thing about books: once written, they don’t spoil. Sure, an author could delete a manuscript if they’re unhappy with it but once a manuscript becomes a book and is let free in the world it will live for as long as there are readers.
Of course, reader numbers may begin to dwindle at some point if indoctrination progresses enough to displace storytelling but I probably won’t be alive to see this particular brave new world and thank gods for that. For now, there are still readers and there are millions of books for them – and me – to read.
I recently started on an Umberto Eco collection of columns from an Italian magazine he used to work at. I though they would be philosophical columns, the thought-provoking kind. They turned out to be hilarious columns though still thought-provoking. Reading these columns, written in the 70s, 80s, 90s and in the new millennium, has been extremely therapeutic.
I’ve lined up The Name of the Rose next. I have read it once, decades ago, and I don’t have much of a memory of it besides the fact it was long, a hard read, and not a little bit boring. Now, as Big C. suggested, I might think differently. After all, there must be a reason it is the most famous of Eco’s books and not any of my personal favourites, Foucault’s Pendulum or Baudolino. (If you haven’t read anything by Eco, read Baudolino. It’s a fantasy story – but not really – of the highest order.)
You know, I was going to delve deep into the phenomenon of sensitivity readers in this blog. I was going to be merciless and use many examples from my own reading experience to illustrate the utter nonsense that sensitivity reading is. But I’ll just say this as a way of inviting everyone to see exactly what makes sensitivity reading nonsense.
I am extremely sensitive to depictions and descriptions of violence against children and mentally ill people. Gut-wrenching is not just a figure of speech for me. And yet as I said already, I have read almost everything Stephen King has written. For King-virgins, let’s just say a lot of his work is about gruesome, horrible violence against children and sometimes mentally ill people. I have read this work because King is one brilliant storyteller and when the storyteller is that good, the subject matter of their work doesn’t really matter.
It is also because of this sensitivity of mine that I have never read – and will never read – a single line penned by Victor Hugo. Classic? I know. Brilliant realist? I’m sure he was. But I have a painful memory of watching a film adaptation of one of his novels and seeing a man tied to a rock ahead of high tide. The man drowned. I was crushed. I kept wondering how people can be so cruel to other people. I was emotionally scarred.
As a result I made the conscious decision to give Hugo’s undoubtedly great work a miss. What I didn’t do was expect publishers to start writing warnings on books or employ people who added their subjective view of a book’s contents to the subjective views of the editors and publishers themselves in order to, allegedly, reduce the risk of a book traumatising a random reader.
Books can certainly be traumatising. In the wrong hands, they can be deadly. So can life and the universe. Neither life as some abstract concept nor the universe owes anyone anything. Nature does not care about you and the world is full of wrongs and evils. You can either accept that and try to make the best of what you’ve been dealt or waste huge amounts of time and energy trying to build a world that’s just and fair to all.
No such world is possible or even plausible. There will always be someone who will take offence at a book, any book. And they should be let to be traumatised. Because a world of perfect security for all cannot exist. How do I know this? It has been tried. It was tried for several decades in Russia and Eastern Europe. And guess what? They had sensitivity readers, too.