This year has seen a lot of first-time novelists being published, prompting some of the Book Riot team to label 2015 the year of the debut. But frankly, based on the little segment of the bookternet I follow, it’s the year of the uncomfortable book.
Uncomfortable books are not bad books. They are well-written, compelling books that focus on difficult, important topics. This year alone, I’ve read (or am reading):
- And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts, a disturbing look at the early days of the AIDS epidemic, largely ignored due to the initial affected population, gay men (note: published in 1987)
- Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer, the much lauded (or lampooned, depending on your media outlets of choice) demystification of a college town, sports program, and date rape
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a brilliant exploration of race relations in a historical/sociocultural narrative-style letter from father to son
- Columbine by Dave Cullen, a true crime piece that deconstructs almost every “fact” about the 1999 shooting and provides a more heartbreaking, et hopeful reality (note: published in 2009)
- Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson, a view of racism within the legal and judicial system (note: reading in progress, and also published in 2014)
- Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle by Kristen Green, a history of the county that dismantled its public education system to avoid desegregating schools (note: reading in progress)
These books have been heartbreaking and difficult. They cover topics that have been discussed in the public eye, but paired with a literary, mainstream transparency we’re seeing again in 2015. There is incredible value in the narratives that challenge the status quo. Books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique helped spark the modern environmental and feminists movements, respectively. I do not find them to be the sole cause or most critical factor – this isn’t about connecting discomfort to the big books myth. Uncomfortable books matter not because they can be big books involved in big movements. It’s the more intimate relationship between the book and the reader that carries worth.
Current events play out in full-color streaming media. There are hashtags, there are protests, and there are national news stories dissecting issues of access and power among marginalized, disenfranchised populations. We see racial, gender, and class inequality in Twitter fights and behind police tape. There are plenty of reasons to become an activist, plenty of ways to stand and lend your voice to a cause of your choosing – whether it’s featured on a #blacklivesmatter Buzzfeed listicle or a #coplivesmatter one.
I have written before about my own privilege and why diverse books matter. But part of my struggle – and one that perhaps other white, upper middle plus-class feminists share – is knowing when to STFU.
You can’t talk back to a book. You can’t argue with it. You can’t engage in dialog with it. You can do all of those things with people, hopefully after you’ve read the book or informed yourself on the topic of conversation. And sure, you might choose to “change the channel”: close the book, put it aside, never finish it, ignoring whatever message it had to offer.
Uncomfortable books give us space to explore the perspectives of others. They offer this without judgment, confronting us with realities of others. They may provide a spark for activism, for charitable giving, a shift in perception, or perhaps a stronger reinforcement of our own ideas and values (Lord, whenever I read an abstinence-only sex ed book). And if we are receptive, we have no option but to listen first.
Thanks for reading! Why do you think discomfort is valuable when we read?