Why inappropriate books are the best kind to read

The house where I was raised had an open shelf rule. This meant my brother and I were allowed to read anything, no matter how inappropriate or beyond our years. We never had to ask.

I spent hours of my childhood perusing the volumes on my father’s bookcases at will, trial and error. Histories, thrillers, science fiction, books on politics and culture — all of it was available to me.

I keep thinking about this as more and more school districts participate in what is shaping up to look like an open war against reading. According to “Banned in the USA,” a report issued by the writers’ organization PEN America in April, nearly 1,600 individual books were banned in 26 states between July 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022.

Among the titles challenged or removed are Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” Elizabeth Acevedo’s “The Poet X,” Roxane Gay’s “Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body” and Robin Benway’s “Far From the Tree. ” All are works of abiding literary merit that address issues of identity and race and family — in other words, exactly the kinds of books students should be reading now.

Although the challenging of books and curriculum is hardly new in the United States, what we’re facing now is somewhat different. Of the current bans, PEN notes, “41% (644 individuals bans) are tied to state directives or elected lawmakers to investigate or remove books in schools.” It is not parents or even school boards driving many of these challenges. It is the power of the state.

That represents, PEN says, “an shift.”

I take it for granted that books are good for us. Countless studies have reinforced what many recognize from experience: Literature encourages compassion. As Jane Smiley wrote a decade ago in the New York Times: “Reading fiction is and always was practice in empathy — learning to see the world through often quite alien perspectives, learning to understand how other people’s points of view reflect their experiences.”

The freedom to read left me feeling respected, affirmed. And it led me, by my early teens, to “inappropriate” writers that in the end couldn’t have been more appropriate: among them, Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, Sam Greenlee and Philip Roth.

Vonnegut taught me the universe was absurd; Heller, that authority deserved to be ridiculed. Greenlee, in his novel “The Spook Who Sat By the Door,” revealed the hypocrisy of race in America. And Roth — well, perhaps the best way to explain it is to say that, in “Portnoy’s Complaint,” he portrayed male adolescence, which I was then experiencing, in the most visceral and outrageous terms.

Reading such books as I found them helped me to reckon with the complexities and contradictions of the adult world. More important, by thinking alongside their authors, I began to think for myself.

This, of course, is what the book banners object to, that readers might be influenced by ideas that legislators, parents, the neighbors down the block don’t like.

PEN sees the issue through the lens of the First Amendment, which is valid, especially given the actions of so many lawmakers and the effects on so many constituencies. But I don’t want to overlook that other lens — of curiosity, self-knowledge, possibility, inquiry. Literature gives us language by which to know ourselves.

But in order to do that, it has to be available. It has to remain on the shelves. Where would we be without inappropriate reading? Ask any reader and they’ll tell you: We would be lost.

David L. Ulin is a contributing writer to Los Angeles Times Opinion. ©2022 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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