Books That Challenge Your Comfort Level

Monday, July 03, 2017
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I am a huge Jodi Picoult fan, even though her endings sometimes aggravate me. When her latest novel, Small Great Things, came out last fall I was hesitant to rush out and pick it up after reading the subject matter, racism in America. A review in The Washington Post noted, “Frank, uncomfortably introspective and right on the day’s headlines, it will challenge her readers.”

I started seeing comments from friends on social media who were reading it and saying they were having a hard time getting through the book. I finally requested the book from my library this past month, and started reading it on a recent trip. The book is told from the point of view of three main characters, one of whom is a white supremacist that blames the death of his infant son in the hospital on the actions of an African-American nurse named Ruth. In his words, “someone had to pay.” It is this character’s backstory that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. His actions against anyone who has a different color skin or sexual preference are abhorrent; as is the way he justifies his actions. Two different times I had to put the book aside and wonder if I would be able to finish it. But I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did.

It was easy for me to sit in disgust and talk about despicable this particular character was, but by the end of the novel I also had to take a long, hard look at the subtlety of my own actions. Are there ways I exhibit racism without possibly even knowing it? Most likely. And do I hide the fact that I have Hispanic roots from people sometimes, given the stereotypes that exist in this country about that ethnic background? Yes, I do.

There have been many times in my life I’ve read books (or watched movies or TV shows) like this, and I’m sure you have, too. I felt that way while reading The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, and pretty much anything related to The Holocaust, civil rights movement, slavery, etc. There are topics that touch a nerve, and make you feel helpless and angry. If a book does this for you then an author is doing his or her job right. There are some schools of thought out there that you should only read books that are fun and make you feel good, because who needs to be dragged down by all heavy stuff? I tend to disagree.

While doing a little internet research on this topic, I came across a blog post from the Babble Queen Diaries that said subjecting yourself to this level of discomfort is “the only way you will truly open yourself up to the world and to see it all in the shades that it is painted in—black, white and grey and all the other shades of the spectrum.”

What is your take on this? Should we read books that make us feel uncomfortable? Why? What are some examples of books that have touched a nerve within you?

Renee Roberson is an award-winning freelance writer and editor who enjoys catching up on novels over the summer that she is too busy to read during the year.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Renee--Wonderful, wonderful post.

Colson Whitehead's "Underground Railroad" jarred me, because the white slave catchers were so horrible to read about. Leonard Pitts' "Freeman" also moved me--sometimes in uncomfortable directions.

As far as movies, "12 Years a Slave" made me shake in disgust... and shame. (The actress who played Patsy--Lupita Nyong'o--was robbed when she didn't earn an academy award for her performance.)

If we're reading books as a drug--only to feel good, only to be rocked into false contentment--then stick with the feel-good books. Watch silly sitcoms. Go to the theater and pay to see an Adam Sandler or Madea movie.

However, if you want to travel to another era or country--perhaps an era or country where some people were/are not treated fairly... if you want to be put into someone else's shoes and get close to feeling what they feel... if you want to TRY to bridge the divide that exists in our country and if you want to ATTEMPT to help heal the wounds that are still raw in the U.S.... Well, if that's the case, you need to read books that might make you feel uncomfortable or sad or guilty about the past. (Whew! I'm out of breath after that rant. ;)

My mother hated Grisham's book "The Chamber" because in the end, she kind of felt sorry for the KKK member. I told her that was the mark of a great writer: making the reader feel sympathy for an unsympathetic character.

We will not become as "great" as we can until we're willing to have hard-to-have conversations... conversations where we're honest about our feelings. Well-written books can be the springboard for those conversations.

(Have you read "Handle with Care" or "Leaving Time" by Picoult? Those are two of my favorites.)

Joey Lynn Resciniti said...

The last Jodi Picoult I read was the one where at the end everyone discovered they'd actually been dead for the entire novel. I will never trust her again after that.

I find there are different types of discomfort in books. There's the kind that shines a light on some part of yourself that makes you a better person. That is beneficial. Then there's just torture that has no point. Those are the stories I force myself to stop reading. I find no reason to subject myself to narratives that are just sick with no purpose.

The last novel that bothered me was Bucket of Blood, the Ragman's War. It's about a coal mining strike in a rural Pennsylvania town. The way people treat each other all through history is horrifying.

We just watched The Zookeeper's Wife last night. That was disturbing on another level making me wonder if I could find the strength to do what the characters in the movie did for the people around them in need.

Margo Dill said...

I think discomfort helps us grow. WHAT SHE KNEW was very uncomfortable for me--it was about a single mother whose young son is taken from an outing on a forest trail when she trusts him to run ahead to a swing. I had it on my nightstand for over a year before I read it. But it was a great read and I learned from it. So I agree with you!

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