Saturday, October 6, 2012

Safe Spaces in Books

Let’s talk about safe spaces.

In my Tuesday post, I used a quote by Edward P. Morgan, which encouraged the exploration of ideas in books as books provide a safe space for ideas to flourish. But what is a safe space? And can we really say that for a book?

A safe space is any environment (physical or digital), where people can express, discuss and explore ideas without fear of being policed, harassed or discriminated against. A classroom should be a good example, although teachers do not always make the best mediators as they, too, are a product of their environment, and sometimes they will be inclined to uphold a certain set of world-views. Ditto for Internet forums. In a way, a book is an excellent candidate for a safe space, because it is a strictly person-to-author experience - no third parties, no people interrupting you mid-sentence.

On the obvious counterpoint, authors aren’t necessarily unbiased either. Sometimes that’s a good thing - when exploring a subject that is very much a gray area (no 50 shades pun intended), it’s important to be clear that you are not condoning a type of behavior, or laying the blame on a certain party. However, one can argue that if an author becomes too biased, their book may turn into a little more than a vehicle for their ideas, which can be annoying at best - nobody likes being told what their opinion or interpretation should be.

It’s very difficult to tell where an author’s bias is good and when it is not… and there is never a complete guarantee that readers would feel “safe” exploring ideas in a book.

This is why the case of “Hold Still” by Nina LaCour is so interesting. Unlike most cases of book banning (that I’ve read), this one stands out because the people objecting to it never set out with the idea of banning it - they just wanted their daughter to read something different.

For those of you who didn’t click on the link, here’s a short summary: A high school teacher issued a reading list of 15 books, one of which was “Hold Still”. A student was made uncomfortable by the strong language and the descriptions of sex scenes, and her parents went to the principle asking if their daughter couldn’t read another book to get the credit. There was no problem with the message of the book, which is about coping with a friend’s suicide, but with the way it was presented.

What sets this apart from other book banning scandals is that the case deals with something entirely subjective. The reader raised these concerns, concerns she personally had with the book, because they made it difficult for her to do the work for school.

I’ve read “Hold Still” - I find it to be a lovely story, and the text never seemed offensive or crude to me. But that’s the thing - I don’t find it to be offensive, but it’s not my place to say how appropriate is another reader’s reaction to the same text.

After all, if we start dictating how others should react to a book based on our own experiences, we’re no better than authors attacking readers for disliking a book, or saying “they read it wrong”.

Going back to safe spaces, one can’t help but wonder if such a place exists. If we’re really pessimistic, we’ll say no. But a book is as close as it gets.

So I guess what I’m trying to say here, on the subject of banned books and discussions in general is: Don’t trespass on other people’s safe space. When you disagree, do it respectfully. And, for the love of everything, love books. Please.

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