This stuff is so disturbing!

Thursday, February 9, 2012


I've been reading a book over the past couple of days, which has a theme that I had pretty much sworn never to read about. Religion. Or to be more specific - blind religious faith involving glorification of one's religion, belief that people of other faiths are unbelievers and therefore less deserving of being alive, insensitive discussions of the 'my god' vs 'your god' and 'my faith' vs 'your faith' kind, and spreading ill-propaganda about other kinds of people. I didn't really know what the book was about before starting it, but in a strange way, I'm glad that I didn't, because I might not have dared read it otherwise.

This is pretty much how my reading experience went:
Session 1: Uff, all this religion mumbo-jumbo is alienating me!
Session 2: What a sick weirdo! Why am I even reading about it? Where are the parents when they are most needed?
Session 3: Really? You leave your child's religious education to someone else? Even if that someone is your best friend?
Session 4: Okay, I'm giving up.
Session 5: But this stuff happens. Haven't I read about worse things?
Session 6: Okay, let me rein in my prejudices and just try to understand this character.

Trust me, it was a battle. I didn't really realize that I had a topic that would make me squirm in my chair. And this is after having read about maniacal psychopaths, incestuous relationships, horrendous killings, etc. It helped that the book is just a confession by a character whose knowledge about religion was based on what he was taught by his aunt and what he heard from people having a societal leadership status. It also helped that this book isn't a propaganda book or a glorification of one way or the other. And the more I read it, the more I understood how someone came to possess that blind or twisted faith. I have to credit the author for setting the stage well.

But enough about that. All this introspecting basically made me wonder about the challenges or taboos in reading. My reading policy is usually that the more challenging the subject of a book to the reader, the better the reading experience. Comfort reads are great too and I need them as well. But I learn more from characters I hate, characters who do things I can never forgive, characters whose real-life counterparts literally agonize me. When I read books about such characters, I never find myself eventually agreeing or sympathizing with them, but I find that once I turn the last page, my whole understanding of the character (and people like them) has shifted a great deal. The picture no longer looks black or white to me, but has immense shades of gray.

But does it always work like that? For instance, does reading about a disturbed person, say, psychopath, proselytizers, propagandizers (yeah, I made up that word) or any kind of person you usually cannot relate to, make you any more comfortable with the idea of such a person? Do you become more tolerant of the person only in the book-world and not in real-life? Or maybe also from your living room couch but not actually in the presence of such a person? I don't really think that my personal boundaries have moved much in any direction, nor do I like these characters any more than I did before. I just know that I won't be so quick to judge or dismiss them because I feel I have seen a thread of their complex thoughts.

Do you have a topic that you find yourself very reluctant to read about? Have you tried to change that, and if yes, did it work?


20 comments:

Juju at Tales of Whimsy.com said...

Good question.

I'm one of those gals that reads in my safe zone. If something disturbs me, I tend to ditch it. Sad I know but I figure I can learn lessons elsewhere, I read to go to happy places or places I want to go.

Athira / Aths said...

That's not sad at all, Juju! I read for the same reason, just that my reason is a little grotesque, lol! I think it makes sense that we read about something that we don't know much about or something that we like to know more about - like a happy place.

Jenny said...

I know what you're reading! ;)
I completely agree that sometimes when we read about uncomfortable things or difficult subjects our kinds are stretched an we end up learning a lot. But while I think it's good to empathize, I don't think that my boundaries necessarily change. I might be able to understand the reasons a person is how they are, but that doesn't by any means make things okay. The understanding just helps us relate better to people across a wide spectrum. There aren't many things I won't read about, but incest has always made me feel unconfortable starting with Flowers in the Attic!

Jenny said...

Oh I just wanted to add that some of the discussions in that book made me uncomfortable as well!

zibilee said...

I read a book not that long ago about incest, and the plot and elements of the story were very romanticized. I tried to give it a fair review, on the material alone, but it disturbed me, and I talked to a lot of people about it. I can see where that type of thing happens, but to read about it in this context really confused me and made me twitchy. It was just weird, and I was uncomfortable thinking that this was a book for YA readers. I don't think I will ever read about that subject again. Too upsetting.

Helen Murdoch said...

Now I am dying to know what book you're reading! When I am shocked or loathe a character for his/her behavior or personality I finish the book and think I am so glad most of the world isn't that way. It doesn't make me empathize with them though.

Athira / Aths said...

Did you also mean American Dervish? I like it that the author didn't try to censor anything when he wrote it, but it is still uncomfortable, and I still cannot stand such people. Uff! I echo what you said - I don't think my boundaries should shift either. It's enough that I understand them, and so long as they don't try to impose their way of life on me, I'm good.

Athira / Aths said...

I know what you mean, Heather! Sometimes, when the book is done poorly, the subject somehow becomes a taboo for us. I believe I have a few topics that I don't read about for that reason, because they keep bringing to memory that one book which ruined it. In case you are looking for a different approach to incest, you can check Repeat it Today with Tears by Anne Peile. Your opinions are not going to be swayed, and this book is beautifully written. 

Athira / Aths said...

I'm reading American Dervish. I like it that the author didn't try to censor or tone down anything and just wrote it honestly. I have personally known many characters like the one in this book, and have usually had issues with them, which is the main reason I don't like to read about the topic. But I'm glad I gave it a try.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I think the main thing I worry about is trying to do a fair review on something like that.  Sometimes I just don't review it.  I don't think it really changes my mind at all, but as you say I do get a greater understanding of how people think.

Athira / Aths said...

If it's a non-review book, I usually want to review it. Simply to vent I guess. But it's tricky with review books, that's when posts like these happen usually, lol. But I agree with you - my opinion doesn't change either, but I like how much better  I can understand such people. 

Ti said...

I have a hard time with missing kids. I can deal with incest and even child molestation but missing kids and the prostitution of children are the two that I have the hardest time with. I still read books about those topics but I tend to put them down a lot while reading them. I remember reading The Blue Notebook one night on vacation. I stayed up all night to read the darn thing and was so sick over it the next day. NOT a vacay book if you ask me!

Athira / Aths said...

I think I read a couple of pages from The Blue Notebook and decided that I definitely couldn't read it. I've read books on missing kids, but I'm sure that when I have my own kid, I won't be able to stomach that topic either. There are quite a few challenge topics in this world.

Vasilly said...

I think this is a great question! I don't read or watch anything with a lot of violence. There's already so much of it in the real world, I would rather stay surprised about it than "absorb" it when I don't have to. Does that make sense? I also avoid things about racism or slavery though I have been slowly changing that.

Athira / Aths said...

Violence doesn't appeal much to me either, unless most of the focus is on the character's drive and psychological frame of mind than the violence in itself. I find I tend to rate books with violence lower.

I hear you about racism. I do read a few books on the subject, mostly to keep reminding myself that there are people like that still in this world, but I seem to draw the line when it comes to victimization of Indians - then it becomes a little too personal and I'll need an AC to cool my head.

Wendy said...

There is not a lot I won't read...but there is one topic that I struggle mightily with and that is child abuse. I can read books about child abuse, but I cannot read books which seem to excuse it or make the abuser look sympathetic. I have avoided (for years) reading Lolita. I just don't want to. Mudbound, which was loved by many readers, made my stomach hurt. There are other examples, but I think you get my point. I worked with molested girls in a treatment center for three years...and my empathy is 100% with the kid and not the adult. I also have a  hard time with books that include animal abuse...although Salvage the Bones, which included a fighting dog, was my top rated book last year. Bottom line, I mostly agree with you when you write:  "...the more challenging the subject of a book to the reader, the better the reading experience." But the author has to be a great writer to get me to stick with a book which has really difficult subject matter (I don't want it to be gratuitous or so ugly that I can't sleep at night!).

Gwen said...

Religion can be pretty touchy with me in general. Just ask my TV how many times I have yelled at this week while watching the news. That is the only topic that I can think of that tends to make me pull my hair out, yet I don't have a problem with a book that comes from a place of full disclosure of their beliefs. The problem lies in books that come from a place where their beliefs are the only ones that matter or are valid. Fictional characters that do this are fine, but non-fiction.....no way.  I guess you might say that I can humor fictional characters that are idiots, just won't stand for authors that are. 

Athira / Aths said...

I agree with you that the author has to be a great writer. I also happen to hate books where the author exploits a topic just to create a story out of it, or manipulates the reader into feeling certain emotions. I guess one of the reasons I didn't have trouble with an incest book I read last year was because I felt no exploitation or manipulation reading it.

I don't like to sympathize with the bad guys either - but I don't mind it if the author tries to state the facts regarding what drove him to do something bad without justifying it. Justifying a crime is a line I don't like my books to cross. Crimes are wrong, however tortured the criminal. But I'm okay with the background information on the criminal just for me to be able to make some sense out of a mess that should never have been.

Athira / Aths said...

I guess we have that in common then - the touchiness that religion inspires. Though I tend to stay away from even fictional characters that worship their religion. It just makes me so angry to hear people say about how great their god is and what a sham the rest of the religions are. I think it's mostly people's lack of open mind and tolerance that bothers me - religion and politics are the two areas where this quality comes out strongly.

Jackie said...

Congratulations on battling through! I don't have any subject matter I specifially avoid when reading, but I am reluctant to talk about certain subjects on my blog (mainly religion and politics) so I may well read the book, but then remain silent on my blog. Some subjects just provoke too strong a reaction on both sides for me to want to get in the middle.