When reading isn't a comfort

When people rattle around to ban a book, I don't much mind. Banning a book is fairly effective way of making sure a sullen teenager reads it, in my experience. (Thanks to all the librarians and booksellers making those banned book displays!) Still, I was fairly shocked when I saw a Mississippi school district removing To Kill A Mockingbird from the curriculum because it made people uncomfortable.

I understand the discomfort. Characters in To Kill A Mockingbird use the n-word frequently. That word is ugly and represents the worst of America. The book is about race and class and is centered on a false accusation and an alleged rape. There's domestic violence, a mob scene and attempted revenge. It's not a comfortable book. But that's the point. 

To Kill A Mockingbird isn't a perfect book. Keeping American literature lists current is important. I could make the case for replacing To Kill A Mockingbird with a modern book about racism in America, one written by a person of color — The Hate U Give, for example. Or reading both books.

But I struggle with the idea of avoiding uncomfortable books altogether. Uncomfortable books make you think. They challenge the reader. They spark conversations — especially the difficult ones. When we say reading encourages compassion and critical thinking, empathy and civil discourse, uncomfortable books often are behind these benefits. 

The last uncomfortable book I read was Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere. Ng writes about nice Midwestern families and all the things they leave unsaid. Reading these books as a nice Midwestern woman feels sometimes like pressing on a bruise I didn't know I had. Ng's descriptions of Mrs. Richardson, a liberal journalist in suburbia, left me feeling laid open and scrutinized. That book made me consider my creative life and my biases. It did what uncomfortable books do: Ask me to examine the world I take for granted, to define my values, and to consider how those values line up with the culture in which we live.

Reading is one of my great comforts, and I certainly don't believe every book you read should make you squirm or leave you mentally exhausted. But there's a place for uncomfortable books. They're worth keeping around, worth seeking out. For some to consider, take a look at this thread of recommendations

What's the last uncomfortable book you've read?