Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Cause and Effect

Do you think that reading something not because it drew you in on its merits, but because you're acting in defiance of authorities intrinsically changes your relationship to the material?

The fact that someone else told me not to read something does not guarantee that I will read it. For one thing, there are a lot of lists of Really Bad Stuff and I don't have that kind of time. But in all honesty if I know that it is on a list it gets more scrutiny in terms of whether or not I will read it than it might otherwise. There are certainly books I've read and books on my to-be-read shelf that wouldn't otherwise draw my attention for one reason or another.

I think any reasonable person would see that seeking to ban something you hate is self-defeating. You're giving free publicity to those you oppose. Right? Or does the effort to ban or constrict access to a book or song so intrinsically change my experience of it that it's worth the effort?

If I read a book that's on some Really Bad List somewhere, the list all but guarantees that I will contemplate it on a level deeper than I would otherwise. Sometimes I find something I deeply loathe. (The key being that I found it, it wasn't kept from me because I might find it.)  And it troubles me slightly that the fact that it's on a List somewhere changes the way I feel about it, may alter on some level deeper than I'm aware of how I respond to it.

I suspect that I'm not alone in this. But is that good or bad? Does finding it on some We Hate This And You Shouldn't Read It list make it seem better than it is? Does it inhibit our critical faculties in some fashion because we, the rebellious readers, deeply WANT it to be good just because some annoying jerk told us they didn't think it was and they 'know better' than we do? So is banning a book a self-fulfilling prophecy or a self-defeating one? Or do the two cancel each other out?

I honestly think that the furor that surrounded A Catcher in the Rye was at least partially responsible for the cache that it's carried for the past fifty-odd years. Does the story of Holden Caulfield's 1950's Upper Westside, white, middle class ennui remain compelling without the history to the books fight to remain in print backing it up? Even after his idle and strangely asexual chitchat with prostitutes about "phonies" has lost its ability to shock us? I think it does, but I cannot be sure where the act of innate defiance that reading such a book entails begins and ends. So I asked my assembled friends on Facebook -- some of the brightest people I know from all parts of the country, all walks of life and every political leaning -- and now I ask you.

Is the prophecy self-fullfilling or is it self-defeating? What is the cumulative impact of challenging (verb form) books? Not to mention the cumulative effect on you, on society and on the writers of the books?

Scott Walker Perkins writes literary thrillers and novels of suspense woven from the threads of history. His current novel is The Palimpsest and he is working on another tentatively titled 42 Lines.
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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).