In March, I read Little Peach by Peggy Kern. It’s a short but unflinching look at child prostitution in New York City, and it’s…not exactly easy to read. And I’m not one to really flinch away from things, either, but abuse of any kind really makes me squirm. The worst I’ve read is undoubtedly A Safe Place by Lorenzo Carcaterra, which details a lifetime of physical abuse dealt out by the author’s father. It was extremely difficult to read, and isn’t something I’d ever really want to pick up again, but I was able to get through it.
We all have our boundaries when it comes to the media we consume. For lots of people—and this is something I don’t totally understand—animal violence is one of the biggest no-nos. (The part that I don’t understand is that most people who say “no way” to animal violence are perfectly okay reading about humans being violent to each other. Sure, it’s always sad when the dog dies, but I personally find it much sadder when a person dies. And I say this as a dog owner.) For some, it’s sexual violence; for others, it’s religion. Everyone has their deal-breakers.
But in 25 years, I’ve never come across something I actually couldn’t read. I’ve had a hard time getting through some things—like I mentioned earlier, domestic abuse in particular is hard for me to stomach, as well as really detailed descriptions of gore—but in most of those cases, those things came up at such a point where I couldn’t turn back. So I sort of held my breath and pushed on as quickly as possible. But it wasn’t really ever a question of whether I would keep reading, because at that point I had been sucked in.
However, it usually decreases a book’s “reread value” for me. Just as many people decide which house or car to buy by considering its resale value, I often judge the books I read based on how likely I am to reread it. Books like Little Peach and A Safe Place, though well written with good stories, have low reread value because of their topics. Similarly, I just can’t reread books like Misery and Gerald’s Game, though both were written by my beloved Uncle Stevie, because of terribly grisly scenes described therein. I occasionally remember that one scene in Gerald’s Game (people who have read it will probably know what I’m talking about) right as I’m going to sleep, which is just dandy. The thought of reading it again and re-implanting that image in my brain is just a nonstarter.
Then there are the people who do shit like make apps to get rid of profanity in ebooks. It even apparently lets you decide what to change the words to: for example, you can change “bitch” to “witch.” Now, I understand that not everyone appreciates profanity, but there’s a difference between rolling your eyes at it and removing it completely so that you’ll never be offended ever. I would humbly suggest to anyone who doesn’t like profanity that maybe they shouldn’t read books containing profanity. Using apps like the Clean Reader is like cheating—maybe the author wants to make you uncomfortable with their word choice, and removing their agency like that is unfair and simply wrong. If you’re not reading every word the way the author intends, then you probably shouldn’t be reading their book at all.
Luckily, most people aren’t that ridiculous, but we do all deal with difficult topics differently. What I’d like to know is how you all deal with difficult topics in literature. If you come across something you feel like you can’t handle, what do you do? Do you stop reading? Skim or skip the hard parts? Read Wikipedia to find out what happens without finishing the book? Write off the book completely because how dare they? Let me know in the comments!by