In Praise of Reading Dangerously

Last week, NPR unveiled a list of the top 100 YA books, as nominated by their listeners and readers. It’s an interesting list, but more discussion-worthy is their revelation that they pulled some titles (Ender’s Game and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, to start) from contention for being “too mature” and, presumably, potentially damaging to readers’ fragile psyches.

While I don’t doubt that the individuals who conducted the poll have expertise in the subject and may be qualified to determine what is and is not age-appropriate, I do not believe they should have leveraged that expertise to skew the results of a poll that is supposed to represent readers’ opinions. As Jeff put it earlier this week, “An opinion poll that incorporates its own opinion isn’t a poll at all.” It’s worrisome, this misrepresentation of responses, and it is grossly paternalistic. But what bothers me the most is that the experts were so concerned about protecting readers that they failed to consider that it’s  the dangerous reading experiences that can be most formative in our lives.

I was fortunate to grow up with parents who told me to read whatever I was interested in and who encouraged me to ask questions if I came across something that I found troubling or didn’t understand. This meant that I occasionally–maybe even often–read books that weren’t exactly age-appropriate. Had my parents and school librarians known I was reading about sex and violence and other “mature” concepts, they probably wouldn’t have been thrilled. But they probably couldn’t have stopped me, either. A warning that the content was “too mature” would only have made it more appealing (so, good on ya, NPR, for tricking young readers into reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn this way!). On some level, I recognized that the content was dangerous–that the adults  might not approve–and that made it all the more exciting. Say what you will about “the thrill of danger” being a cliché; I was hooked.

And I’m so thankful for those experiences. It wasn’t the warm, gentle, age-appropriate, lesson-imparting books that made me the reader–or the person–I am today. It was the dangerous ones–the books that exploded my head and challenged my perception of the world and made me look at things in new and previously unconsidered ways. It was the books that I probably shouldn’t have been reading. I’m willing to bet it was the dangerous books that did it for you, too. Passionate, lifelong readers who appreciate books’ power are forged between the covers of challenging reads.

Those moments when you can feel your brain stretching to grok new ideas, when you are aware that your world is taking a new shape because of something you’ve just read–those are the moments that define a reading life. And they don’t exist without the help of risky reading experiences. It might start with a copy of Flowers in the Attic hidden under your mattress–seems frivolous, I know–but if nurtured, it can grow into seeking out books you expect to disagree with, putting yourself in the path of concepts and arguments you don’t quite grasp but want to, and intentionally risking your comfort for the sake of growth. That’s the kind of reader I want to be, and it’s the kind of person I want to be, and the two are inextricably linked. Sometimes we need to read books we aren’t quite ready for. That’s when the good stuff happens.

So here’s to parents who pretend they don’t know you’re in there reading under the covers after lights-out.

To librarians who care more about what you need to read than what you are supposed to read.

To authors who take risks with their writing, and publishers who take risks to put their work out into the world.

Here’s to booksellers who watch and listen and know not just what book to give you, but when to give it to you and how to convince you to give it a shot.

To bookworm friends who say, “This will blow your mind.”

To anyone who has ever handed a child a book with big ideas and said, “just try it.”

Here’s to reading dangerously.

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