Last year was the 60th anniversary of the obscenity trial over the publication of D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I’ve (still) not read it, for I’m afraid I found Sons & Lovers to be such dull fare that I refused to put myself through any more suffering.
Yet, some decades later, I did read The Satanic Verses which brought a fatwa down on Salman Rushdie’s head – and yes – I read it precisely because it was controversial, even reading it in a plain brown paper wrapper! Books are my thing. I want – in the past have even felt a need – to participate in what’s hot. These days my TBR is too huge and I have too many calls on my time for me to indulge the want and let it be regarded as a need. Yet there’s still a tug when something in the book world is being talked about.
When I looked at lists of famously controversial books, I discovered I may be mistaken in my belief that I’m drawn to a book because it’s controversial. Rushdie’s book called to me for precisely the reason that many of his book have since – I’m a child of India, I lived for a few years not far from Rushdie’s family home in Mumbai (or what we both still regard as Bombay), and even when the tales take place away from India, they bring to mind the sense of alienation I felt during my early years of living in England.
The Satanic Verses was unusual in that it caused outrage within the Muslim community, whereas most controversial books before that time had stirred up hornets within the Christian community. Many on the lists were controversial because they provided a platform to non-white and non-heterosexual voices, others challenged political beliefs, described trauma, or depicted experiences outside of societal norms (at the time of writing). All of which are – I believe – good reasons for reading them, especially when those experiences are not your own.
Looking at the lists of the famously controversial, there are books I know it’s unlikely I’ll ever read – and not just because of the perilous state of my TBR. Two are books where I saw the films first – Sophie’s Choice and A Clockwork Orange. Each left me emotionally wrung out and/or deeply distressed. Both films were chosen by someone else, and I attended without knowledge of their choice beforehand. If I’d followed my standard rule, I’d have read the book and not seen the films – but them’s the breaks. I simply don’t see myself revisiting those particular emotional traumas.
There’s too many on the lists I still haven’t read (exactly half). A small number of the unread are on my kindle awaiting their moment, but only 2-3 of the remaining will make their way there. Yes, time is against me, but I need to acknowledge – if only to myself – that the truth is I don’t actually read books because they’re controversial, I have to be either interested in or believe I will enjoy their story – and I’m afraid that there are still too many on the lists which fall into neither category.
So it turns out I’m not here to challenge anything or anyone with my reading choices. I’d so hoped to achieve rebel status about something in my life and truly believed books were likely to be my best option 😉
© Debra Carey, 2021