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February 15, 2016 BOOKLIST
Find more At Leisure with Joyce Saricks
Preparations for Banned Books Week, when librarians celebrate everyone’s right to read, have been on my mind. I’m always surprised at some of the titles I find on the list issued by ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom; it’s hard to imagine that Of Mice and Men and Catcher in the Rye are still regularly challenged. The yearly celebration of our right to read creates opportunities to display our favorite banned and challenged books and perhaps even to reread them. (I may need to revisit John Gardner’s Grendel to see if I can figure out what triggered a censor!)
Although readers’ advisory isn’t directly connected to banned books, because we hope that complaints about titles in our collection don’t get that far, we face a related challenge every day. We know that our shelves hold thousands of titles that are potentially offensive to readers. Books contain profanity, unsavory characters, unsettling situations, and ideas that sometimes disturb. I’m reminded of the late Dorothy Broderick’s challenge that libraries should post a sign on the door advising, “This library has something offensive to everyone. If you are not offended by something we own, please complain.” We’ve certainly fulfilled her goal of creating collections full of potentially offensive titles, but dealing with the negative fallout is never easy, especially when our job is to interact with readers and suggest titles. Any book can be a minefield for an advisor, and we need to learn to deal with that possibility.
I think readers, including me, may all have a mental list of things we don’t want to read about. Sometimes we are aware of these restrictions (I won’t read books in which pets are killed), but sometimes we don’t realize how we feel until we come across something that bothers us. These might be topics we don’t want to read about, or language we don’t like, or, quite honestly, almost anything that we don’t want to encounter in the books we read.
Every day we meet readers with restrictions, and sometimes we just want to roll our eyes because the reasoning seems to make no sense. We’re told: “I don’t read any book that contains profanity,” followed by praise for Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones series or George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones fantasies. Or, “I don’t like books with any sex,” only to learn that same reader wants the newest Nora Roberts book. I’ve always said I don’t like books with explicit violence, but you’d never guess that looking over the list of authors I read—and love: John Sandford, Jeffery Deaver, Stephen King, Greg Iles, and more. Feel free to roll your eyes.
Checking out the lists of banned and challenged books reminds us that any book has the potential to offend. We can never predict what might bother readers. Even classics, loved by generations of readers, may raise red flags. Certainly Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is frequently challenged, but readers also raise objections to Golden Age mystery star Dorothy L. Sayers’ casual anti-Semitism and Ray Bradbury’s sexist attitude. Even if we’ve read a book, we won’t necessarily have noticed and certainly are unlikely to remember if there’s anything that might offend a reader. It’s impossible. What offends us might not offend someone else, and we’ll never be able to recognize every pitfall. Besides, we lose the pleasure of reading if we’re always on guard for potentially explosive language or scenes. So should we not suggest these books? Do we have to worry about every title we offer? Of course not, but since we are on the front lines of unhappy reader reactions, there are three things to keep in mind that help us navigate the suggestion minefield.
First, we don’t offer guarantees. If parents have doubts or concerns about titles for their children, we encourage them to read the book first before giving it to their little ones. If readers have concerns for themselves, we offer them reviews and tell them to bring the book back if it is not to their liking. No book can be guaranteed “safe.”
Second, if we “suggest” titles rather than “recommend” them, we offer possibilities. Recommending carries a seal of approval, a guarantee that the reader will like this book and find nothing that will offend. We cannot promise that.
Finally, we should always remind readers to bring back books that don’t please them—whether they find something offensive or simply don’t like the book. We’ll find them something else. We have a whole library to choose from. Always adding this tag line to our conversations strengthens our relationship with readers; it reminds them that we are here to help them find books to enjoy through a lifetime of reading. It also gives readers permission not to like a title, to stop reading, and to choose something else. Readers then share their concerns about a book in a positive way, one that leads to titles they do enjoy and leaves those they don’t on the shelf, ready for readers who may love them.
This month and all year long celebrate the freedom to read, to find a variety of books that please you, and to stop reading something you don’t like.
July’s RA Tip: Read with an eye for a book’s appeal, the elements that readers will enjoy. Don’t get bogged down worrying about what might offend; readers surprise us just as often with the books they love as with those they hate.
Joyce Saricks, in addition to being Booklist’s Audio Editor, is the author of the second edition of The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction (ALA Editions, 2009).
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