Friday, May 23, 2014

Unsafe to Read

Sunday's New York Times tells us that modern college students are asking for warning labels on certain books in the Literary Canon that they are forced to read, because they may find the content disturbing. Rape victims and returning veterans, they say, are particularly at risk and must be warned before opening their copies of The Great Gatsby or Mrs. Dalloway.

According to Philip Wythe of the Rutgers Daily Targum, our nation's classrooms are thronging with damaged, sensitive people suffering from all kinds of psychological disorders. They must be protected from further abuse, which for humanities majors can take the form of being required to read as many as 35 novels in four months. Maybe even paying attention to the contents.* Since censorship is wrong—we all know that—the answer is for the professors to put "trauma trigger warnings" on their syllabi, so that sensitive students can beg to be excused from reading anything they might not feel safe with.

The concept of trigger warnings is said to have originated with the Women's Movement. If that's true, I'm sorry for it. In my day Sisterhood was Powerful, not an excuse to be let off from reading challenging material.

Great literature is supposed to shake you. But whether you read or not, if you live and stay awake you will be educated. Experience keeps a dear school, as they say, but a fool will learn in no other. There are lessons you're better off learning from examples in books, before you are confronted with them in real life. War is hell, for example. Not everyone who wants to have sex with you loves and respects you. Not everyone who disagrees with your beliefs is evil, or even necessarily wrong. Some people do not regard you as human, and never will. I could go on.

Here's a passage from A. E. Houseman's A Shropshire Lad that seems to me to speak to the point:

There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all the springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
—I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.

Hey, I read that in college. It's a metaphor, kids. Nobody is advising you to take poison.

© 2014 Kate Gallison

*If Mr. Wythe's classmates think reading 34 novels in four months is traumatic, wait until they graduate with their humanities degrees and try to find jobs that will enable them to pay off their college loans before they reach the age of retirement.


  1. Brava!
    I went to college in the age of relevance. Luckily I was smart enough to know that there were worlds of things that might be important or interesting but not obiously "relevant " to an 18 year old.

  2. Oh, for heaven's sake. Such warnings are wrong on so MANY levels. Who is to say that reading the novel would not actually help the "victim" understand and develop some resilience--not a plentiful commodity among the overprotected generation now coming of age (or not coming of age)? I understand that some people are badly damaged by traumatic experiences. Do they go to group therapy? Do they then hear others' stories that help them? Why don't the literature professors teach them how to find out enough about the story to decide for themselves whether they need to protect themselves against any dangerous shocks. What do they do about movies? Or about the trailers they might see if they go to a movie about something else entirely? The TV news? Or godforbid the newspaper? This movement is jejune in the EXTREME.

  3. Actually when I was doing psychotherapy, I did frequently recommend books. This is now pretentiously called bibliotherapy. I remember recommending Susan Kenney's "In Another Country" to people who had lost parents. It was better than any self-help book in describing grief and loss. No client ever told me they were traumatized by reading the book.