Over the past few days there’s been a huge debate over the suggestion that college professors use trigger labels on books they suggest for their classes. While it’s not the kind of debate that will tear the publishing world apart, it has caused some heated words between the two sides. Many people sympathize with both sides, and I’m one of them.
First of all, I completely understand that people would like to avoid things that resurrects bad things that have happened to them. Everyone deserves to live in a safe place and enjoy activities such as reading a book. I would never ever intentionally snatch the potential of that safe place from anyone.
However, I don’t think that labeling books is the best way to protect people from such things.
I can say that when I went to college I was quite naive. One of the first classes I signed up for was was a Literary Fiction class. There I was introduced to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Kennedy Toole, Thomas Pynchon and several others. There I was glimpsed worlds I never knew about.
You see, I lived (and still do) in a very small town. Growing up the population was less than 300 though I lived on the outskirts on a farm. Our library is tiny and because of this, there’s not a big selection. Sure there’s a lot of classic books, some reference materials and of course lots of children’s books. But the adult selection was always pretty thin, especially when it came to the speculative fiction shelves. For the most part, the books I liked had a shelf that housed horror, SF and fantasy. Once I really got into reading I read most of those books in 1 summer. Sure we got some new ones in and some from the loaning library, but there was never much there. I did branch out and read through some mystery books, some action and even some military history, but they didn’t last long enough.
But never in all the books that I browsed from the age of 12 to 18 did I come across books with things that could have been triggers. I never read about rape, or abuse or strong adult themes. Even the military history books were simply bland third hand details about war.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I was introduced to such things. My poor hillbilly sensitivities were shocked to say the least by some of the things I was reading, but I never put the books down. I read them and learned that the little corner of the world I had been living in for so long was a pretty small place.
Fast forward to today.
There is a big difference in between what you read for fun and what is required reading for a college level class. I don’t think it is unreasonable for the required books to be posted before sign up, so that the students can do some of their own research on what they will have to read. Alternative reading could be arranged although that is up to the professor. But this is required reading, not pleasure reading. Big difference.
I do not believe that trigger labels should be for all books. In my opinion, it would be used to by some communities to limit books in the public libraries, schools and other institutions.
The town I live in now is a bit larger than my home town and the library is a bit bigger. Speculative fiction is a bit more mainstream now, although access in the library is still limited. But again, books with strong themes, aren’t common. Now I haven’t read many books in the library in a long time. But I do go in from time to time. Again there’s a huge selection of children’s books (which I think is wonderful). Fully half of the building is dedicated to young readers. The next largest section is general fiction, then romance, mystery, action then speculative fiction.
For those who don’t know, library books have to go through a selection process. Libraries have limited budgets and they just can’t approve all of the books that get requested-even if they want to. Libraries also have to take public opinions into account. A public outcry over a book (and there have been some even in my small area over the years) can lead to patrons not coming into the library and funding being cut.
In my opinion, labeling books with trigger warnings could be used as a tool–especially in small communities like mine–to limit books that have strong adult content that helps open the minds of the people who read them. Labeling book contents can be a very dangerous step in censoring what the public reads–something that in some areas is already happening.
I don’t know what the best solution would be. Perhaps better blurbs about the book covers, but labels aren’t the answer.