What's Left: An argument for difficult books and the people they shape

I am a firm believer in the power of good storytelling, a belief that was in no small way shaped by the books I was exposed to during my academic career.

Emma McNamee

I bought a new bookshelf recently and over the weekend, I finally had the time to sit down and put it together. This endeavor ended up taking up most of my time on Saturday and some on Sunday as well — not because the bookshelf was difficult to put together (it wasn’t, minus the legs) but because as it usually happens for any task involving books, I tend to spend more time flipping through pages than I do anything else.

Without a doubt, the process of removing the books from the old shelf, which then got placed in another room to hold more books, and putting my favorites back on the newly constructed shelf in my room took up more time than everything else combined.

Right now, my new bookshelf is a little under half full, and awaiting the boxes of books I left in Duluth when I moved to Worthington. I brought my absolute favorites with me — the books I couldn’t bear to leave behind. Some of them are not pleasant books. Some of these books are downright painful to read for their content, and I am unable — still, after innumerable rereads — to get through them without crying.

I have always been an avid reader, because I have always been, first and foremost, a writer. What can I say, I love a good story and there is no better way to improve your writing than by reading the work of people who are better than you. So I read. I consume stories wholeheartedly, Even the ones that don’t end happily. Even the ones that are difficult. I read books that make me sad, uncomfortable, angry, and often I don’t just feel that these books, in particular, have made me a better writer, but a better person, because I come away more empathetic, more understanding than I was before, having gained a perspective I might not have considered.

There is an ongoing conversation in America that has gained new interest recently, about books and schools and children. A Tenessee school board voted unanimously last month to ban “Maus,” Art Spiegelman’s award-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust on the grounds that it contained language and imagery inappropriate for students, and the ensuing debate over this has continued to make headlines for the last several weeks.


I could say a lot of things on this matter. I could talk about the importance of understanding history so as not to repeat it. I could state that I think censorship in schools is a dangerous and slippery slope that often leads to the limiting or erasure of any perspective that is deemed as "other" by the general masses. I could argue that isn’t the entire point of school to learn, to be challenged, to gain the understanding you did not before possess? And I could tell you that as someone less than a decade out of school, who still keenly remembers the discussions held in classes where we read literature that made us uncomfortable, I am grateful to my teachers who created those assignments.

The hardest book I ever read was Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” and I did so because one of my teachers said it was a book everyone should read at least once, not in spite of being difficult but because of that. She was right, and though it’s not a book I ever want to read again, it left an impact on me that I doubt I will ever forget — and that is not a bad thing. I was lucky enough to be reading it with classmates and a teacher who wanted us to understand the importance of what we were reading. The horribleness, the grief, the unpleasant nature of the content were not things we shied away from in discussion, which made it more bearable than if I had been reading it on my own.

I understand wanting to protect kids from the horrors of the world, but as someone who was not so long ago counted among that group, I think denying them the opportunity of learning and sharing their thoughts in a safe space is a far greater disservice.

Kids are intelligent creatures, and they’re not blind to the world around them. Give them the tools to understand stories, the themes, the tactics used — how to identify an unreliable narrator, how to pick on nuance and give context — and they'll be able to use those skills in the real world.

Give them reading that challenges them, makes them uncomfortable, makes them think, and they won't just have a better understanding of the world, but their place in it.

Opinion by Emma McNamee
Emma McNamee joined The Globe team in October 2021 as a reporter covering Crime & Courts, Politics, and the City beats. Born and raised in Duluth, Minn., McNamee left her hometown to attend school in Chicago at Columbia College. She graduated in 2021 with a degree in Multimedia Journalism, with a concentration in News & Feature Writing and a minor in Creative Writing.
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