By the Book: Let the works speak for themselves

Credit: Ashley Pinciaro
Credit: Ashley Pinciaro

I recently found two columns about books, the first amusing, the other a little troubling. The troubling one was about “trigger warnings,” notes of caution affixed to college reading lists or courses. The premise is that people who have been subjected to certain traumatic experiences should get a formal heads-up that a given book contains themes, chapters, paragraphs — perhaps only words — that revolve around one or more of life’s more unspeakable events. Such writing might cause upsetment, or worse, in someone who’s gone through such terrors. 

Many classics were given as examples: “The Merchant of Venice” (anti-Semitism), “The Great Gatsby” (abusive, misogynistic violence), “Mrs. Dalloway” (suicide) and “Huckleberry Finn” (racism). Not mentioned, but certainly included, would be books with an emphasis on sexual abuse, alcoholism, the horrors of war and so on.

Anyone who’s been subjected to such violations certainly deserves our support, but I’m not sure of this approach. Oberlin College put out a draft guide alerting professors to this potential move and even gave an example: “Things Fall Apart” (Chinua Achebe), it said, “is a triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read” but could “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence and more.” Sort of contradictory. Anyway, professors complained and the draft was withdrawn.

I thought college was about immersion, discovery, change. About confronting oneself and moving forward. Trigger warnings seem overly protective, just across the border from book-banning.

The other article, more tongue-in-cheek and lighthearted, was about blurbs, those concise lines of praise that appear on book jackets and in ads. The overblown way in which they are written was both admired, for sheer imagination, and teased, for major-league exaggeration.

“I felt my brain growing as I read” doubtless took first place in each category. Apparently there are people who write such sparklers for a living, and snippets like “propulsive suspense” and “fraught with heartbreak” drop readily from their minds, like chickens laying eggs. The consensus from the publishing world is that these blurbs have probably never sold one additional copy, but tradition rules.

I went through the book review section of that five-pound Sunday paper and discovered “I had to remind myself to breathe,” clearly over the top, and “Harrowing, may move you to tears,” dubious. I have no idea what “benign flamboyance” is, was or might become. My only hope is that some of you will find this column “casually of startling import.”

A third article then popped up that took on the English language, or rather those who believe that God created it on the eighth day. If you say to one of these believers that a house you saw was “very unique” you could be subjected to a Category 3 harangue, for it is true that the word “unique” must stand alone. Fowler’s says, “A thing is unique, or not unique; there are no degrees of uniqueness.” Certain uses of the word “hopefully” also came under attack. It’s an adverb, so should not be used to modify an entire sentence. Like “Hopefully, this column is finished.” I admit I don’t get too excited about such academic nitpicking.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press and a former member of Southold Free Library’s board of trustees. He can be reached at [email protected].