Friday, November 06, 2015

Books Are Dangerous

I was steered this morning to this Books Are Dangerous piece at Aeon. Reading it I suddenly realized that, in fact, I have some sympathy for these kids who are calling for "trigger warnings" before reading musty texts like The Iliad or The Great Gatsby.

I recall my years in university with pleasure, and frequently joke with my daughters that it's probably time I started attending classes again. But honestly? For those four years I was managing more anxiety than I've had to manage since.

High school was over -- nobody was going to praise me for just showing up, ever again. In fact, praise was going to be a sparse commodity, period. Grandparents were tumbling into the grave, and the parental unit was getting a bit giddy. And to the left and right of me friends' personalities were undergoing inexplicable sea-changes, leaving me to wonder what was (or wasn't) happening to me.

Meanwhile I was working on a degree with zero career prospects at the end of it. General Arts, I was assured, was "flexible enough" to qualify me for an endless variety of entry-level jobs. All well and good -- so long as you've got some idea what you're keen to do, and I hadn't the foggiest.

General Arts, with a major in English Literature. That translates to four years reading one super-depressing book after another. Most of those books had a fucking-goes-to-pieces moment near the end -- which scared me nuts, because I could relate. Hadn't gone to pieces myself, mind you -- not yet. But I seemed perpetually on the verge.

I probably should have been on medication, though that's easy to say now -- back in the '80s psychotropic drugs worked with all the finesse of a rubber mallet. I saw friends coping with them, and the cure seemed as bad as, if not worse than, the condition they were supposed to address.

Anyway, I can recall one morning in my final year when I was taking public transit to my classes. I was in my usual twitchy/jumpy/fear-foggy state, when a unique thought finally occurred to me: "You know, if this is how it's going to be for the rest of your life . . . so what? You've managed it for the last three years. You can manage it from here on out."

At that moment I started calming down. For me, fearing the fear was the worst of it.*

So, yes -- I have a great deal of empathy and even sympathy for kids requesting, at the very least, a word of warning before opening yet another graphic lament of our fragile humanity.

Are trigger warnings in college classes really the best way forward? I doubt it. But some consideration and compassion for the sprats who pay the bills is hardly a bad thing. Hey, Teacher -- leaven the syllabus with some levity, why don't you? Granted, it's a world without happy endings; entropy and death are inevitable. But the species has coped with, and even thrived beneath, these spectres for the length and breadth of our existence. Surely some exploration and celebration of that is what these times, and our kids, are calling for?

"Sure! Whatever! Just no more shitty papers -- please!"
*Another "A-ha!" moment: this novel. I picked it up while everyone else around me was carrying a dog-eared copy of Last Exit To Brooklyn -- "A scream looking for a mouth," to quote Lou Reed (not what I needed at the time, thank you!).

**Advice I would give my younger self -- get and keep a part-time job while you're getting educated. It'll calm you down, about a lot of things.

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