Should We Protect the Grown-Ups?

Elizabeth Bluemle -- July 7th, 2011

As a children’s bookseller, I’m used to dancing the delicate line between guidance and censorship, championing readers’ freedom and respecting/honoring their choices while also trying to steer young people toward books that will most resonate with who and where they are personally and developmentally. Basically, I’ve had fifteen years’ experience doing gut-checks on readers and books when I’m asked for help. What I never expected was to find myself needing to do the same for adults, with adult reading.

Recently, I become enamored of an adult nonfiction title called Shameless: How I Ditched the Diet, Got Naked, Found True Pleasure, and Somehow Got Home in Time to Cook Dinner, by Pamela Madsen. It’s the story of the author’s midlife crisis, her growing realization that somewhere along the way, she’d lost an important piece of herself: the full sense of her identity independent of her societal roles. Most notably, her sense of self as a sexual being. A successful fertility advocate and happy wife and mother, the author had her act together but felt that something big was missing, and she set out to find it.

I love this book as an adult book-group choice because it addresses so many issues familiar to women in our community’s book groups: sex, marriage, motherhood, aging, weight, body image, identity, shame, fear, courage, risk. Even better—in terms of fodder for discussion—is that it’s wildly controversial; I guarantee you that no group of readers will all be in agreement on the nature of the path of self-discovery on which Madsen embarks. (That’s a convoluted way of saying she gets sexy, big-time, and in unconventional, sometimes uncomfortable, ways.) The book is direct and fearless and does not always portray the author in the best possible light. Whether or not you agree with her methods or conclusions, there’s no denying that the memoir takes on a goodly number of personal preoccupations likely to be on the minds of American women over the age of forty. Book group gold! Right? Well, sort of.

While the reaction of individual readers I’ve recommended this book to has been almost uniformly appreciative (one woman did feel guilty even leafing through it), my book-group success has been mixed. I have one book group who wants the author in Vermont yesterday to talk about Shameless; another wants to string me up by my thumbs for recommending such salacious “trash.” Now, I understand that not everyone wants to spend his or her book group time reading and talking about sexuality, but what’s got me puzzling is the intense discomfort of this latter book group.

I was told about a burst of shocked and angry emails that flew fast and furiously after Shameless was announced as the next read. What struck both me and the book group member who talked to me about these emails was the reaction to its very topic — as though sexuality should be recognized as too taboo, too charged, to serve as an appropriate part of a book worth reading and discussing. At most, I expected people to say, “It’s not my cup of tea.” What I wasn’t prepared for is the sense that I should be censoring recommendations to adults, the sense that I would somehow be disturbing the fabric of the universe by suggesting that women might be interested in reading about the experiences of a peer who made different choices from the ones they themselves might make.

I’ve noticed this also with politics, religion, and other hot-button issues: a discomfort (among very well-educated people) to discuss dissenting ideas. Fear of disagreement. An end-run around controversy. Have I been desensitized by my college years at UC Berkeley, or by spending the bulk of my life in large, liberal cities? Is it just me, or has America swung a bit backward on the pendulum, toward Puritanism and discomfort with ideas different from those held by the reader? Heck, maybe I’m expecting us to be western Europe. Whatever the case, I’m surprised. I guess that’s the nub of what this blog post is about: wondering if we are all seeing a creeping increase in closed-mindedness. Do we want every book to be a mirror of ourselves?

How is this related to children’s bookselling? Well, dear readers, I suppose my mind travels down this path: If we adults are so averse to controversy, so alarmed by that which might prove to be uncomfortable, how will we raise our children to think critically, to discern, to debate, to wonder and explore?

And do I now need to worry not only about what I recommend to kids, but to adults?