Read before you speak

David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times Book Critic

I have a suggestion: If you want to complain about curriculum, you need to read the books. Twice in the last week, undergraduates in North Carolina — first at Duke University and then at the University of North Carolina — have objected to assigned books they haven’t read.

In the initial instance, a number of freshmen refused to read Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel “Fun Home,” which had been selected for the university’s Common Experience Summer Reading Program, because they objected to it on moral grounds.

In the second, a freshman journalism major named Alec Dent claimed that readings in a seminar on the literature of Sept. 11 “were sympathetic towards terrorism,” despite the fact that he had not read any of the materials or enrolled in the class.

So here’s the question: How stupid do we want to be? Do we want to be constrained by our preconceptions, or do we want to learn to engage with, even be compelled by, opposing points of view?

In Dent’s case, the books he did not read include Art Spiegelman’s “In the Shadow of No Towers” and Mohsin Hamid’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” neither of which supports a terrorist worldview.

The former is a chilling graphic memoir that recounts its creator’s terror (existential and otherwise) in the days and weeks after the World Trade Center attack — he lived in the neighborhood — while the latter is a novel about a westernized Pakistani who rethinks his values once the war on terrorism begins.

This is what we used to call nuance, back when such a thing was part of the cultural dialogue. But in a world of trigger warnings, nuance often gets trumped by discomfort -- leading to the pernicious notion that education ought to support, rather than challenge, our points of view.

Think about “Fun Home,” which is not (regardless of how some of the incoming Duke freshmen see it) pornographic or graphically sexual. What it is, rather, is a vivid and complex portrait of a family, especially the relationship between Bechdel and her father, a closeted gay man who died in 1980, either by accident or suicide, shortly after his daughter came out as a lesbian.

That’s a particular situation but also a universal one — or perhaps, it’s most accurate to say its universality comes out of the intricate details with which Bechdel recreates her early life. The specifics, in other words, may belong to the author, but the emotions — the mix of love and anger, the desire to be seen and understood by those least equipped to see and understand you — those belong to all of us.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: This is why we read. We come to books to find the substance that binds us, our shared humanity. That it infuses all of us — regardless of gender, sexuality or background — is the essential core.

“In a world where weapons of mass destruction are permanent features of the landscape,” Jane Smiley notes in “13 Ways of Looking at the Novel,” “I cannot help believing that a lively sense of the reality of other consciousnesses on the part of those whose fingers are on the trigger is essential to human survival.”

Smiley is addressing empathy, our ability to experience the other, and in so doing to experience ourselves. It’s not ideological, except in the broadest terms. What I mean is that a work like “Fun Home” — or, for that matter, “In the Shadow of No Towers” and “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” — is first and foremost about connection, the connection of its creator to herself and then to us, regardless of where on the social or cultural spectrum we stand.

Here, we see the fundament of intellectual, of cultural life — although it requires that we do the necessary work. We have to expose ourselves to other lives, to other perspectives; we have to engage in the world beyond ourselves.

Nuance again, or the art of being a responsible citizen or student, the necessity to be informed. That’s hard work, and it begins with patience, or more accurately, a willingness to listen — and to read.

Twitter: @davidulin

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