Can books be harmful?

I read a lot of comments on my twitter feed about the idea of books being harmful.  I don’t get it.  At least, I don’t get it in the context that a lot of people seem to using the term.

Harmful to a Group

This I understand.  I can see how a book that characterizes a particular race or gender as less intelligent than everyone else, for example, could be harmful if people in other groups thought this was a fact and then acted on that information.  This is why books like [email protected] of the Elders of [email protected] are harmful because they have incited hate and violence towards people.

I’m not arguing about that.  But that doesn’t seem to be how the term is being used.

Harmful to an Individual

The idea seems to be that people should not be exposed to books/TV/movies that will offend or misrepresent them because it is permanently damaging to their psyche.

I’ve thought a lot about this and I can think of several books that have deeply offended me. There are those that still anger me when I think of them years later. There are things that I wish I never saw or read. There was one that I was listening to last week that I wish I could warn everyone away from because the representation of something very important to me was so misleading. But, I do not feel personally harmed by any of those books.  I don’t think that I have been damaged by being exposed to ideas I hate or having people write about aspects of my identity in derogatory ways. I’ve cussed out authors in my mind and then walked away from books.  No permanent harm done.

I’m not saying people should read things that they find offensive.  If it isn’t right for you, that’s fine.  Walk away and don’t look back. Whatever works for you.  But are you so malleable that you will let a book change your feelings about yourself? That’s what I think of when I see people using the word “harm” in this context.

I think this might be a generational thing.  I don’t seem to see anyone over 30 using this terminology.


Am I the only person confused by this?  Are older people just better at looking at BS and not taking personally?  Is this a self esteem thing that we’ll never understand because we weren’t raised in a time when that was considered important?

Readers over 30, have you ever been harmed by a book?



  • Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

    I agree that I’ve never felt personally harmed by a book. I recently read a review of a book about a mental health issue that the reader felt like had set her personally back with her own mental health issues because of triggers, so I guess I could see that book being harmful to her, but most of the time I think you’re right that a book might be offensive, but probably not actually harmful.

  • Briana

    I also think “offensive” makes more sense than “harmful” in many cases, though people can go with the word they like best. I understand the concept of a book saying something that’s obnoxious or stereotypical or whatever that would induce anger or offense in the reader. But is the book doing hurting/harming people? I don’t know. I think it’s possible that a general cultural belief can be harmful (let’s just go with sexist views as an example, particularly in the past, and how woman were not allowed autonomy in many cases). So if a large variety of books are perpetuating some bad idea, that’s more clearly harmful. If it’s just one book, I’m personally more likely to write the author off as a jerk and the thing as a fairly isolated case. I’ll be annoyed and maybe angry, but I’ll get over it.

  • Krysta

    I’ve never felt “harmed” by a book. I’ve found books problematic and I have been angered and offended by views I have read, but I guess I am not sure what “harmed” means. Does it mean I feel badly or hurt or that, as you say, some irreparable damage has been done, like because I read a book with a sexist character in it, I’ll never have self worth again? I think most readers are smart and resilient and know that when they read something they find offensive or hurtful that this is an opportunity to start a conversation.

    But I admit I find the current conversations about “harmful” books very confusing because the idea seems to be that if one person finds a book offensive, then the book should be banned. No one should buy it or read it or talk about it without giving tons of disclaimers that Twitter User Y found the book hurtful. This seems pretty unprecedented to me–the idea that we should take the word of one person and ban and censor books based on it. The idea that no one else is allowed to read and evaluate the books for themselves and that they should just trust the word of an anonymous Internet user when deciding to ban and censor books.

    The thing is, any book could potentially be found problematic by any person. Shakespeare, Dante, C. S. Lewis, John Donne, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Veronica Roth, J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien, George R. R. Martin–they have all been found problematic at some point by someone. The Bible has been found problematic. Most of European literature can be accused of anti-Semitism. Most of literature from the past can be critiqued for problematic views about sex, gender, race, and class. If the new rules dictate that no one read problematic books, even if the book is only found to be problematic by one person, then what will we have left to read?

  • Kristen @ Metaphors and Moonlight

    I’ve been offended by books but never felt personally harmed, and I’m not over 30. I think those types of offensive books are just more harmful to groups of people because of the misrepresentation or sexism or whatever it was that offended me. But I think I understand what people are saying. When you’re taught something or showed that something is normal, you sometimes start to believe that, not even realizing that’s the reason you believe it or that your belief isn’t correct. Like how if a kid is repeatedly told by their parents they’re stupid, they’ll eventually start to believe that. Or the way we’re taught gender roles by society and our parents growing up, and we eventually internalize those things. So I think they’re saying that if someone reads negative or misrepresentational things about their own gender/race/sexuality/etc., it could affect them in that way.

What Do You Think?

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