Why You Should Read Controversial Books


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In 2005 a children’s picture book called And Tango Makes Three was published. The story follows two Chinstrap penguins in New York’s Central Park Zoo named Roy and Silo. The two penguins hatch and raise a young chick named Tango and make a family.

So far the story seems simple and almost unremarkable. That would be true if it were not for one simple twist in the story. Roy and Silo are both male. Due to this one simple story element, the book has topped the list of controversial and banned books in the United States every year since its release.

Books Can Inspire Creativity

It’s almost cliché to say books have the power to change the world. But I still think this statement is true. After all, the only reason people burn books and make movements to ban them is due to the changes they can cause.

It’s the ideas in books that cause people to fear them and work towards their elimination. But this is exactly the reason you should be reading them. New ideas can lead to better innovation, better ways of doing things and new inventions. The only reason you can read this post on a computer (or mobile phone) is due to a series of ideas that led to their creation.

That’s why it is dangerous to ban controversial books. New ideas have the power to create a better world. When people stifle one book because of an idea they don‘t like, they make it harder for other books to be made. The free flow of new ideas slows down and newer, better ways of doing things grind to a halt.

Transform Yourself With Ideas

Controversial books are the ones that push your perception of the world to new levels. They have the power to make you see things in new ways. Themes expressed in these novels can be both inspirational and heartbreaking. Their controversial nature sparks debate about the world and your place in it.

I can’t help thinking that non-controversial books lack this ability to transform you. If something doesn’t spark at least a little bit of controversy, it probably isn’t saying anything at all. In that case, you’d be dealing with something dull, unchallenging and pointless.

Don’t Ban Books, Read Them

In only a few rare cases would banning actually make sense. One example would be The Anarchist Cookbook which details how to make homemade explosives. In the wrong hands, reading this book could be dangerous and the possible physical harm to others would be risky. However, in many other instances controversy is weak and almost laughable such as the opposition to the Harry Potter books on the grounds that they inspire children into the occult.

In only the rarest of circumstances can books cause serious and unnecessary harm. In 1903 a book called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was published. It reported a global plan for the Jewish community for achieving global domination. Despite the fact that the book was proved outright as fraudulent (and highly plagiarized) both in 1905 and again in 1920, the book went on to become a rallying call for anti-Semitism. Adolf Hitler was a major proponent and even had it taught in German classrooms as a factual document.

Some people might conclude that this justifies banning of books. However, I think this just means more books should be available. Those German students would have looked at the book differently if they had been given the information proving its falsehood.

One conclusion you can make about this book is that just because a book is controversial doesn’t mean it is correct. In fact, many controversial books in history have now been proven to be completely inaccurate. The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-mindedness was published in 1912 and reported to find that mental retardation and learning disabilities were hereditary and significantly contributed to their likelihood of being criminals. Of course, we now know that this isn’t true at all.

It’s About Debate

One of the great things about controversy is that it sparks debate. And rather than being led one way or another by people in the debate, it is better to read the source firsthand and make your own decisions about the material. From there, you can reach your own conclusion and contribute your own ideas. And the more ideas people contribute, the sooner we can discover the truth.

The ability of a few select people banning controversial books so others can’t read them doesn’t make much sense. After all, many of those people must have read the book themselves in order to come to their conclusion. Otherwise they are just basing their opinions on second hand information and you in turn base your opinions on third hand information.

Perhaps banning is just a way to stifle debate on a topic people are uncomfortable with. This might explain why And Tango Makes Three was uncomfortable for many people. It was based on the story of two real-life penguins. Only adding to the controversy is that shortly after the book was released the two real-life penguins split up. Silo went on to find a new partner, this time a female penguin. Let the debating begin.
photo credit: jox.

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  1. I agree completely. Reading something that challenges how you view the world will always leave you for the better. Besides if you read something that you disagree with it’s only going to strengthen your argument.

    • Very true. You don’t necessarily need to agree with what you’re reading. However, you don’t just have to stick to books you disagree with. It could just be something others find controversial and you don’t have an opinion on it yet.

  2. A few years back I went through a banned books phase and I truly learned more in that year than I did in all of my high school and college.

    I think its Sept that is banned book month. Get a head start and read ’em all!

    • I didn’t know that there was a banned book month. I’ll have to remember that when September comes around. Thanks for sharing that.

      I agree with you on reading through banned books. Many of my favorite books are on banned lists somewhere.

  3. I agree with both you and Miranda. I hate it when I’m in a debate with someone and they can’t tell me why they feel the way they do about a certain topic. Most of the times they’ve been influenced to say a certain thing and aren’t able to back it up with the facts. When you read something controversial, you develop your own stand on topic and you’re able to back up your point of view with a stronger argument.

    • There’s something wrong about a debate with someone about something they’ve never read or experienced. When they just repeat what they heard someone else say, it just makes me wonder why I don’t get the argument straight from their source. At least that person actually read the source firsthand before forming their opinion.

  4. My biggest pet peeve is when people judge something when they haven’t seen/read it. My aunt went into this long diatribe about how evil Harry Potter was be/c her preacher said it was. She had never read any of the books herself-she was just blindly following the opinion of someone else. I’m a pretty conservative Republican but I read Stupid White Men by Michael Moore and saw An Inconvenient Truth so that I could form my own opinions, rather than based on what others said about them.

    • Listening to someone’s opinion is good, but to take it as the absolute truth seems a step too far. I know many other preachers who would say that Harry Potter is perfectly fine.

      When it comes to political matters, I really don’t align with any particular side. I try to weigh as much as I can. I haven’t actually seen An Inconvenient Truth yet, but I’ve read a couple of Michael Moore books and I’ve watched his movies.

  5. Steve,

    I have always wondered how in a country that takes pride in freedom could actually limit what people have the opportunity to read. People should have the right to decide for themselves if what they read is controversal. I see the act of writing or the creation of books as an art form and each person can look at the same piece of art and get something different from it. It almost seems like the books on the banned list implies that we will be brainwashed into believing whatever it is we read. Like we don’t have the copacity to seperate a story from reality and it will make us run naked through the streets if the book tells us too.

    I agree with you that controversial books create ideas and even better they make for good banter at parties. :-)

    • Hey Frank,

      Controversial books can make for good banter as long as people don’t take them too seriously. It’s like you said though, some people think they can just brainwash us into believing anything. And some books really can do damage if they are blatantly fraudulent such as the examples I gave. But once you see the information that disproves them, they lose their influence.

  6. So very true. I catch myself at times reading only material that supports what I already believe. It feels good to reaffirm areas of interest. BUT to truly get the entire grasp of the subject, to truly believe in it, you need to look at it from all sides.

    Controversy exists because people don’t want to read about things that disconfirms their beliefs and ideas. For a while I was the same way, (probably still am to some degree) it doesn’t feel good to be so certain about something and then be shaken right where you stand when you learn something different. (Poor Santa)

    But by looking at things from different perspectives you become more knowledgable, gain more insight, and ultimately you can solidify your beliefs on certain areas of life.

    Great post Steve!


    • I admit that I like to reaffirm what I believe to be true too. Everyone does to some extent. But I try to make room for other arguments since I know I don’t have all the facts. With all the information floating around the world, no one knows everything.

      It just reminds me of a book written in the 19th century by Ignaz Semmelweis. In it, he said that hand washing would reduce death from infections. His idea was completely rejected by a large majority of doctors. Semmelweis died many years later (ironically from an infection in a hospital) with his idea still controversial. It seems ridiculous to us now though. Even today, infections are still the number one killer in hospitals. If only those doctors back then had been more open about it, they could have seen his great insight and saved more lives.

  7. Go away Steve

  8. Mack C. Moore says:

    Wanna read something controversial? Then read my book, “Tough Lessons from the Bible”. This book sparks controversy among Christians and Christians alike. Why is that? This book covers topics such as gay marriage & abortion. It explains why animals are not the same as humans. This authors explains why Christmas is pagan! This book dare says that Catholicism is not Christianity and that Mary worship goes against God.

    This books dare says that Christians should not celebrate Christmas, that santa is really satan in disguise. If you are looking for a book to debate about or to boycott, then pick up, “Tough Lessons from the Bible” available @ Amazon & Kindle!

  9. Nova Rose says:

    Controversial or not I love the books “Lolita” and “identical” (Ellin Hopkins). Many people say that they can’t get through the book, or feel ill by association. When something taboo happens, people immediately say, “let’s not talk about it.” Like no LETS TALK ABOUT IT. I like that those books make you think. I like peering into the minds of the mentally ill characters. Not that I enjoy the fact that they do have some graphic scenes concerning the rape of young girls, but I like that the book over all and the characters mind set makes you think.

    Sincerely, a 15 year old girl from Tennessee.

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