Support the news
Like what you read here? Sign up for our twice-weekly newsletter.
When I scour bookshelves for my next read, whether it be in the library or at the bookstore, some words glow cherry red on dust jackets, miniature warning signs telling me to put the book down. At first, there were just a few:
Considering it started happening near the turn of the millennium, this made sense. I was in law school and simply didn’t have the time to be distracted by even more hypotheticals of evidence or missteps of byzantine procedure. By the time I’d practiced for several years, I’d grown just plain sick of the law after working hours, avoiding legal thrillers at all costs. I suppose there aren’t too many detectives curling up with the latest from Patricia Cornwell or doctors racing home to read Tess Gerritsen either. There’s something to be said for leaving work at the office.
When real life, and its inherent risks and tragedies, offers so much material already, I find it challenging to seek out the same in books.
My list of forbidden topics is different than mere preference. Exceptions will be made for themes about which I’m usually less than enthusiastic. I’ve never been drawn to war-related stories, and yet I made the (very wise) decision to read "All The Light We Cannot See" (Anthony Doerr). Magical realism is not really my cup of tea, but reading "The Ocean at the End of the Lane" (Neil Gaiman) reminded me of the importance of keeping an open mind.
But when my daughter was born nine years ago, things really changed. Suddenly the list of taboo topics grew longer. More intense. And without exception.
Though I wasn’t reading many of these books before she came along, I was amenable to the idea if the story was compelling, as they often are. No longer. When real life, and its inherent risks and tragedies, offers so much material already, I find it challenging to seek out the same in books. There’s a difference between taking a pass on Scott Turow, and not wanting to dive 300 pages deep into a story about a 10-year-old girl who’s gone missing, or worse. There’s a difference between being weary and afraid, between too much thinking about a particular subject and the unthinkable.
I don’t avoid all emotionally charged books but I have to first perceive distinctions, or at least convince myself they exist, in order to put some distance between myself as a mother, wife or daughter, and the story. Childhood cancer (or any terminal illness) is arguably one of a parent’s worst nightmares, and though I have friends who will not read “cancer books” as a rule, I read the much raved about "The Fault in Our Stars" (John Green) when my daughter was in kindergarten. I was able to rationalize my decision and cross that threshold, albeit tentatively, because the protagonist was not only far older than my own daughter, but told the story from her point of view, not the parents.' Ultimately, it felt more like a tragic teenage love story than anything else, leaving me crying the end, but not shaken in a way that a book like "Room" (Emma Donoghue) might cause; despite wide acclaim, I cannot bring myself to read that one.
I was able to get through "Everything I Never Told You"(Celeste Ng) because parts of the story were ambiguous enough to create an arm’s length distance sufficient to keep me from forming my own personal what if. But had "The Lovely Bones" (Alice Sebold) been published after my daughter was born, I am certain I would not have read it; even thinking about that story now sends chills down my spine. I cannot, as they say, go there.
In the same vein, I cannot see myself ever making an exception for a book like Joan Didion’s "Blue Nights." The fact that it is memoir rather than fiction makes it wholly insurmountable given that I, too, am the mother of an only child, and a daughter, no less.
While some people turn to books to process something they are going through or to feel less alone, others, like me, shy away finding it all too overwhelming to ponder.
Now in my 40s — and with family well into their 60s and 70s — I have felt the seismic rumblings of another taboo list taking shape.
Fiction or fact, it doesn’t matter. "A Man Called Ove" (Fredrik Backman) and "Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End" (Atul Gawande) both brought me to my knees in ways that I do not want to experience again anytime soon. The result is that books like "Still Alice" (Lisa Genova) and "When Breath Becomes Air" (Paul Kalanithi) are increasingly a tough sell for me, all despite knowing I am missing out on some incredible and widely acclaimed books.
Avoidance tactic? Yes, for sure. My spine yellows with certain topics that I cannot fathom having to live through myself, no matter how remote the risk, or that hit a little too close to home. While some people turn to books to process something they are going through or to feel less alone, others, like me, shy away finding it all too overwhelming to ponder.
Are there taboo topics that you cannot tackle in books? Was there something specific that prompted the shift? Let us know in the comments.