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Column: Expand your world with a book — or five
Shannon Casas high res
Shannon Casas

For a brief while in college, I thought I might want to be an English teacher. It wasn’t the literature that drew me — it was editing my peers’ essays.

I loved it — taking a piece of writing, looking at how it could be better organized, where a point needed to be backed up with more evidence, where the writer could go if they put a little more thought and work into the essay. Though it was hard work, it was invigorating.

Thankfully, I discovered journalism was my best outlet for that passion. 

It’s not that I don’t love literature, but a literature teacher spends a lot of time analyzing the meaning found in a particular book. That can be interesting. It wasn’t my calling.

I do love to read, though. As a child, I’d sit in my room for hours reading “Anne of Green Gables” or historical romantic fiction by Eugenia Price, which I think my grandmother turned me onto. It became harder to find time to read as I got older, or perhaps it was a little less enticing after reading all day at work, but I went many years without reading except on vacations at the beach.

I have begun reading a lot more recently, though. I can credit a book club for that. Gathering with a few women over some wine to discuss a book feels a bit cliche for a woman in her 30s, but it’s a great time. I’ve read some great books thanks to the club, and it exposes me to some things I may not otherwise read. 

I learned about Korean culture and food and pondered how different people grieve while reading the memoir “Crying in H Mart.” There was a lot to think about while reading the nonfiction book, “Jesus and John Wayne.” Nonfiction is not usually my cup of tea unless it involves religion, but I still haven’t finished that one. 

“The Silent Patient” was a page turner, but, as I’ll tell the club later this month, I did not love it as some of them did. I did love “House by the Cerulean Sea,” which made me think deeply about the nature of good and evil but was also whimsical and thoroughly entertaining. 

I’m currently reading a sci-fi book on my own about a crew of humans and aliens that run a ship that builds tunnels in space. It’s not the kind of thing I would normally pick up, but perhaps I’ve been slowly broadening my horizons. Books have a way of doing that. 

I will point out here, though, that reading a book does not require agreeing with its thematic points or the characters’ actions or the social norms of the society portrayed. But books still sometimes wind up in the crosshairs of politics for one reason or another. 

There are the Dr. Seuss books that Dr. Seuss Enterprises shelved because they "portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong." 

I’ve read some of them, and the depictions of other cultures are shallow and stereotypical at best. The overall stories encourage imagination, with the main characters thinking of more and more fantastical sights, mostly involving imaginary animals.

And there are books like “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, which some want to ban from local schools and some politicians are using to incite the kind of outrage in their constituents that brings them to the voter booth. 

Hearing about the controversy, I decided to read “Beloved.” It is a challenging and masterfully written story of a former slave and her family. It explores the impact of slavery’s trauma on the characters. Some have complained it includes obscene material. I’m not sure how you write a book about slavery that does not include some obscene material — slavery was obscene. It does include some horrific acts, some are more sexual in nature, some are about cruel dominance and the pinnacle act of the book is a heart-breaking violent act. It is for mature audiences. That does not mean it should be banned. 

Great literature exposes us to new perspectives and leaves the reader thinking deeply about its themes. 

Life is sometimes horrific, sometimes obscene, and while we can think carefully as parents about what our kids can handle, exposing them to literature that explores some of life’s incredible difficulties is not going to corrupt them. Exposing them to the mores of another time period does not mean they’ll adopt those, either. It’s helpful to read books from varying viewpoints to broaden our understanding, even when it comes to fiction.

Students can learn how to think for themselves and analyze what they are learning. Parents can talk with their children about the books they’re reading and how that may shape their opinions. And while I didn’t become an English teacher, I know that any good one is going to allow discussion of what the author intended, invite students to think about the piece’s impact on the audience and encourage students to reflect on their own and others’ thoughts about the book.

This column is by no means great literature, but I hope it’s given you something to to think about — or at least inspired you to pick up a new book.

Shannon Casas is editor in chief of The Times and a North Hall resident.