In Defense of Reading Controversial Books

I’ve been making noise on social media lately about how I deliberately read problematic books. By problematic, I mean that they are deemed, justly or unjustly, toxic or bad by people I usually agree with. I’ve noticed some palpable discomfort when I bring up the topic, so I thought I would take some time to explore why I think reading problematic literature is helpful. 

How do I choose which books to read? 

First, it’s important to note that I only take the time to read controversial literature when it is culturally relevant. I don’t go out of my way to read up on every niche delusion in America. Instead, I go for the juggernauts that are pushing culture in a direction that concerns or perplexes me. For example, David Brooks of the New York Times suggested that “Jordan Peterson is the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now.” Peterson’s fame and cultural influence shouldn’t be underestimated, and I regularly encounter family members, coworkers, customers, and friends who are eager to talk about how Jordan Peterson has influenced them. 

As someone who wants to have earnest discussions with people I interact with regularly, it would be malpractice on my part not to read Peterson. The man is clearly resonating for a reason, and it is my job as a friend, leftist, and content creator to understand why. 

I have read a number of other controversial books lately, including, Unmasked by Andy Ngo; The Madness of Crowds by Douglas Murray; Irreversible Damage by Abigail Shrier; Cynical Theories by James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose, The End of Gender by Debra Soh, and others. I do so because each of these books has contributed to the political and social landscape in important ways, and have also been platformed on some of the internet’s biggest podcasts, like Joe Rogan. 

I will never tell other people to read things they don’t want to read. If you don’t have the time or bandwidth for these titles, you are probably right. You know your own boundaries best. But I do have the time and the bandwidth, and I think I owe it to my community to gain an intimate understanding of how these texts are shaping our culture. It’s a challenge I enjoy and even find personally beneficial. 

So, how is this practice beneficial? 

It is empowering

Several months ago, a conservative friend of mine insisted that I should read Douglas Murray’s The Madness of Crowds, probably because Murray is gay and my friend thought that would appeal to my sensibilities. I happily obliged and read the book. What I found was a collection of arguments against the current social justice climate that were beautifully written but poorly sourced. I found myself endlessly writing “citation needed, citation needed, citation needed” in the margins. 

When my friend asked me how I liked the book, I only needed to give one answer: “Douglas Murray didn’t cite his sources.” My friend knew as well as I did that citations make or break a book, and that was the end of the discussion. The weight was on Murray to defend his thesis, and in my opinion he failed. I don’t need to go out of my way to iron-man an argument if the author fails to do so. 

I didn’t need to cower, protest, or fight. I didn’t need to feel cornered, defensive, or vulnerable. I didn’t have to get my cortisol levels skyrocketing or my temper elevated. I only had to read the damn book. That’s empowering. Knowledge truly is power, and the ability to tackle a text and understand its strengths and weaknesses is something akin to a superpower. 

When someone contests me over a particular subject or book, very often (but not always) the conflict is dissipated by simply saying, “I read it, I didn’t find it compelling, and here’s why.” 

It dispels myths about the author that I might have previously believed

Very often, lies and misunderstandings about an author get smuggled into the criticisms. It’s shameful how often this happens. I’ve read public discussions and book reviews in respected outlets that mix in claims that are simply false.  

A recent example of this was my surprising experience of reading Sam Harris, with whom I have some substantial disagreements. The narrative around Sam Harris – in my circles at least – is that he’s an antitheist killjoy who knows nothing of the sublime, the mysterious, or the mystical. He is notorious as the author who launched the New Atheist movement with The End of Faith. I have always assumed and heard that he is a hardened atheist who verges on fundamentalism. 

While reading his books, what I found instead was a man who states, time and again, that none of us know what happens after we die. He is open to the wilder fringes of science, like psychic phenomena, and open to zany theories of consciousness like panpsychism. Most startling of all, he defends ancient contemplative and mystical traditions as the antidote to blind religious faith.

I’m glad I know this about him. It doesn’t mean that I agree with him or approve of everything he’s done, but I have been corrected in my judgement in Harris, and that matters. 

I can argue in good faith and not turn off their followers

It matters, in part, because I can now discuss Sam Harris’s work in better faith with his most ardent fans and win them to my side. For better or worse, people are apes and tend to instantly switch off when they hear me mischaracterize a hero of theirs. My criticism may be valid, but if it is shrouded in untruths it falls on deaf ears. I can sidestep this by sincerely engaging with the work in question. 

I find that Jordan Peterson fans are far more likely to hear what I have to say when I don’t, to use Peterson’s phrasing, resort to low-resolution terminology that casts him as evil or broadly guilty of crimes while failing to apprehend the granular details of his ideas. Fans of his are far more likely to hear me when I say something like, “I think some of Peterson’s advice in his new book is really helpful. His chapters about resentment, art, gratitude, and hiding unwanted things in the fog are really helpful and I understand how that’s changed your life for the better. I have some strong disagreements, though, with his chapter on marriage (Rule X), and here’s why.”

People who believe wrong things generally aren’t evil on a fundamental level, even if their ideas have horrific consequences. They are grasping at straws like the rest of us, and don’t like feeling misunderstood. Even when I disagree strongly with someone, understanding what they believe and why is a cornerstone to meeting them in good faith.

This works. I can’t count the number of people who have changed their minds through long-form dialogue. I’m proud of how many conservative Christians I’ve convinced that gay relationships are good, not sinful, and worth defending. I can’t help but feel that the internet, especially social media, has desecrated the entire enterprise of good faith transformative relationships. 

It sharpens my own mind and gives me new perspectives

Reading books you disagree with is like engaging in a strenuous physical workout: it makes you stronger, more resilient, and anti-fragile, but it also isn’t safe. Exercise can wound you, permanently disable you, and disrupt your life. It can become an obsession, or an unhealthy coping mechanism. 

Likewise, you can over do reading controversial books. You can find yourself radicalized, burnt out, or scarred by the experience. Some topics might be contraindicative to your well being, and you shouldn’t go there at all. But, also like exercise, if we navigate this dangerous terrain well, the benefits are enormous. The mind is sharpened, empathy is enhanced, and courage is fortified. We learn that we can handle far more than we assumed, and that we can hold our ground against all the terrifying cultural forces that surround us. We can change our minds with grace, and defend our positions with assurance.

Yes, reading hard books and engaging with controversial ideas makes people uncomfortable, but I simply see no other way. If I want to create a better world that empowers minorities, respects bodily autonomy, and upholds plurality, I must understand what people believe and why they believe it. 

But that’s just me. What do you think? Please leave a comment below or write me an email. I love hearing back from my audience.

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