I’ve been reading J.K. Rowling’s Cormoran Strike series (written under the pen name Robert Galbraith), and it’s ignited some reflections on one of my long-standing obsessions: reading literature deemed harmful, problematic, or dangerous. In my circles, reading anything by J.K. Rowling is fraught. In the aftermath of her public stances on trans people, a generation of readers are now re-examining her books and legacy. Mentioning that I’m reading J.K. Rowling inevitably generates exasperated sighs, eye rolls, or outright hostility.
I’m not going to argue that such hostility is wrong, and I’m not going to argue that trans people are wrong to be wounded by Rowling’s positions. (On this particular point, I found Contrapoints’ video on Rowling really helpful in understanding why trans people were so deeply hurt by her words. It’s long, but worth a watch.)
Instead, I want to explore why I choose to read Rowling and other controversial writers anyway and why I will ardently, earnestly, eternally defend the practice. Interestingly, it all goes back to my first experience of reading Rowling as a child.
Growing up in the conservative Christian world, I was told that reading Harry Potter was an act of witchcraft, and that doing so imperiled my soul. I had to fight with others and myself for the fortitude to read what I wanted to read, even if there was spiritual danger in the practice. It’s hard to describe the experience of secretly exchanging books in the hallways of Christian schools with alternate dust sleeves to put the thought police off our trail. Reading Rowling as a child in the conservative Christian environment turned me into a free-thought radical at the age of 11.
It’s easy to say, looking back, that it was fine for me to read Harry Potter because it is actually spiritually benign and all the Christian hysteria over Harry Potter was just a fever dream. But that’s to misunderstand me, and miss the point completely:
The risk of spiritual harm, according to my 11-year-old Christian brain, was very real. As far as I was concerned, the possibility that I was actually imperiling my soul was absolutely on the table. Despite that, I chose to read and enjoy the books anyway. That’s the point. That’s the position that I carry to this day: not that we can read controversial books if they turn out to be harmless. No. We can read controversial books even if they turn out to be objectively dangerous.
My attitude as a middle schooler has radically informed my attitude now: fuck you, I will read whatever I want to read. This has developed into what I can only call a compulsion. There is no greater surefire way to get me to read a book than to declare it irredeemably bad and dangerous for society. It never fails.
This might make me completely amoral and reckless in my relationship with art. If so, at least I’m honest about it. But I don’t believe I am. In his free thought polemic Areopagitica, John Milton argues that reading is the safest way to understand evil and sin and that being a well-rounded and educated person requires reading “books of all sorts.”
Axing an old lady to death, for example, is an unspeakably horrific act. There is no universe in which that act is moral. But reading Crime and Punishment is perfectly ethical, and a healthy way to experience the crime without actually perpetrating the act. No one is hurt when you read Crime and Punishment.
The same is true of books that contain invidious ideas. I will never argue that reading is completely safe if you wish to live an intellectually comfortable life. I frequently have unpleasant experiences while reading, and the consequences of absorbing challenging ideas have complicated my life more than once. But reading is, without a doubt, the safest way to engage with the world.
I can choose to see words on a page as fundamentally harmful as if they are imbued with supernatural force. I don’t mean harmful in the trickle-down people-took-this-book-seriously-and-it-caused-a-hate-crime sense, but harmful in that the words themselves inflict harm on my being with no mediating action between the words and myself.
Or, I can take the route of John Milton, and practice resilient reading. I can choose to understand that reading a book is the safest possible way to engage with otherwise hurtful ideas, no matter how challenging I find those ideas to be. When I read I am — in every single sense of the word — secure. If I find a train of thought simply too uncomfortable or unpleasant, I can put the book down at any moment for a breather. If I find myself getting angry or disturbed by a passage, I can safely reflect on it, discuss it with friends, contextualize it, and come to understand why I found it so offensive and whether it is right or wrong. Reading a book of my own volition will always be legal, consensual, and outside the realm of bodily harm.
When I say that this is a choice, don’t misunderstand me: we can’t choose to just not feel pain or to read challenging books as if they have no profound effects on our souls. This isn’t like choosing to turn off a light switch. It’s more like the choice to become a triathlete or a chess master. It’s a choice that requires practice, gradual mastery, and acknowledgement of one’s own limitations.
I have survived both ex-gay therapy and a shooting. As a result, a find books that explore such topics painful — sometimes too painful. I have given myself the grace to avoid them. But I know that someday soon I will be able to read such books and find the experience empowering rather than demoralizing.
Committing myself to resilient reading is one of the best choices I’ve ever made. I now experience extraordinary freedom and liberation when it comes to books. There is no place more free, safe, or liberating than the page of a book. It’s a dreamscape where, no matter how horrific the nightmare, I can always return safely to my bed.