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The effect of words

My boyfriend and I often have the discussion of what affects us more in terms of emotional reaction: words or pictures. He works in psychology and I work in marketing, so emotional affiliation with content is something we both find quite intriguing (call us geeks if you will.) What sticks with you? What makes you stop? What haunts the back of your mind after seeing/reading it, only for it to surface as a memory now and then, at opportune or inconvenient moments?

What is particularly interesting to me is the reaction to "controversial" subjects when presented in different forms. For example, it is widely documented by our concerned parenting clubs across the world that people are becoming indifferent to images of violence, due to overexposure through video games, movies and even tv news. But do they feel as emotionally detached when reading the story in a news paper? What if a beloved book character experienced the same traumas?

When these things are read about, do they have the same effect as images used to have? And if so, is this a problem that publishers should consider?

It's a topic that can see us through hours (if a glass of wine weighs in on it too!) and it always gets me thinking about some of the fervent topics in literature and publishing today, especially the question of whether literature should be censored/carry warnings.

It is my opinion that literature has a responsibility: to encourage imagination and inspire, to provide escapism and impossibility, to present new ways of thinking and seeing, to fight causes, to raise hope, to reassure and reassess, to open our eyes to what we cannot see or experience ourselves. We do not have to agree with what we read, but the option to read it for the benefits of insight, education and empathy should always be there, and for these reasons I don't agree with censorship. But I also know that words can be the most shocking, most heartbreaking, most terrifying things in the world.

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but how many pictures can a single syllable create? Blue, for example - the sea? The sky? Flowers? Your mum's best dress? Dead bodies...? Sometimes your own imagination is the most dangerous thing to leave unguided. Perhaps we need the finality of an image when it comes to violence? To tell us that it ends here. It goes this far. That even though this is bad, it gets no further than this. It saves our nightmares and daydreams from getting sucked into the infinite options.

My boyfriend is more affected by words than pictures, especially when it comes to violence. I seem to be the opposite. He will read The Happiness Hypothesis while I read Hannibal, and watch Reservoir Dogs as my eyes dart the walls waiting for re-runs of Gossip Girl (because let's face it, who's sticking with season 5?!) I asked him once, from behind a cushion in the midst of a particularly harrowing anime death sequence, "have you read this?"

"No," came the reply, "I don't like reading violent books."

Apparently, when he was a child, he chose a book from a bookshop to read when he went to work with his mum one day. An advanced reader, he found a book with a blurb about adventure and empty houses, topics appealing to an inquisitive young boy. The seller sold his mum the book, knowing it was not for her, and my boyfriend read it. The book was (to the best of his memory) called The Cave, and the scenes of death, violence and "adult content" have stayed with him ever since. He openly admits the book was "disturbing" and that he wishes he hadn't read it - and had the blurb given any hint of the true content, he wouldn't even have chosen it, let alone asked his mum to buy it for him.

I have never been in my boyfriend's position. In fact, I prefer to read any violence that may occur in a story line rather than view it, as I feel the character motives are more clearly defined or explained, there's greater context, and there is no need to "out-do" the competition in a Hollywood effects battle, calling for more gore than necessary. The horror reaction to the event of any violence I have read seems apt because of the story implications, not due to the intensity of the blood flow or the sound of bones snapping. But maybe that's just me.

Everyone reacts to everything differently, it's part of what makes us human. But when books can mean as much to us as films, and evoke the same emotions and reactions, should they carry the same warnings? As I say, personally I am against the idea of censorship, but maybe quick theme overviews are useful? I can see how, in the case of a parent encouraging their child to read by buying them books, this kind of thing can almost become a necessity?

What do you think?

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