Books That Inspire, Books That Offend

Molly Strothmann and Connie Van Fleet

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A content analysis of 298 statements describing books included in the University of Oklahoma Books That Inspire exhibit was conducted to identify the reasons members of the academic community found particular books inspiring. Twenty-six recurrent themes in seven concept clusters were identified. Books from the exhibit that have been challenged or censored were examined to compare the perceptions of exhibit contributors and book challengers in the context of those themes. These responses often focused on very different aspects of literary works; however, some relationships did emerge between the reasons books were found variously inspiring and offensive. Findings are analyzed in the context of the academic mission and the role of academic librarians in promoting leisure reading.

The Books That Inspire (BTI) exhibit began at the University of Oklahoma in 2001 and has continued as an annual event ever since. The exhibit invites members of the university community to celebrate “books that have enlightened, inspired, or influenced the lives and careers of the readers.” Its purpose is threefold: to observe National Library Week (during which the exhibit opens), to promote reading, and to call “attention to [books’] power to change and influence lives.”1 The books are displayed for several weeks in the main library on campus (Bizzell Memorial Library) accompanied by short statements from their contributors that explain why they were found meaningful.

The contributed titles represent a wide variety of genres. It is not surprising to find that literary classics are included—great literature, by definition, addresses important themes in texts that are memorable and inspiring and that shape the way people think and feel. It is a bit more surprising to note that a substantial number of the titles are classified as nonfiction, which one might think of as useful and informative, but not necessarily inspiring. However, unexpected definitions of “inspiring” are part of the exhibit’s appeal and central to this study’s first question: What is a book that inspires? How did contributors interpret the idea of inspiration? The second part of this study focused particular attention on those selections that have been challenged or censored, exploring the idea that some of the reasons the books were celebrated might be thematically related to the reasons they were challenged.

Literature Review

Budd opens his insightful discussion of the purpose of higher education by addressing liberal education, which he defines in the classic sense:

Liberal education is directed at a full appreciation of art, literature, society, and science—first for their connections to us as rational-emotional beings, and then for their contribution to everything we do as humans. In a sense, higher education … intends those within the institution to explore, communicate, and experience reality to grow most fully as individuals.2

Academic librarians have long recognized the important role that reading plays in contributing to that academic mission. In particular, leisure reading fosters learners who carry the habits of thoughtful reflection and active participation with them throughout their lives, prompting recent discussion of the ability of academic libraries to support and encourage this enriching activity.3

Students’ Reading Habits

Several surveys have reported a decline in reading among college-age individuals. Hendel and Harrold found that undergraduates in 2001 devoted less time to leisure reading than in the previous three decades, spending far more time with e-mail or on the Internet than reading books.4 In Reading at Risk, the National Endowment for the Arts expresses concern for declining levels of literary reading in all age groups, but particularly young people ages 18–24, citing a negative effect on civic and cultural participation. The 2004 report notes, however, that education is the primary predictive factor, with 74 percent of those with a graduate school education reading literary works as compared to only 14 percent of adults with a grade school education.5 Quite unexpectedly, the NEA’s 2009 Reading on the Rise reports that the decline in reading among adults has reversed, with the first rise in adult reading since 1982. The strongest gain is among young adults, who showed a 21 percent increase over the earlier survey.6

For college students, the single greatest barrier to leisure reading may be lack of time, not lack of interest. Although the heading “The Lost Art of Literature” in a 2007 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education implies that a “new generation of well-wired multitaskers” do not read, nine of the ten student respondents reported having read a book for pleasure within the past year, with four reporting having last finished a book over the summer.7 Burak found that the majority of college students read for pleasure, most frequently during summers and other breaks.8 This pattern tends to reinforce Von Sprecken and Krashen’s finding that children do not lose interest in reading as they age; there are just more competing activities.9

Why People Read

Typically, when people are asked why they read, they say it is for escape, for stimulation, or for greater understanding of themselves or the world around them. Further, research from a number of disciplines suggests that leisure reading has physiological, psychological, social, and cognitive effects on people.10 Recent work in readers’ advisory emphasizes the value of reading as a means of “incidental” or “accidental” learning and notes the importance of nonfiction, particularly narrative nonfiction, in meeting the needs of leisure readers.11

Many authors have examined motivations for reading. Ross gives a cogent summary of the reasons people read:

Over and over, in published studies and in the interviews with readers in my own study, readers say: books give me comfort, make me feel better about myself, reassure me that I am normal and not a freak because characters in books have feelings like mine. Books provide confirmation that others have gone through similar experiences and survived. Books help me clarify my feelings, change my way of thinking about things, help me think through problems in my own life, help me make a decision, and give me the strength and courage to make some major changes in my own life. They give me a sense of mastery and control, give me courage to fight on, make me think that if the hero(ine) can overcome obstacles, then so can I, give me the hope to rebuild my life, and help me accept things I cannot change. They put me in touch with a larger more spacious world. In summary, books provide a special kind of pleasure that cannot be achieved in any other way.12

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