On Monday night, the Veritas Forum at Columbia, along with the John Jay Society, hosted an online Zoom entitled “Should Some Books Not Be Read?” At the event, a philosopher and a writer discussed the moral consequences of reading “dangerous” books.

Do some books make us worse? Do books even have that power? These are just two of the questions that the Veritas Forum at Columbia set out to discuss in their event “Should Some Books Not Be Read?” Participating in the discussion was Dr. Dhananjay Jagannathan and Dr. Tara Burton, moderated by Dr. Gregory Floyd. Dr. Jagannathan is a philosophy professor at Columbia University, who specializes in Greek and Roman philosophy as well as ethics. Dr. Burton is a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, a columnist for Religion News Service, and a contributing editor at American Interest. Dr. Floyd is a professor at Seton Hall University, where he serves as the director of the Center for Catholic Studies. 

The event began with both Dr. Jagannathan and Dr. Burton answering the fundamental question: should some books not be read? To this, Dr. Jagannathan answered with a straightforward yes. He responded to this saying he is aware this is not the popular point of view but advised people against reading books that could contract one’s moral imagination instead of expanding it. In his opening remarks, Dr. Jagannathan acknowledged his position as a philosophy professor and stated that he takes a naturalist approach instead of a humanist one. Dr. Jagannathan holds that cultural products, such as books and movies, do not stand outside of being subject to ethical evaluation, and that texts not only have lives, but they have legacies, so people should recognize what they are reading as potentially being dangerous and morally corrupting. He does hold that people should not go out and be the self-appointed book patrol, deciding what is or is not dangerous, but ultimately answered that it is “impossible for a book to be good if it is morally corrupting.”

The question was then turned over to Dr. Burton, who admitted her answer was more along the lines of no, but also yes. She said that there are indeed books that are morally corrupting, but she is supportive of loving, attentive reading, which means being people should also be critical of the books they read. She then said that although there are dangerous books, no book has the power to be absolutely morally corrupting because no human has that power either. No author can create a book so corrupt that it could destroy someone. Dr. Burton acknowledged how she took a different approach to answer the question—where Dr. Jagannathan’s was naturalistic, hers was humanistic, giving her an optimistic response to a text. She expanded on her optimism, saying that she believes anything a person reads can lead them to something good, as human beings, she believes are fundamentally drawn to see something good and worthwhile in a book.  

After both Dr. Jagannathan and Dr. Burton gave their opening remarks, Dr. Floyd asked both speakers what they thought people bring to a text, and a back and forth discussion between them followed. Dr. Burton responded saying that reading is an intimate, personal experience, and, because of that, there may be varying degrees of danger that a book can have on different people. She also added that it is on the reader to be suspicious with their reading and recognize when they might be susceptible to some moral corruption. She finished her answer by stating that it is a reader’s moral duty to ask themselves questions while they’re reading. Dr. Jagannathan started his answer by agreeing with Dr. Burton, saying that there are books with varying levels of corruption. He also said that, of course, people do not always have to be looking at the ethical consequences of what they are reading. He is not knocking the beach read, but says that as soon as people’s attentions are engaged, there are opportunities for essential ethical discussions. 

While both Dr. Jagannathan and Dr. Burton acknowledged the potential for harm that some books carry, they do not condone some mystical authority deciding what books should and should not be read. They also acknowledge that while some books can be dangerous, so can philosophy. Both incredibly important and necessary, there may need to be a warning issued. But who should issue that warning, and what crosses the line? Well, people will just have to keep reading and decide, won’t they?

Image via Veritas Forum