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College students object to reading bestselling, 'pornographic' memoir

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'Fun Home' by Alison Bechdel
'Fun Home' by Alison Bechdel has earned rave reviews -- and sparked plenty of controversy
Courtesy of Mariner Books

For Literary Mysteries, The Thread tackles your book questions, big and small. Ask a question now.

This week's question: Why are college students refusing to read the memoir "Fun Home"?

For the incoming class of 2019, Duke University selected a "Common Experience" summer reading book — one book for the entire freshman class to read and discuss during orientation.

The college chose "Fun Home," Alison Bechdel's graphic novel memoir, which was published in 2006 to great acclaim. The book was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and topped the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list for two weeks. Recently, it was adapted into a Broadway play that took home five Tony awards.

In illustrated panels, Bechdel tells the story of coming to terms with her sexuality, coming out as a lesbian and finding out that her father was gay. Some of her illustrations depict sexual encounters and dark topics, such as suicide.   In July, one Duke freshman posted on Facebook that he would not be reading the book. He said it "would have to compromise my personal Christian moral beliefs" to read it. Others joined the online discussion. Some said reading the book was part of being open-minded; another student called it "pornographic."

The freshman who started the conversation, Brian Grasso, recently wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post about his decision. 

"It's not about being uncomfortable," he wrote. "It's about being asked to do something that I think is immoral." 

He said the content of the book, especially the illustrations, go against the biblical directive to avoid pornographic materials. "I'm not opposed to reading memoirs written by LGBTQ individuals or stories containing suicide," he wrote. "If the book explored the same themes without sexual images or erotic language, I would have read it."

Grasso isn't the first to object to "Fun Home." A student at Crafton Hills College in California called for banning "Fun Home" and other bestselling graphic novels last year, after taking an English course where the books were assigned. "It was shocking. ... I expected Batman and Robin, not pornography," she said.

The objections to "Fun Home" haven't always been student-driven. In South Carolina last year, the state legislature debated cutting funding to the College of Charleston after it assigned "Fun Home" to students for a summer reading program similar to Duke's. In that case, many students protested the legislature's reaction.

Censorship by parents, institutions or the government, like the South Carolina case, aren't new — it's the wave of objections from college students themselves that is raising eyebrows. 

This month, The Atlantic published an article titled "The Coddling of the American Mind," where Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argued that "in the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don't like.

But Grasso's op-ed offers a counterpoint: If the point of assigning "Fun Home" was to spark a conversation, hasn't that been accomplished? Even without him reading the book?

Other options Duke considered assigning for freshman included "All the Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr and "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains" by Nicholas Carr. 

Both are riveting books, but it's likely neither would have sparked the conversation we're having now.