Why high school kids should read ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (and other disturbing books).

·4 min read

“Oh, I haven’t read it yet, my parents said that I’m not allowed to.”

What? I turned to my friend, incredulous, as I clutched a copy of “A Clockwork Orange” by Anthony Burgess, the offending book in question. I had just been ranting about how much I disliked the book so far for its graphic violence, convoluted slang, and misogynistic undertones. However, when she mentioned her parent’s ban against the novel, I hugged it close to my chest. How could one outlaw a book?

The patrolling of their child’s reading is common amongst parents, but it has always confused me. When kids are very young, some limitations are obvious; you wouldn’t want first graders reading E.L. James and Stephen King novels. But we’re in high school now, trying to make decisions about colleges, careers, and other components of our ever-approaching futures. Shouldn’t we also be entrusted to decide for ourselves the merit of the books we consume?

At this lecture, my friend rolled her eyes. After all it’s just one work in a vast sea of literature. But to me, the omission of even one book, no matter its offenses, seemed a loss. My friend lightly teased me for being a bookworm and we went to our next class.

Perhaps it was due to being a bibliophile that the conversation stayed with me for weeks to come.

Reading, despite my parent’s busy careers, was something that they always encouraged when I was young. I didn’t have many friends, but that didn’t matter when there was Frog and Toad, the Berenstain Bears, and Amelia Bedelia to play with.

My love of reading progressed as I grew up, with picture books giving way to the Magic Treehouse series and Roald Dahl books, then to the Princess Diaries and John Green novels, until now, when I still spend my high school days exploring the world of literature.

My parents were the ones who had planted the seeds of my love for reading. But would I want them to be the ones weeding out what they deemed unfit for me, even as I grew older? Some of my favorite works of literature are one’s that my parents would never read themselves. The list includes Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (Beat poem subject to a 1957 obscenity trial), Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” (hysterically vulgar satire of military bureaucracy), and Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” (where a Classics class’s bacchanalia turns bloody).

These works provided enjoyment, taught me important lessons, and helped develop my personal writing style, but had this come at the cost of growing up too fast?

All of these questions rattled in my brain long after I had shelved “A Clockwork Orange” midway through reading, more out of my own paranoia than actual distaste for it. Yet, when I finally realized the answer to all these questions, it had ironically been in that book all along.

I thought back to how I knew that the graphic violence and misogyny in “A Clockwork Orange” was something that I could question the morals of as a reader, rather than just staying on autopilot with the author. It certainly wasn’t because books that contained such offenses were banned from me. Looking past layers of social conditioning and education, the root of my moral compass as a reader was truly my parents. The lessons they imparted to me when I was young about empathy and kindness, combined with our current discussions about social justice and world issues are what has shaped me into the person I am today, someone who is free to read what she wants and therefore free to recognize when what she is reading does not follow her own moral standards.

Many times what I read does not follow my personal principles at all. I wouldn’t snitch on a loved one to Big Brother, murder to become King of Scotland, or shake a tree branch to cripple my best friend. But due to my aforementioned upbringing, I can retain my own morals amidst exposure to questionable values, both recognizing the wrongdoings present in these works while still enjoying them.

So when I finally picked up “A Clockwork Orange” many months after I had first contemplated its ban, I was focused less on the ultraviolence and more on the secret sorrow that lay at its core. I most enjoyed the haunting line, “Goodness is a choice. When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.”

For all of the flaws of the antihero Alex, he is right in that regard. I am thankful for the guidance my parents give me, but I will always make the choice of what I read for myself and myself alone. It is the power of this choice that encourages me to pick up the next book.

Daksha Pillai is a winner of the “Think For Yourself” high school essay contest sponsored by Let Grow, a non-partisan nonprofit dedicated to childhood independence and resilience. She is a junior at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting