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  • Marissa Burr

Should Books Have Trigger Warnings?

By Marissa Burr, Opinion Editor

Trigger Warnings: Gun violence, school violence

I consider myself an avid reader, and I have been as far back as I can remember. I’d devour chapter books during my first-period reading class, and by the time I graduated and was heading to college, I realized I had an entire library to pack up. Now that I’m busier, I have less time to devote to reading, but every once in a while I’ll pick up a book that I can’t put back down. This happened recently with one of the books I got for Christmas, and the story ended up resonating with me a lot more than most other books I’d read.

I knew when I added the book to my list that it had some triggering themes like eating disorders and assault, so I was prepared for those ideas to be not only broached, but central — and they were. The problem came about halfway through the novel with the protagonist standing in the cafeteria when all of the sudden a bomb goes off. It’s one of those moments when you have to reread a couple times just to make sure you understand what just happened.

Suddenly what is already a dark story takes an even scarier turn as the characters run from two former classmates who had been bullied and who conspired to come after their tormentors with bombs and guns. I had no idea this was coming, as no reviews that I’d preemptively read when deciding whether or not I wanted to read this book had mentioned that this topic would come up.

School and gun violence are unfortunately common issues in our country right now, and it’s disturbing enough to read about it in articles or watch clips on the news. But when I expose myself to those scenes, I usually have time to prepare myself. I couldn’t even read articles about the shooting in Buffalo this past May until a few days after the fact. Uvalde brought me to tears on multiple occasions. I know I have a sensitivity to this, so I typically choose not to watch movies, television shows or read books on the topic.

Because of the way I read, though, I had to keep reading the book to get to the happy ending. There wasn’t really one. Character development did exist, but the horrible incidents didn't wrap up in a nice bow that might make them easier to swallow. Instead, the way each gruesome moment was told chilled me to the bone and has given me nightmares ever since. I grew up in the age of school shootings and multiple lockdown drills a year: I still remember knowing where every item that could be used as a weapon was in each classroom. These retellings bring me back to those memories and to worrying that I’m going to be killed just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I admit, school shootings are not the topic of my column this week, but rather whether there should be a system in place to warn potential readers of serious triggers in a book, in a way that won’t spoil the story or ruin the experience of each new development. That way, no one has to be exposed to something they’re not ready for.

My idea is having colored dots on the backside of the book or in the pages preceding the actual text, with a guide available online that explains what each color corresponds to. The book I read could have a blue dot for assault, a red dot for school violence and a purple dot for eating disorders. As a reader researching potential books, I would see the dots and realize that I am not comfortable with “red dot” books and I wouldn’t read them. Regardless, I would have been prepared.

It will never be a perfect system, but in books like the one I read, it will let the reader know that the event is inevitably going to happen or be discussed at length. Just as there are trigger warnings at the start of many TikTok videos or posts on other social media sites, this would avoid people continually immersing themselves in content they aren’t comfortable with. I get that book spoilers can really suck (as my sixth-grade best friend taught me based on how upset she was when the ending of Veronica Roth's "Allegiant" was ruined for her). But if enough time was put into perfecting a system, I think people would have better reactions — and therefore give better reviews — to books with triggers or scary surprises because they were somewhat prepared for the violence or would take responsibility for not paying attention to the disclaimers rather than feeling blindsided.

Reading should be a fun and enjoyable activity for everyone, no matter what genre of book you curl up in a chair with. Fill the pages of your 2023 story with good experiences.

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