Dear Adam Smith: Besieged Bookworm

education lecture on rhetoric history lectures on rhetoric and belles lettres dear adam smith american history emotions

"Who's right? My mom or me?" asks a Besieged Bookworm whose mom wants to control her reading. Adam Smith shares his advice on reading things that might make you uneasy or sad. 
Dear Adam Smith, 

I’m 12 years old and love to read. I’ve been reading a series about a girl who was a slave in America and her hardships. I know it’s just a story, but it makes me really sad.  The other day, my mother came in when I was reading and saw me crying.  She took my book away and said books shouldn’t be hurtful. Now, she wants to review everything I read! I know she thinks she’s trying to protect me, but I think it’s more important I learn about difficult parts of history, even if they make me upset. Who’s right? My mom or me?

Signed, Besieged Bookworm


Dear Besieged,

I’m so sorry you were upset while reading. It must have been very distressing to your mother to see that and I'm glad you understand she is only trying to protect you. Parents don’t always realize that young people who read can gain a broader view of the world which includes understanding human emotions and their causes.  

To be a scholar in my day, you had to read all manner of difficult books both ancient and modern. We read about assassinated kings and slaughtered armies. I’m sure my mother would have been horrified by much of it. But it was to teach history. By reading about people from ancient times, I learned many things.   

Yet, I think it’s important for readers to also understand why they feel these strong emotions and how writers create them. When I was a professor, I taught rhetoric, which was what we called persuasive speaking or writing. One of my students took very good notes and many years later my lectures were published. I’m quite glad of it as I can be reminded of some of my points for and against strong emotion in writing. 

Writing can make you feel sorrow, regret, even grief. Good writers share these passions with their readers. In Lecture 16 of my Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Letters, I say it’s perfectly fine to write and to read things that make you uncomfortable. 

“The actions and perceptions which chiefly affect us and make the deepest impression on our minds are those that are of the misfortunate kind and give us in the perception a considerable degree of Uneasiness.”

But I also encourage you to examine why you are swept away by emotion -- especially grief. Writers communicate strong emotion by building a story and creating an anxiety in you, the reader, which they can play upon to make you happy or sad, or to make you laugh or cry. A story that was relentlessly happy wouldn’t interest you as much, I think, as one that has the ups-and-downs of life. Add a historical topic that’s still relevant to today, like slavery in America, and you, as a reader, have an opportunity to gain perspective that others might not have. The ability to read and learn from something that makes you uneasy will serve you well in your future reading.  

However, it can be distressing to those without the same understanding. In writing, authors use emotions and sad or distressing actions ”to produce a good effect on the minds of his readers to soften and humanize them, whereas the others would rather tend to make the heart insensible to tender emotions.” Perhaps you can have a discussion with your mother about literature and why you think the benefits outweigh her worry. You can also explain that while you may feel distressed in the moment, it only means the author has done a good job of reaching you with their story. 

I have a theory about readers, “that a man with excellent heart might incline to dwell most on the dismal side of the story” which suggests that being so touched by the sadness of the story and the historical facts conveyed by it shows the goodness of your heart. 

Yours in fellow-feeling,
Adam Smith