Read a “Good” Book?

I was driving by a local elementary school a couple days ago, and I saw an intriguing command spelled out on the reader board: “Read a Good Book.”  Most people probably drive by and don’t think much about it.  The school is obviously trying to encourage kids to read.  But, as usual, I’ve got to look a little deeper into this message. It’s been bugging me since I saw it.

This statement raises a few questions for me.  First off, what’s a “good” book? Our pastor says the Bible is THE good book, but I’m pretty sure the public elementary school wasn’t advocating reading The Word.  So, what could they possibly mean by “good”?  Does a book have to win lots of awards to be considered good?  Do the public schools have to endorse it? Or is it up to the kids to determine what’s a good book?

In a world without absolute Truth (or the recognition of it, because like it or not, Truth exists), where does an elementary school get off telling people to find something good, when “nothing is universally good”?  We’ve lost our yardsticks, the ones that tell us what’s good and bad.  And when public schools start making moral sounding value judgments, they get into the scary territory of absolutes.

Okay, you probably think I’m reading far too much into this.  But I’m an English teacher. It’s what I do (and really, can one read too much into anything?)

Here’s the second question raised by this confusing sign (okay, it’s only confusing for me).  If there are good books to read, that implies that there are bad books. You can’t have one without the other. If we must read a “good” book, does that mean we avoid the “bad” ones completely?

I read a lot of “bad” books, and I mean books that I don’t enjoy, are poorly written, or contain lots of spiritually objectionable material. But I wouldn’t want to lose out on the chance to find a “good” book because I’m trying so hard to avoid the bad ones.  Part of the fun and the exploration process in books is the hunt for something enjoyable, even if it means you find some stinkers along the way.

I’m part of a couple book groups, and each month, we read something that the group has decided upon.  In one of my groups, there’s a different host each month, and the host picks the book.  So, I’m always reading books that other people are suggesting.  Often, I’ll read something that just doesn’t float my boat, but it gets rave reviews by other group members.  After a long string of books that I find “bad,” I’m sometimes tempted to give up on the group, so I can read things I like.  But then, I remember all the times I’ve found amazing new authors through these recommendations.  In the end, it’s worth sifting through the junk to get to the jewels. (Plus, I love all the wonderful ladies in my book groups and would really miss them).

And this is why I have a hard time telling kids to read only good books.  Because reading all kinds of books opens you up to new horizons, and it helps you figure out, what is good and what is bad?

Now here’s where the censorship issue comes in.  If a bad book is one that is rated “R” (if books got rated), it’s probably a good idea to hold back on giving a kid that book, for the same reason we don’t show them those movies.  And if there are mature themes in a book that the kid isn’t ready to handle, then mom and dad can decide how to proceed, whether it’s waiting until they’re older or reading the book along with them, to answer their questions.

But I’m not one to say that an “R” book, an adult themed book, or a spiritually mature book is inherently “bad” just because it’s not right for a certain segment of the population.  In fact, it might be one of the most award laden, influential books of the century, and it could simply be not right for some people. But does that make it “bad”?

And here’s another reason to read “bad” books.  I regularly read Oprah’s book picks, not because they’re “good” but because they tend to be “bad.” I mean this in a spiritual sense.  True to Oprah’s false spirituality, her books typically mirror that new age perspective that she embraces.  And I have enough of a brain and a spiritual maturity (thank you Holy Spirit), to help me navigate these questionable texts, hopefully without corrupting me too much.  Basically, I’m not a passive reader who absorbs everything that my eyes fall upon.  I can bring a critical lens to it.

But why bother, you ask? I do it because Oprah is feeding a lot of garbage to people in our country, and I want to have discussions with the garbage consumers. If I meet someone on the airplane reading Eckhart Tolle’s latest book, I can have a conversation with him or her about how Tolle’s vision of the world is false, but how Christ is the Truth.  It doesn’t tend to go over well if I’ve just listened to evangelists preach on the evils of those books without having the Ethos of actually reading it myself.

We college instructors can sit and debate these questions for days.  My grad school classmates wanted to create a sweatshirt for those of us graduating, but nobody could agree on what to write on the back of it.  The ringleader wanted to write “Read a F*$%ing book.” I admit, I thought it was funny. It addressed the importance of reading, and our annoyance with a culture that continually avoids it, and it ignored all the value judgments.  But maybe that wouldn’t work so well on an elementary school’s sign.

Here’s what we ended up with on our sweatshirts: “Read a Book.”

Works for me.  Kids and adults alike: Read a Book.

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great post! I have found that blog reading is a lot like book reading. You have to read a lot of blogs to find the “good” ones, meaning the ones you like and get something worthwhile out of. I like your perspective on reading books with a critical eye even if you know they present a false spirituality, so that you can be prepared to discuss them with others. I have not done as good a job with that as I should. My excuse is that I am too busy, but I’m not sure it is a good excuse. Your post has challenged me to pick up a few books I have not yet read because I don’t think they are “good” books.

    AL: Thanks Linda! I like how you apply this to blogs as well. I admit, I’m not as good at reading all types of blogs. I tend to gravitate towards the safe bets. You’ve made me think about how I can be more purposeful in my blog reading as well! Thanks!

  2. “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested” – Sir Francis Bacon

    All books are definitely not equal in quality or moral fortitude. Whether a book is “good” or not (in either sense) would seem to be a subjective determination.

    I think that the sign might be bugging you for the same reason I find it objectionable: we both know that the implication is that the criteria for what constitutes a “good” book is at the discretion of those responsible for putting up the sign; people who very likely lack the moral compass or literary taste to make a sound judgment in either respect.

    I could be mistaken, of course, but it bothers me a little that signs like this are put up which naturally beg the question of which books are agreed upon as “good” and which ones are not — and small, impressionable kids are the ones being targeted to ask their educators to help them make the evaluation. I smell propaganda!

    Great….now I think that I am reading too much into this. I think I will go “read a book.”

    Great post, Amy, thanks.

    In Christ,

    Loren

    AL: I love that quote and now adding it to my commonplace book for writing ideas! Thanks for sharing that. I can see that I’m not the only one who got going by this phrase! Sounds like you might belong with a group of English professors, discussing issues like this. Maybe it’s the litmus test for an English department, or should be.

  3. Great post, Amy. I love how you ask the question, “good…by whose definition, and for what purpose”?

  4. Because there are so many interesting books to read, I make up my mind in the first twenty to thirty pages whether to keep reading or not. This may be unfair to those authors who pack their ideas into pages 31 to 350, but it saves me time.

    AL: most of the time, I’d agree with you, since an author’s fiction book proposal is typically the first 25-30 pages. If they don’t hook an editor by then, the book gets thrown on the slush pile. However, I’ve come across several books that have taken forever to get going and were a pleasant surprise. It usually takes a good recommendation for me to keep going. For example, Michal Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union had Dan putting it aside after 20 pages, but I was pleased to find it went a new direction, but it took awhile to get there, at least 50 pages I think. And this current one I’m reading by Mary Russell, a Thread of Grace, took me almost 100 pages to finally really get into it. It did have a lot of promise though, so I was more patient with it.

  5. Three of Ranganathan’s five laws comes to mind:

    Books are for use.
    Every reader his [or her] book.
    Every book its reader.

    I’d like to see grown ups encourage to read something different then they usually read. It would make a great Reader’s Advisory question:

    I usually read (romance, mystery, travel books, medical research). What would be the opposite of that catagory?

    AL: I wasn’t familiar with those laws, but they make sense. So nice to have a librarian stop by and share her wisdom. =)

    Perhaps the approach to get people to read different things is to ask them what kind of books they least prefer, and find and example that has components they might like. So, if they hate sci fi but love romance, find a sci fi that is heavy on the romance. People tend to see genres as locked forms, when really there’s a lot of interplay within them! And they might just find the sci fi components to be not so bad, when put in familiar territory.


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