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.