Book Review: In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

Here’s the great thing about book groups: they challenge you to read all sorts of books that you’d normally avoid.  This is one of those books.

The subtitle for this book is “Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.”  The family in question is the Dodd family, a US senator and his wife and two grown children, entering Berlin in 1933, as Hitler is gaining power.

Dodd himself is a bit of a bore. He’s a professor type (of history), and he goes to bed early and continually whines about missing his farm in The South and his lack of time to write a massive history book about The South.  He’s a bit of a cheapskate and steps on all the wrong toes by trying to convince every other diplomat to pinch pennies like he does.

It’s his daughter that provides much of story, as she’s a wild child who seems to have little inhibitions when it comes to men, especially ones in high power positions.  Through her we learn about the lives of high-ranking Nazis and other diplomats and high profile figures.  She gets a little too much attention, but sex sells.

What fascinated me about this book was the antisemitism that was rampant throughout the world at this time. It’s easy to point the finger at Germany, but it was really bad in The States as well.  And it’s heartbreaking to watch the progression of the persecution of the Jewish people go unheeded by the US because the US didn’t want to offend Germany (largely because Germany had lots of unpaid bonds we were hoping to collect).  Also, high ranking US diplomats felt a bit hypocritical to call Germany on their persecution of the Jews when we still hadn’t worked out our civil rights issues yet.  But you can bet that the Jews in the US were making a big noise from very early on, trying to convince our countrymen that something very wrong was happening to German Jews.  Nobody was listening.

The amount of research that went into this book is staggering.  It’s an impressive feat to weave that much historical material into the story of one family.  It loses focus a lot of the time and leaves a lot of story lines unfinished, but if this doesn’t bother you, then it might be a great way to learn about a period in history we don’t focus on much (we focus more on the war itself). I think it’s helpful to know how evil comes into power, so we can be on the lookout for it in the future (and stop it before it goes out of control, as there were many opportunities in this case).

Larson is a local writer (living in Seattle), which is one of the main reasons we picked this book. It’s great to support local writers, wherever you live. And you never know when you’ll bump into them, which for book nerds like me, is a thrill.

Oh, and for movie buffs, rumor has it that Tom Hanks is making the movie (playing Dodd), with Natalie Portman potentially playing the daughter.

If you’re considering purchasing this book as a result of this review, please consider using my link to Amazon, so I get referral credits to purchase more books to review.

Published in: on September 24, 2012 at 8:00 am  Comments (1)  

Why Join a Book Group?

For the past few years, book groups have played a large role in my life, and I’m glad that I’ve been a part of them. Right now, I’m involved in one at our local library, and at our last book group meeting, we ladies got into a discussion about the merits of being in a book group. I learned that we all came to group for different reasons. I thought I’d share with you some of our reasons for being in a book group, and maybe they’ll motivate you to join one (or start one) as well.

  1. You are introduced to new authors/styles of writing/different topics

Although groups go about this differently, book groups often include a selection of different books. Some groups assign different months to different members, who each choose a book to share for their month. Others vote on a list of books. And some follow a pre-selected list assigned by a group leader.

I’ve been a part of all of these types of groups, and in them all, you’re introduced to new writing that you might not otherwise explore.

It’s easy to get in a reading rut, going through the same authors and types of books. My book groups have challenged me to go outside my comfort zone, and in the process, I’ve found authors that I really enjoy and genres that I never would have considered before.

  1. You learn about reading preferences that aren’t your own

I’ll often share a book that I love with a friend who will not like it that much. I admit, it’s a bit of a downer, since I think I have pretty good taste in books. But I’ve come to realize that people have different reading preferences for a lot of different reasons. Some people prefer a slower pace, while others get too bored by slow books and need fast paced thrillers. Some people like historical fiction, while others prefer historical nonfiction.

Being in a group with people who have all kinds of preferences has helped me realize that my own likes and dislikes aren’t universal, and there’s a lot of room out there for different types of books. It’s a humbling kind of experience, to realize that your reading tastes aren’t shared with everyone.

  1. You pick up on new perspectives on books you’re reading

Grad school taught me that 30 people can read the same book, and come up with more than 30 takes on that book. We’d all read the same thing in class and came back with wildly different interpretations of the material. And that was a good thing.

I love going to book group thinking one thing about a book and getting challenged to think of it in a completely new way. I learn a lot, and I also gain a new appreciation for the book than ever before.

  1. You use your brain

Being a new mommy, I’m finally understanding “mommy brain,” that fuzzy headedness that comes from lack of sleep and lack of interaction with adults. Book groups get you out of the mommy rut and into using your brain in challenging ways, while interacting with people who read books that don’t have pictures in them.

I also know some great retired folks who use book groups as one way to keep themselves sharp.  There’s nothing like reading a challenging book, then discussing it, to keep your brain humming!

  1. You hang out with different people

Of course, this depends on the type of book group you have, but often, book groups pull together people from all walks of life. My library book group has lots of ladies of different ages, careers, religious orientations, and ethnicities. I love that we all share the common love of books but come from such different places. I can’t think of many other ways for such a diverse group of people to assemble and talk together. I can get stuck hanging out with the same group of friends, who have the same belief system as I do, and who also have a similar background. And while I love my friends, I also love my book group friends, who challenge me and help me to dwell and think outside my comfort zone at times.

Have you ever been in a book group? What did you like or dislike about the experience?

Published in: on April 15, 2011 at 4:33 pm  Comments (2)  
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Book Review: The Hunger Games

I haven’t done a book review for awhile, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading! Dan’s kind enough to feed Lizzy her last bottle of the night, so I can escape to bed a little early and read (he’s done this from very early on, and it’s meant a lot.).

One book series that I’ve been plowing through deserves some attention because it’s certainly gaining a lot of interest from young adult readers. If you have a high schooler in your life, you’ve probably already heard of The Hunger Games.

When I first heard the premise, I thought it sounded revolting. It’s a distopian novel about a future time in North America, where children are forced to battle for their lives in an arena so their families have food. Who wants to read about kids killing each other? But apparently, lots of people do, because these books are flying off the shelves.

If you’ve read my other book reviews, you know my philosophy about reading these books. They are very popular, and therefore, to fully engage the culture, it’s worthwhile to read them. I sort of look at these as the latest fad book in line with Harry Potter and Twilight. And regardless of their entertainment value or even their moral value, these books can function as a lens from which to view our society.

You can find more extensive summaries of the book elsewhere (it’s the first in a trilogy). Here, I merely want to touch on some themes that are worthwhile to consider.

  1. Sacrifice

I don’t want to give any spoilers here, but people offer their lives in exchange for others. This happens a few times in the book. Some of the most climatic and key points in the book focus on these sacrifices. This is by no means a Christian story, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find elements of Truth in it. And what better way to discuss Christ’s sacrifice for our sake than to talk about it in terms of the familiar, how favorite characters willingly offer themselves for others.

2. The “haves” and “have nots”

    Similar to other famous distopian novels, such as 1984 and Brave New World, the government is an all powerful entity that oppresses certain groups of people, creating a “haves” and “have nots” kind of culture. In The Hunger Games, the “haves” live in “The Capitol,” where excess characterizes their lives. The “have nots” live everywhere else, making sprockets for the Capital’s conspicuous consumption while they are starving.

    Let’s not get Marxist over this, about redistribution and the proletariat and all. But let’s think about how despite a recession, we still have a heck of a lot more than most of the world. We’re the conspicuous consumers, the “haves,” benefitting from the back breaking labor in sweat shops. This isn’t a reminder to be thankful for all we have but to think about what we do with it. Are we like the folks in the Capitol, binging and purging just to taste new party foods (a book two reference, but it really hit me hard)? How do we share our bounty to bless the “have nots,” instead of inventing more ways to waste it on unnecessary things?

    3. What is real?

      There’s a lot of deception and strategic double dealing in The Hunger Games. The Capitol stages the games, but there’s a lot of artifice involved, from the created game area, to the way contestants are presented to the public. Those living in the Capitol, getting entertained by the games, aren’t aware of all the behind the scenes work that presents a fraud for a fact.

      On the most basic level, its easy to see how this is like the “reality” TV that is so popular these days. But I also see it as very similar to what it’s like to be a Christian in this world.

      We Christians are in a world that isn’t our home. The games people play here aren’t our games. Chasing after money, sex, power, and the like is the pastime of most everyone else. But we play by different rules, seek different things, serve someone else.

      Katniss, the main character, sees through the artifice in these games and is a citizen of a different world. She has to hold to the very tenuous balance that we Christians have every day, to be in the world of artifice but not be of that world. And it’s not always crystal clear what that means, how to act in this strange place that makes unsavory demands of us. But in the struggle, she has companions to help her, and we have them too: our friends, our Church, God.

      I’d love to hear what others think of this book. It’s due to be out as a movie in a year, meaning it will get even more widespread exposure. Why not dive in now to be ready to discuss it then?

      The Moral of the Story

      For Christmas, Dan got me a book that I’d been salivating over for awhile, waiting patiently for my turn to come on the library’s hold list. David Sedaris’ latest book, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, is a very different type of book than his typical humorous memoirs. This book is a collection of short stories, fiction, with animals as the protagonists.

      It’s funny in dark ways, much like the rest of his writing. It’s like fairy tales for slightly disturbed grown ups.

      What I find interesting about this book is that it flagrantly delivers morals, in a post modern age where moralistic writing is very gauche.

      Most fairy tales contain a moral. Don’t get greedy. Don’t leave your home, ever. Don’t trust anyone. Things like that.

      So it’s surprising that a writer that typically embraces a thoroughly postmodern worldview would choose a genre that’s so preachy. (It sounds like an oxymoron to write postmodern morals.) In his other writing, Sedaris embraces the anti-establishment, do your own thing, make fun of religion attitudes that dominate our culture.

      It seems slightly hypocritical to at once lambaste those promote a particular belief system (he goes after the positive thinking folks, such as those who embrace The Secret, in one story) and then preach your own values.

      In an interview for NPR, Sedaris fervently denied that these stories were fables because they didn’t have a moral (though he might be willing to concede a few). That’s one way to seem less hypocritical, but he’s succumbed to the same delusion that a theme and a moral are so different.

      As an English instructor, I use one of the many textbooks that boldly proclaim that a theme and a moral are not the same thing. But on the other hand, the texts say a theme is something that can be stated as a universal truth and applied outside the context of the story. That sounds like a moral to me. But if you’re anti-religion, the term moral sounds bad, too preachy, too limiting. And post-modern folks don’t like universal truths that are very…well, universal.

      I’ve also read that a theme is far more complex than a moral. And this is only true if you believe a moral only deals with what is right and wrong, black and white. Morality is extremely concerned with grey areas. What do you think rabbi’s and pastors do for a living, but sift through the grey areas?

      Morality is far more complex than the post modern world believes. They think they’ve got the final say in complexity, in their anti-Truth, open ended belief systems. But morality, at least in the Christian sense, finds messes and attempts to reconcile them with a righteous God. When faced with a standard that is an omnipotent, omnipresent, omnicient, fullly man, fully God, just, and merciful God, how much more complex can you get? Only simpletons and those who misunderstand God’s complexity reduce morals to right and wrong, black and white.

      To be truly moral, to conduct oneself rightly in relationship to God, one must humbly concede the complexity and, yes, impossibility of morality, and turn to the only person who lived a truly moral life. His name was Jesus. And at once he makes morality simple, because its end is Him. But he also makes it complex, because morality is far too complicated and impossible to comprehend without him.

      How to Get More from Your Reading V: Use a Critical Lens

      In this final edition of my series on getting the most of your reading, I want to focus on a more advanced method of literary analysis.  In English departments today, you’ll find a large focus on Literary Theory, which is essentially a range of philosophies that can be applied to the study of texts.  Over the past 100 years, these philosophies have greatly changed the way we study literature and have led to different schools of literary criticism.

      These dates are very rough, but they give you the general idea. Prior to 1930, the method of literary criticism was what we now call formalist criticism.  Basically, the focus was on the text and only what was within the text, without considerations of authorial intention or historical setting.  C.S. Lewis’ literary criticism fits this category. 

      But then in the 30s, a great deal changed. Sigmund Freud hit the literary world, and it was never the same.  His theories introduced the idea of the unconscious mind, which meant that the author might be writing things unawares.  It shook the whole foundation of how we thought about texts and gave rise to psychoanalytical criticism of texts.

      Also around this time, critics started doing more biographical criticism, where they took on the mantle of biographer and dug deep into an author’s life to determine what that could tell us about the text.  For example, if an author was a racist, it tended to show up in his or her work, sometimes in subtle ways.

      When Karl Marx introduced his ideas about economics, critics began looking at how money and the class system shaped both the creation and certain representations within literature.  For example, authors from the higher classes often depict the lower classes in ways that reinforce the class system.  Jane Austen is a good example of this.  Marx especially made the term “ideology” useful when thinking about the beliefs of an author that influenced his or her writing. While you don’t have to be a literal Marxist to benefit from this perspective, there are a surprising number of Marxists in English departments today, using The Communist Manifesto as their guide to the world and literature.

      Historical critics are those who look at the historical context of writing, to see what was happening at the time it was composed.  Knowing that a period of political upheaval was taking place while Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress can inform some of the images of rulers in his famous allegory.

      With the second wave of feminism gaining speed in the 1970s, critics became interested in how the gender of authors affected their writing, and whether or not they depicted gender biases in their writing.  Tied with this study of gender came a study of sexuality, including how homosexuality gets represented in texts.

      You’ve probably heard of deconstruction, with men like Jacques Derrida at the foreground of this movement.  These theories influenced literary critics to look at the instability of texts, how their words fail to adequately describe life. If you like spotting inconsistencies and reasoning out why they exist, this can be a fun type of criticism.

      In the 1980s, critics began focusing more on the reader and his or her own unique responses to the text, giving rise to reader response criticism.  Your own background and values can affect your own experience of a text. 

      You can lump these last two groups in the postmodern or post structuralism category, which is where we find ourselves now, or some might argue that we’re moving past this now.  Either way, postmodernism has changed how we view texts in a static, authoritative, and objective way.  The phrase “death of the author” (from Rowland Barthes) defines this movement in literary criticism.  Basically, it means there isn’t just one interpretation of the text, as defined by the study of the author.  The meaning is situated in multiple places, most notably in the experience of the reader.

      I don’t throw all these theories at you to overwhelm you, but to show you how texts are being thought about in a multitude of ways.  Seldom will you find a literary critic today who embraces only one of these perspectives. It’s often a mixed bag.

       If anything, keep in mind how your philosophy of the world, including a Christian worldview, shapes how you view literature. And if you tend to gravitate towards one of these perspectives, your interpretation of literature is greatly affected by it.

      How to Get More from Your Reading, Part IV: Examine the Elements

      Fiction and nonfiction have different elements that make up the unique content of the text.  If you know what they are, these elements can be helpful tools for analysis. Some of these elements apply to both fiction and nonfiction, especially nonfiction works that tell a story, such as a biography.

      Plot: The classic plot contains components such as exposition, climax, dénouement, and conclusion.  Knowing the parts of the story helps you understand to what purpose certain information is being provided.  It also helps you see the narrative arc of the story.

      Character: There are many different character types.  Two useful categories are flat and round, to describe those characters that are limited to few personality traits or are multifaceted and richly developed.  There are also static and dynamic characters, based on whether or not they change throughout the story.  Characters can be foils for each other.  There are also different types of heroes, including the currently popular anti-hero.  Instead of using the term “hero” for the main characters, it’s more specific to discuss the protagonists and antagonists.  Methods of characterization apply to both fiction and nonfiction, as nonfiction characters can be portrayed in many different lights.  Think about a biography that is slanderous and might portray its subject in a negative light, or an autobiography where the author extols too much of his or own virtues instead of allowing for some weaknesses.

      Setting:  The story’s location and point in time can play a large role in the development of the characters and storyline.  Using my previous example, Gone with the Wind, The Civil War creates conditions that send the characters in new directions and challenge them to grow.  The setting can also set the tone for the story.  Different settings can change the interpretations of the events of the story.  What might be an acceptable practice in the middle of the jungle might not work so well in a story set in an urban landscape.

      Point of View: The narrator can employ different points of view, which might be from a first, second (very rare), or third person perspective.  Narrators can be unreliable or unreliable.  They can be objective or biased.  They might have an omniscient perspective or be limited to the single view of one character, who may or may not play a role in the story being told.

      Symbolism: Authors employ symbols to hold extra meanings within the story.  Some symbols are common and easy to spot, such as a Confederate Flag symbolizing the South.  But others are more obscure, such as a plant representing a woman’s emotional state (several famous short stories have employed this particular symbol, which is why I chose it).  Christian symbols can be fun to spot, especially renewals that might represent Christ’s resurrection or sacrifices that represent Jesus’ death.   

      Theme: I touched on theme in the last post.  In sum, a theme is an overarching statement made either directly or indirectly that can be summarized in a sentence and universally applied, outside the context of that story.  There are minor and major themes woven throughout stories, and they often contain very value laden messages, worthy of analysis.

      Style: Every story and work of nonfiction has its own unique style.  Tone contributes to the overall style of a story.  Also, word choice and sentence structure are key aspects.  Often writers will use a consistent style in most of their works, but there will be unique elements to each specific story.

      Organization: Nonfiction relies on a wider variety of organizational techniques to present the information.  There are chapters and sub-chapters.  The book might employ graphics, such as charts or diagrams.  Nonfiction books often include more front and back matter, resources that compliment the text.  But fiction books can also uniquely organize their material, with scene shifts in the middle of a chapter or stories divided into different volumes or “books.”

      Information: Another element, key to nonfiction, is the different types and methods of delivering information.  How accurate is the information? Is it timely? What kinds of arguments does the author use? Do they rely more on logic?  Or, the does the author use more emotionally resonant appeals? Another way of creating arguments is to rely on other authorities to make points.  Is the information detailed, or is it an overview?

      How to Get More From your Reading, Part III: What’s the point?

      The most important question to ask of any book you read is “what’s the point?” or “so what?”  This question aims at finding the thesis, the main point of the book.  And this doesn’t only apply to nonfiction.  Fiction books have their own main points, often in the form of a major theme. 

      In fiction, a theme is a universally applicable claim, one that you can take out of the context of the book and apply to real life.  So, I’ll use Gone with the Wind, since that’s what I’m reading right now.  The book has a lot to say about life, love, and the human will to survive, but those are subjects, not complete themes, because they aren’t full statements that are universally applicable. 

      One of the main themes of this epic book is that survival depends on a fierce determination and adaptability in the face of violent upheaval and change. Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, the main characters, embody these traits and are rewarded for them.  But separate this theme from the context from the book and apply it to real life, and you might find that you disagree or think that it’s not a biblical perspective.  It’s amazing how many themes makes sense in the context of the book, but when you take them out and apply them to your own life, you notice how unrealistic they are.

      Most nonfiction books have a main, overall thesis, but they also contain mini thesis points, arguments that support the main thesis.  You can generally find these at the chapter level.  So, for each chapter, ask, “what’s the main point?” or “so what? “ Chapter titles might help you get a basic idea of the thesis, but typically, thesis statements are far more complex than the couple word title of a chapter.

      I encourage my students to write each chapter’s thesis in the margins somewhere at the end or beginning of it, so they can always recall the main point for that section of the book.  This works well for articles that you’re reading, too.  If you’re doing a research project and consulting multiple sources, it’s very handy to have a quick reference for what the text was about.

      Published in: on April 21, 2010 at 8:00 am  Comments (2)  
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      How to Get More from Your Reading, Part 2: Make Goals

      I like to have an agenda when I pick up a book, goals that I can set forth to accomplish in the reading of it.  Your goals might be different from those of all your friends who are reading the book, but the important thing is to be aware of what you personally want to get out of it.

      For example, let’s say you’re reading a popular book on leadership that’s making the rounds at the office.  People keep telling you that it’s the best book they’ve read for a long time, that it’s changed the way they think about the workplace.  You want to join the discussion, so you read it.  But your goals might be different from your co-workers.  They might want to read it to learn how to get to the top with minimal effort.  You might be more concerned about how to find talking points that have a biblical connection.  But you also might be interesting in reading it to figure out what the worldview being advocated by the book, to better understand what your officemates value most.

      And you accomplish these goals by setting out with questions from the start, and you constantly revisit those questions as you read, answering them in full when you’ve completed the book.  I often have separate goals for each chapter (for non-fiction books). 

      Here are a couple questions that I like to ask of all the books that I read:

      1. How can the ideas in this book transform my life? 

      This is the practical question, the one that makes you consider how you might apply what you’ve learned from the book.  You might completely disagree with the book, but that still doesn’t mean you won’t be changed by it.  Let’s say the book presents a worldview that is completely different from the biblical one.  You likely won’t be adopting a new worldview, but there are always practical tips that might work well in your own life, ones that don’t fully conflict with your values. 

      A great example is when I read the Four-Hour Work Week (which Dan and I joke should be called the 4-Second Work Week).  Everyone was talking about it, and I read it partly to make people stop singing its praises to me.  I admit, this is a common reason for me to read books.  I was absolutely shocked by the worldview the book embraced, more about living for oneself and pursuing luxury and leisure than pursuing righteousness.  If you ever want a study in contrasts, read this book alongside John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life.

      But, even though I largely disagreed with the book, there were some productivity tools that I found useful and could use in a way that would glorify God in my own life. And I also took from it tips on how to relate to the culture in large that was buying into this worldview.  Bestselling books tell you that authors have struck a nerve, are meeting a core need, and are speaking at a common level.  If you see yourself as a lay missionary, put into culture to be Christ’s representative, books that speak to the culture can be useful tools for learning how to relate to people you want to reach.

      2. What would Jesus say about the ideas in this book?

      I suppose this is the WWJD of reading.  I find great value in keeping a biblical lens in place for my reading.  If you forget to put ideas in the light, you might fall victim to ideologies that conflict with scripture.  It’s ridiculously easy to pick up a trendy catchphrase without considering if it’s in line with what you know of God. 

      For example, here’s an interesting quote I recently picked up: “How fortunate for governments that the people they administer don’t think.” It makes sense on several levels, especially in our culture where we’d rather watch TV than do just about anything.  But it assumes and underlying stupidity of the populace, not exactly in line with believing that we are made in the image of God.  Plus, what pride in one’s own brain this statement assumes! And it also implies that the government knows better than the people who elected them, allowing for all kinds of justification for abusive totalitarian actions. By the way, Adolf Hitler said that. 

      You might have questions that apply to specific people in your life, perhaps the people who asked you to read the book, or people you want to serve.  Also, you can have very specific goals for the book, depending on the subject matter within it (in a book about fishing, you might want to learn how to catch a specific type of fish).  But the important thing is that you start your books with clear goals and end them answering the questions that you hoped to answer.  Don’t forget that writing in your books as you go is a great way to answer these questions along the way.

      Published in: on April 16, 2010 at 8:00 am  Comments (2)  
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      How to Get More from Your Reading, Part 1: Write in Your Books

      Lately, I’ve had a few people ask for my advice about how to read more deeply, to get more out of their reading.  Although this is a skill that I’m still developing in my own life, I’m happy to share what helpful practices I’ve picked up along the way.

      And it looks like this is going to take a few posts to cover.  Today, I’ll tackle the most important piece of advice:

      #1 Write in your books

      I’ve mentioned this before.  It’s no coincidence that I’ve titled my blog “Writing in the Margins.” I learned this trick in college and have never looked back.  And my students get a lecture on the first day of class about why they should forget about the hit they’ll take when re-selling their books and write in them with abandon.

      Book reading is an interactive affair, or at least, it should be.  We’re not passive receptacles of knowledge, just getting our brains “filled” with whatever factoids we come upon.  Anyone who has studied memory or brain structure will tell you that when you open up a brain, you don’t see a big bucket, waiting to be filled. You see a complex system of connections.  To plug in information, you need to integrate it, make connections to what you already know.  And one of the best ways to do this while reading is to use your pen or pencil to prompt connections and responses in the margins.

      When you commit to writing in the margins, you commit to calling out lies and bad arguments.  You have the power of the pen before you, to answer back, fully engaging the ideas set before you, not accepting them without question.   Writing in the margins teaches you to be a discerning reader, one who doesn’t accept everything at face value and knows what information, in the end, is worthwhile to retain and embrace.

      Finally, writing in the margins allows you a quick overview of the book, when you flip through it later.  Your notes will guide you through the important points. They will also re-start the conversation you began during your first read.  You can dive back in at any time, right where you left off, without having to call to mind where you previously stood on all the issues presented. And don’t forget the value your own notes have when you loan your books to others.  They join you in the discussion and benefit from the mental heavy lifting you’ve already performed.

      And don’t think this only applies to nonfiction.  Fiction presents arguments and ideas, just as much as nonfiction, but they tend to be harder to spot.  All the more reason for you to call out those ideologies and agendas, right there in the margins. 

      There are a few exceptions to the rule that I should point out.  Don’t write in your library books.  In the anonymous library lending system, patrons don’t know who read the book before them, so the notes don’t necessarily come from a trustworthy, respectable source.  In the library world, writing in books is a way of defacing them.  And I agree, these books should remain free from our commentary, even if we think it’s brilliant.  I check out a lot of books from the library, though, and to engage with them fully, I’ll often take notes on a separate piece of paper or purchase my own copy, if it looks like I’ll need to use a lot of marginalia. 

      And when I borrow books from friends, I don’t tend to write in them unless I’ve been granted permission to do so. Personally, I have a fairly open policy on writing in most of my books, when I loan them out.  But I do have a few exceptions, so it’s worth asking.  Some books are valuable editions that I’d like to keep pristine.  Others are lending copies because my notes in my personal copies are either for my eyes only or are going to interfere with the next person’s experience of the book (I have an annoying habit of spoiling endings, etc.).

      What about you, do you write in your books? If so, how and when do you do it? Anybody completely against writing in one’s books?

      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.