What We Might Be Missing

Something has been on my mind lately. After a long hiatus our relief society is starting a book club. Last time they launched a book club in this ward one of my visiting teachers volunteered to head it up. We had more than one conversation about her difficulty in choosing books for the group. What some sisters feel okay about reading, others do not; I understand that. If the Relief Society is hosting there has to be a certain amount of censorship in what is chosen and offered as suggested reading; I understand that. What I don’t understand is the unwillingness of some to read anything that differs from the values with which they choose to lead their lives. I try not to judge others, but truthfully it frustrates me when a friend tosses a book aside due to what she views as “junk”. Usually this junk will be a section of the book that discusses lifestyle choices we view as sin. But often (because they are books I’ve read and recommended) this sin is in no way glorified or gratuitous. It is part of the journey and life of what is generally a greater lesson. So much beauty and empathy can be experienced and shared through books if we will be willing to not judge the characters by a standard they don’t even know exists.

I’m not saying don’t censor your reading at all. Surely there is junk in the world of literature that is a waste of time, which will not uplift or edify us. But if we are to be in the world and not of it, don’t we need to have some understanding of how that world operates? By being unwilling to share any of what others’ experiences have to teach us I am afraid we don’t even realize what we might be missing.

Does this frustrate anyone else? How do you judge literature? What has literature taught you?

19 thoughts on “What We Might Be Missing

  1. Several years ago, my book group read Juanita Brooks’ book Mountain Meadows Massacre. No one that was actually in the book group complained, but there was more than one set of raised eyebrows by other people who found out what we were reading.

    But what a great experience to dive into something that could have been quite uncomfortable, and to gain knowledge. Isn’t that what all great literature does? It widens our view. It opens up truth. It allows us to understand humanity’s common experiences, and our unique ones.

    My personal feeling is that if people realized what they would be doing by opening the “censorship” floodgates, no one would be quite so willing to clamor for it. Some of the most beautifully written prose and verse of our civilization was riddled with potentially offensive material. Some of the most cutting prose written has brought about growth and change in entire civilizations.

    Heather, I’m with you.

  2. This is probably why I am not a part of any book group to date. I was an English major and read plenty of books that would give many RS sister. pause. I just wish many wouldn’t be so quick to judge. I think there is value in reading about people who have different lives. For me it is often about gaining experience without actually having to sin or destroy my life.

  3. Church sanctioned book groups are tough. I have been a part of book groups that do not need the blessing of the Bishop, and have loved it. I do get frustrated, though, when we have women who adamently refuse to read anything besides juvenile fiction or church related books. I’m fine reading juvenile fiction once in a while (and I did like Goose Girl), but for heaven’s sake people, we are not juveniles. We are adults, and should be able to handle adult related themes. Yes, there is a lot of trash out there that passes for good literature, but there are just too many good books that get passed over because people avoid them in the name of righteousness.

    I also know women who balk if we read a book that isn’t “cheerful”. It makes me wonder why some people join a book group at all.

  4. This is a touchy issue… I think the heart of it is that what offends the Spirit for one person doesn’t really bug the Spirit in another. For example, I have a low tolerance level for swearing in books. This is because it’s hard for me to focus on the story or even the excellent writing if there’s a lot of bad language in the book. The words repeat over in my head, disrupting the flow of the Spirit.

    I realize other people don’t have this issue, but I do. I don’t think it makes me more righteous or them better since they can handle it. It’s just how things are. So I appreciate it when my book group takes language into consideration when choosing books.

    Here’s the thing: even when the book explores bad choices in a morally responsible way, if the depiction of those choices is too graphic, for me, it affects my ability to feel the Spirit. My threshold of “too graphic” is different from someone else’s… that’s just how it is.

    Again, it’s so personal. There are many books I love that some people are offended by, so if I recommend them I do it with a warning. And I really appreciate warnings from others when they recommend books to me.

    So far I’ve enjoyed my RS book group–we read grown-up books, but we choose them carefully, and we’ve had a great time.

  5. We have an “unofficial” ward book club and even with a mix of sensibilities, have managed for about six months without anyone being too offended yet (knock wood). I agree with what Emily said about what offends the Spirit for one person not really bugging the Spirit in another — the surprising thing is how few people seem to understand this and think that there should be one standard for all. And unfortunately, it seems that when you put the Church stamp of approval on something, you have to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

    I read an interesting talk once by Van Gessel that addressed this issue, in which he said the following:

    Can we, I wonder, ever be gods and goddesses of our own universes, eternal parents of imperfect beings who will have to go through the mortal travails as each of us will have done, without somehow having an understanding of and even an empathy toward our flawed progeny? … How do we school ourselves to comprehend—even marvel at and love—the mental and emotional worlds of other people, since we can never live inside their heads or experience life just the way they experience it? How will perfected humans, looking down from the heights of their own Mount Olympuses, be able to observe the stupid, bungling, relentlessly sinful acts of their children and still resist the temptation to thunderbolt them all to ashes?

    The training program to develop such divine restraint—or should we call it “charity”?—is, no doubt, a complex one… I anticipate that we will need to prepare ourselves to understand the heights and depths of human experience vicariously (perhaps another of our miniscule attempts to mirror the Christ?) through our reading and expanded cultural literacy….

    And why is Fitzgerald’s novel about adultery, obsession, alcoholism, and murder taught at a place like BYU? Well, in part, because all those who are crowned with glory and immortality and eternal lives will have, in their own kingdoms, an array of offspring who are, in their own ways, disobedient, annoying, and horrifying. We will have to learn how to deal with an abundance of our own Jay Gatsbys and Sweeney Todds and Pol Pots and Marquises de Sade and Brian David Mitchells. Just as it is presently the work and the glory of our Father in Heaven to bring to pass our immortality and eternal life—in spite of all He knows about us, which is everything—we hope it will someday be our work and our glory to help provide those same blessings for countless souls who are very much unlike ourselves, and many of them will be supremely unlovable. In my experience, the best way to come to know such people—and not merely to know them, but to know them well enough to be able to love them beneath all the layers of their sins and imperfections—is through the instrument of good books. After all, the Lord has repeatedly instructed us to seek wisdom “out of the best books” (D&C 88:118; 109:7, 14).

    The full talk is at: http://speeches.byu.edu/reader/reader.php?id=8985

  6. Great quote, Melissa!

    The field of Mormon letters is still so young that for me it goes without saying that in order to study literature we have to branch outside books published by LDS publishers. But that assumes the purpose of a bool club is to study literature. I think there are plenty of Church members who are interested in being spiritually fed, and therefore would like to get together and discuss Sheri Dew’s latest book (and I love Sheri Dew, BTW) who aren’t at all interested in studying literature in any larger sense. Books mean different things to different people. I think communicating the purpose of a given group up front is key. I could happily sign on to discuss Ensign articles and LDS books, which I enjoy, if I know that’s what I’m siging on for. But if I’m hoping to revisit my memories of college literature class, that same experience will likely drive me crazy. I would venture that there may be room for more that one book club in many wards, allowing each club to cater to women with specific goals and interests in their reading.

  7. Heather, I can definitely relate to your feelings.

    Most of the RS book clubs I’ve attended have a decidedly inspirational bent – church books, or inspirational non-fiction, or non-challenging juvenile fiction. It becomes a testimony meeting, and that’s nice, but it’s not what I go to book club for. I don’t want book club to be an extension of Relief Society or Sunday School. (Some people do, and I think that’s great, it just isn’t what I want out of a book club, if I’m going to take the time out of my life to attend it.)

    For the last two years I’ve participated in an “unofficial” book club. We’re all LDS, so we don’t read outrageous stuff, but we are somewhat liberal in our choices. If someone in the book club felt the book had true artistic merit, or contained something powerful or challenging or important. I appreciate this, because I enjoy book club not just for the reading, but because I want a place to discuss literature, discuss ideas, talk about our thoughts, talk about what it made us feel that was positive and negative, our experiences as they relate to the book, our concerns, etc.

    I think in an RS sponsored book club there is a lot of self-censorship in the discussion itself – people being careful about what they say, what they reveal. In contrast, I am probably closer to some of the women in the unofficial book club than I’ve ever been with ANY women – because we share so much of ourselves in the discussion.

  8. And I agree with Angie – I think it’s great that there can be different book clubs for different people. I think anytime people meet to discuss books, it’s a great thing.

  9. I’m not of your faith, so take my words as you will. I hope you don’t mind that I’ve happened upon this blog and have taken interest. You asked “How do you judge literature?” and “What has literature taught you?”

    I don’t really judge literature. I take recommendations from people I trust and I attempt to push myself into learning from literature. I’ve sometimes thought to myself that some books could have benefited from some more editing (sexual scenes or certain language being cut) but I accept that they were not, and I must read the book as a whole if I want to gain anything from it at all. Sometimes the language or subject matter is too much and I have to put the book down.

    I don’t always read things that follow my beliefs. How else would I learn or renew faith in what I believe in? Reading has always been my greatest tool and has shaped me to be who I am today. I’ve read The Book of Mormon, though I am not LDS myself. And I value the insight I gained from the experience. I’d hope that others out there are also reading things that differ from their values, as it makes for a stronger belief system with more depth.

  10. One of my favorite things I got from “Reading Lolita in Tehran” was an explanation for something I’ve felt, but never really articulated. One of the virtues of fiction is that it teaches us understanding for the experiences of others that are different from our own. And isn’t that kind of part of the whole point of being here? Of being Christian?

    I had an experience in which I chose one of my all-time favorite books, “Anna Karenina.” Someone refused to read it because she thought it was about adultery. That is her right, but I felt badly for her because the book in no way glamourized adultry, in fact it illustrated what can be the consequences of that kind of deceit. But the book is also about so much more than just adultry. I still believe she really missed out.

    That said, I do believe we need to be wise in choosing. You can read good works of literature that entertain and that bring about an understanding of other people, places, choices, lifestyles, etc. But I also like to be wary of details that are gratuitous. I’ve made a few choices I’ve regretted. But overall I find my willingness to pick up a book and walk in someone else’s shoes and see things from their eyes has helped open my heart as well as my mind and helped me become a better person.

  11. I love the Van Gessel quote above.

    I also really relate with what Emily M (#4) said. I am definitely on the more conservative side of what I like to read. It’s not because I claim any “higher plane” or greater spiritual sensitivity. That doesn’t mean some things don’t affect my spirit. I trust my book club to not judge me a prude when I decline to finish or start some of the books they choose. I have a different threshhold . . . it’s just how it is.

    For me, a little language isn’t my sensitivity, but other things are. I definitely enjoy reading about other lifestyles, points of view, values, or religious beliefs. There are, however, some subjects that literally bring on anxiety symptoms because of my former line of work, and I won’t read them. I’ve seen enough. Also, like Dalene suggested, there are other subjects or themes that I, too, prefer to not read graphic details about.

    I would say, like I suggested above, that I hope others will not judge me for refusing to read some things, just as I will not judge them for reading them.

  12. Thanks for your comments everyone. I really like the Van Gessel quote as well, thanks for including it Melissa. He put well what I really want to say to other sisters and women. I realize that what I really hoped for in this discussion is to encourage more women to be open-minded about their choices. I can’t force my standard on anyone, of course, but I wanted people to share how reading others’ perspectives has benefited them, and I believe many of us have.

    And Emily M. thanks for voicing your feelings about what offends the spirit. I know we all have different levels of sensitivity, and it’s good to be reminded that we do need to let our spirit be the guide. And Wendy, I agree that we should not judge. In rereading my initial post I fear I may have sounded judgmental of those who will not read things I feel perfectly fine about. I try not to do that. There are many times I have felt like Dalene though, that some friends really miss out.

  13. For me I think the deciding factor is whether a book PORTRAYS evil or whether it forces me to EXPERIENCE it. The first I can learn from. The second makes it pornography. I’m endlessly amazed at the women who refuse to read a classic that portrays evil (and the subsequent consequences of it) but don’t bat an eye at things like Thornbirds and other steamy chic-type romances. You can’t tell me that, at least for some of those women, those novels aren’t pornographic.

  14. Heather, I didn’t feel judged by what you said in your article–you made very good points, and I feel pretty good about my reasons and my level of openness. Darlene, I really like how you distinguish between the portrayal of evil and forcing the reader to experience it. Right now I’m reading a book that looks like the heroine will be making a string of poor decisions, but the author’s style is so subtle that I’m not worried about having to *experience* the bad as I read.

  15. I live in Wymount, at BYU (married housing), and got around this problem simply by having an unofficial book club. I announce it by flyers and word-of-mouth, and I’m pretty lucky in that most of the women have college educations, are young, and ready to accept a challenging read.

    Although, when I let someone else pick a book–and it turned out to be “Mr. Darcy’s Daughters”, I decided to take control and have more literature (albeit I’m careful to avoid gratuitous violence, sex, or crude language) and less fluff.

  16. I’m jumping in super late due to hubby running the Indianapolis marathon on Saturday.

    I have to say that Heather, I agree with you. Our ward book clubs fail for the same reason. Me and one other person read the books, everyone else thinks they’re “evil.” My inner thoughts tell me, “What about all the sex, gore, violence, and lustful stuff in the B of M?”

    My FAVORITE commentator/critic on this very topic is Orson Scott Card. Read The Problem of Evil in fiction here at this link. It was a lecture given in 1980 that answers this question perfectly without giving a list of books that we should and shouldn’t read.

    Happy Reading (if you haven’t already read it)

    http://www.nauvoo.com/library/card-talk.html

  17. I’m even later than Kristen but I couldn’t resist adding my opinion. In my mind, it has to do with why you read in the first place. I don’t necessarily read literature to gain a stronger testimony or to feel the Spirit. At least not in a direct way—I read because I like the way good literature makes me feel and because books are opportunities to experience lives other than my own. Indirectly, my soul IS fed by reading, because I am reminded of the incredible creativity of the human soul. A well-written description of something hard, painful, or even evil is not, in my mind, bad; for me, “bad” writing is poor writing, no matter the topic. It also has to do with the intent of the author. Read some of Sharon Olds’ poems, in which she discusses, fairly frankly, sexuality, for example. Her intent is not, in my opinion, to stimulate or titilate. Instead, it is to share in an artistic medium an experience many of us can relate to, and by doing that it makes the experience more valuable for everyone. A pornographic treatment of that exact same experience has a far different intent.

    Anyway—I wanted to say thanks for the links, they are both excellent!

  18. I was appointed the figurehead position as president of our RS book club, so I’m really enjoying these comments. Thanks!

    I think it is interesting, however, that we feel that we have to have non-RS book clubs in order to read literature. My impression (and I am by no means in the know) was that the enrichment groups (like book clubs) were formed in order to simplify our lives by counting things we were already doing (book clubs, walking groups, etc) as apart of enrichment, but now it’s like we have to have two book clubs, one sacred and one secular.

    That said, I think the big problem for most book club members it separating the message and the medium of a text and trying to decide what means justify the ends.

  19. Thanks for the link Kristen. My husband just ran the Hartford Marathon two weeks ago. Good times! Congratulations to him (and you too, it’s truly a team effort to get all that training in when you have kids involved.)

    You captured the dilemma very well sar, “what means justify the ends.” I guess it will be different for everybody. Why are we reading, what do we hope to gain from the experience? Some of the earlier comments about possibly separating them may be a good idea for RS sponsored groups, one month literature, one month something church-y, then people could sign on for what they really want.

    This has been a great discussion and I do appreciate the links so that I can hopefully encourage some of my friends to think a little deeper about why they make the choices they do, and expand their realm a bit.

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