Emily lives in the South with her husband and two children. She writes under a pseudonym because she loves to vent but is deathly afraid of offending people. Someday she will write the great American novel and hopefully have the guts to use her own name.
I’ve got book club drama and no clue how to fix it. Even worse, I’m starting to wonder if this ship isn’t better left to sink.
First, a description of my book club: as a group, we’re not so literary. This hurts me to say. At the risk of sounding like a complete snob, I assumed that my friends appreciated good literature the same way I do. Not so. I’m a lifetime bibliophile and a closet writer, and I thought these women who seemed so smart, so cool, so fun, understood that fiction should be more than just entertainment. Again, not so. Instead of LDS women gathering to discuss literature, I got LDS women gathering, gossiping, and then confessing they didn’t actually read the book, but that their sister-in-law saw the movie and said it was awesome, and that the same sister-in-law happened to see Jude Law on the beach in Ft. Lauderdale over spring break and he was disappointingly flabby. Fun, but not exactly enlightening.
This summer, after a year of meetings, I paused to consider my continued participation in the group. Should I bother? Not wanting to seem like the elitist that I’m now revealing myself to be, I had spent the entire year stifling my irritation. Nobody wanted to discuss symbolism or character development, and books with unlikable protagonists were broadly disliked, and pretty much never picked. My own selection (which I’m standing by as one of my favorite books of all time!) was read in its entirety by only a few of the women for this exact reason—or at least I’m hoping it was dislike for the protagonist and not for me. During the few thematic discussions we actually had, it became apparent that many of the members were uncomfortable with dissenting opinions on anything. I could see them react as though someone were attacking the teacher in Relief Society. These discussions were inevitably hijacked and turned into testimony meetings on principals of Mormonism, which more often than not, had little to do with the book
After much deliberation, I opted to get off my high horse. Painful dismount. But I decided that while book club was less than intellectually thrilling, the trade-off was acceptable—I was building friendships with LDS women. For me, this is big fat deal. In fact, I’m less than a year from my 30th birthday and for the first time in my adult life I can say that LDS women are my best friends. These girls are inspiring in so many ways, and of course, I recognize that we can’t all have the same interests and talents. Would I want to be friends with women who are exactly like me? Definitely not.
So, with the second year of book club set to kick of in October, I decided to drop the attitude. I was thrilled to learn that the book chosen for this month is a book I read and fell in love with years ago. I remembered it as a brilliant piece of literature, but the details were hazy, so I was excited to re-read it. But before I even dug out my copy, reports began to filter in through the gossip mill: this month’s book has a BAD scene. My initial response was, “Huh?” I thought I recalled a single sex scene, but what I remembered didn’t come close to matching the intensity of the whispers on the park benches during playgroup—especially in comparison to some of the books we read last year. I had thought we were a fairly liberal group, as far as that went. The woman who was supposed to host the event and the woman who chose the book claimed that they had not read it (why, oh why, pick it then?), but that it had been highly recommended to them. After being informed of the “pornographic nature” of the novel, flipping to the scene in question and reading it out of context, they both decided that they didn’t feel good about reading the whole book. That’s right. They read the “bad” scene, and then refused to read the rest of the novel. Rather than canceling the event completely, they insisted that they didn’t want to force their standards on everyone else and book club would just be moved to someone else’s house. (Someone who was just evil enough to read the entire book and discover how very un-pornographic it is?) So book club is on Thursday (as in this Thursday) and it is shaking up to be an event where I am one of two people who has read the book. What happened to everyone else? Well, it turns out that very few wanted to take their chances being with being left on Satan’s side.
What to do? I know what not to do—attempt to convince anyone to read literature that makes them uncomfortable. I’m not going to be that person. But truthfully, I am very comfortable with my position and the literature that I read. So, while I don’t want to convince my friends to read the book, or any other, I would love to explain to them why this book isn’t pornography. They would find it interesting that my BYU English professors, some of whom were bishops and stake presidents on the side, assigned, read aloud, and discussed books far more sexually explicit than this one. That is part of studying literature. However, I don’t like justifying my actions with those of anyone else, including bishops, stake presidents and BYU professors. If it is good to read, it is not because other people are doing it. Simply, it must be “virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy.” But none of these preclude ugliness or violence or sexuality, as long as they are used purposefully and tastefully to enrich the work as a whole. At the risk of sounding corny, enlightenment is a journey, and sometimes to be uplifted we have to be thrown down. So yes, I believe in art painted with ugly colors, music that includes dissonant sounds, and literature that describes negative things. Not only do I tolerate it, but I see it is as necessary.
There is still, of course, a line to draw. I do it regularly—put down a book because the sex is gratuitous, or the language is too vulgar. I admit that I am impressionable, maybe even more than some readers, because I throw myself headfirst into books. But ultimately, I believe the discussion leads back where my book club issues started, the reason one picks up a novel in the first place. If I’m reading solely for entertainment, then perhaps this month’s book is pornographic. Refusing to look at lessons from the entire work, and using fiction merely as escape, puts the burden of meeting the 13th article of faith’s standards on every single scene. There is a particularly shocking verse in Moroni about the Lamanites forcing the Nephite women to eat the flesh of their husbands. Not pretty. If one were to read that verse and that verse only, they might have a hard time believing “a man would get nearer to God by abiding by (the book’s) precepts than by any other book.” But it does, and even that gruesome verse is necessary to understanding the book as a whole. It is a book of tragedies as well as miracles.
There is an analogy that I’m sure many of you have heard about how one small bit of horse manure ruins an entire batch of cookies. I agree. Don’t eat horse poop. But I don’t think it’s the best analogy for judging literature. I’ve come up with my own analogy that pinpoints baking soda as the offending ingredient. Eating just the teaspoon of baking soda would be disgusting (kind of like flipping to the bad scene, reading it, and then refusing to read the book). Don’t do that. But leaving it out of the recipe would change the final result. Maybe not ruin it. The cookie would still be edible, but the baker’s intended result is probably something better than edible.
Unfortunately, I don’t see how I can say any of this to my friends without sounding like a know-it-all or even worse, an agent of the devil. I think loyalty to my friend, the replacement host for what has now become Satan’s book club, dictates that I show up. She may be the only other person to have read the book. Loyalty to her, and to good literature, and to myself. But as for next month, I’m not so sure. I just might be reading alone.