Friday, November 4, 2011

Bad Books

Couldn't put it down--even to eat.  It has sorcery, but I'm not afraid of her becoming a witch.  Is that naive or its exact opposite?

Last night was Book Club.  We read Brom Stoker's Dracula.  It is a classic by everyone's definition, but it is not a "good" book.  No, I'm not talking about the writing, I'm referring to the content.  It contains gruesome characters, yucky rituals and disturbing superstitions.  That is not all it contained.  I didn't like it, but I'm glad I read it.  I feel the same way about The Great Gatsby, The Jungle, Crime and Punishment and Tess of the D'Urbervilles.  One of the women shared an experience that has had me thinking ever since.

She was reading Dracula on the sidelines of one of her kids' sporting event.  There was another mom there who was also reading, only she was reading a book called, I think, This Book Says the Same Thing as the Bible, Only Worse. (Wow, look how Christian of me to belittle the work of Christian authors!)  Anyway, the lady asked how we could read a book that was so evil and full of the devil.  Unlike me, I don't think she was trying to be condescending or rude.  I think she really wanted to know why a good woman would read an evil book.

Yes, good question.  Why do we read difficult books?  Why do we explore the pages of Frankenstein's journal, why do we read too-real accounts of slavery, or voluntarily slip quietly behind the gates of Auschwitz or the Tower of London.  For that matter, why do we wander the halls of the Death Star or peek into the Pits of Mordor?  Why not only surround ourselves with the Heidi's and the Pollyanna's?

First, how does she know Dracula is an evil book?  He might be an evil character, but he is not the only character.  If you haven't read it, you cannot be the judge of that.  (If you are given a trustworthy review by someone who has read it or if you put it down because of the dark feelings it gave you, that, in my book, counts.)  Some people say that a book I consider scripture is evil, but they haven't read it!  How can you, literally, judge a book by its cover--or its movie?!  

Furthermore, this is the story of lives, only, our lives are not works of fiction.  We have been given this world, so full of goodness with such a source of happiness, that has a major antagonist.  There is an adversary even worse than Dolores Umbridge or any Wicked Step-mother.  Books with a believable villain can give us experiences, albeit theoretical.  I would much rather experience a negative or evil situation through the second hand knowledge lent by a book.  We have to believe that good conquers evil to give us hope that we can conquer the villains in our own lives--and if it doesn't, we need to understand why.  Otherwise, we may not avoid falling into the same traps.  Yes, we have God.  We also have Satan.  If we don't know about both of them, we can be in big trouble.  Parenthetically, I am NOT suggesting we study and learn all there is to know about Satan, so don't take this too far.  I do believe you can read too much about evil people or topics.

I propose that the question, Why didn't you like this book (or character)? is often more important than Why did you like this book (again, or character)?  Is it possible that we can discover who we do not want to be--and who we don't want to have for friends--from the safety of our living room?  Can we, sometimes for the first time, see social ills that we can help change?  Would slavery ever have been denounced by a nation were it not for people reading about its evils in Uncle Tom's Cabin?  Think about those books that have most changed you.  Was it a thornless rose?  

Weigh in.


  1. Emily, I found your blog through my sister Kayla and think you're a wonderful writer. As an English teacher, I just had to comment on this post. I couldn't agree with you more--I feel like reading allows us be stretched and challenged, and to question and explore the darker, harder topics of life in a safe environment. (I agree with you, however, that we must be careful with the content that we read, so I don't read anything with gratuitous sex, violence, or language.) Anyway, an acclaimed English educator taught me (at a conference) that literature is a "dress rehearsal for life." But, if I can gain empathy and insight into some "harder" things from a safe distance (in a book), then I may not even need to experience them in "real life." Reading is so much more than entertainment to me; it is a way I experience the world from different perspectives and backgrounds, and hopefully grow as a person as a result.

  2. This really made me think, and I do believe I agree with you. I've always enjoyed reading non-fiction, even if it isn't very pleasant, because it is real and there are lessons to be learned. I haven't felt the same about fiction, but I think you have persuaded me- at least I'm more open to works of fiction that previously I wouldn't have been.


  3. Emily, I just posted some information about Death Valley on that post's comments- didn't know if you would still check there for it- sorry it took a while to get back about it.

  4. I found your blog too. Sorry to have missed book club this week. Sounds like it was a good one!

  5. My favorite book is East of Eden. The main character is a sociopath. Another one of my favorites is Crime and Punishment, the two main characters are a murderer and a prostitute. Brigham Young said: "If you can find a truth in heaven, earth or hell, it belongs to our doctrine. We believe it; it is ours; we claim it." I think it is kind of interesting he said we can find truth in hell. That being said, books written in the last 50 years often get too graphic for me.