By Rachelle Funk
This past month, I was given the opportunity to try my hand at writing a book review. I was thrilled. Since I work in a library at a local high school, I am surrounded by books on a daily basis and love to hear about all the latest and the greatest things coming out in literature (in addition to my love of the tried-and-true classics). I enjoy discussing different books with the kids at the school (I love it when they get excited about a particular book), as well as discussing books with my own children and people in general. I love to share my thoughts with others on what I glean from the books I read and the enjoyment I get out of them. But when it came time to choose a book to review, I had no idea what to pick – there are so many to choose from.
Then I remembered that last week (Sept. 22nd through the 28th) was National Banned Book Awareness Week. This is an opportunity for librarians to encourage their patrons to read books that have been banned or challenged in the United States and other countries for one reason or another. Perhaps, I thought, I should choose one of those. It is important to encourage others to read books that will expand their minds and give them a greater appreciation for the world at large. Included on the list of books that have been banned in the past are a great many classics (many of which I have read and appreciate), and even a few books that seem silly to have been banned from libraries (the Bible has been one of the most banned books in history). At the same time, there are some books that are truly offensive, especially for a younger audience.
While I was reflecting on this, one of the young high school students came into the library, asking for a recommendation on what she should read. I suggested that maybe she try reading a “banned book” from our list. But as I spoke with her, I realized that perhaps there are books on that list that I shouldn’t be proposing to her. I had no idea what her maturity level might be or what her parents would be okay with. How could I make a suggestion without all that information? This also got me to thinking about what I, myself, would read off of that list or what I would want for my children to read since they are getting to the age where they would be ready for some of these books. I can be a very sensitive reader and I don’t necessarily want to be exposed to material in books that makes me uncomfortable or offends my sensibilities and I definitely don’t want that for my kids. And I certainly don’t want to read something that might affect my ability to feel the Holy Ghost and desensitize me to the things of the spirit.
We are told in the gospel that we should be reading from the best books. As it says in D&C 90:15 “study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people.” It is so important for us to be able to get a wide perspective of the world and to try and understand others who are not necessarily like us. Some of these books could help open our eyes to things of the world that would be good for us to know, but how do we keep from being affected by them and become “of the world,” which we are counseled not to do.
I thought about reading and reviewing the biography of the famous banned book author of The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger (the most recent biography of him, Salinger, comes out this week in correlation to a documentary movie based on this book released earlier this month). I have never read The Catcher in the Rye, although it has been a staple among high school English courses in the U.S. for many years. But after looking at a plot summary, I decided that it contained things that I would be uncomfortable reading about and I didn’t really feel like it was something I would enjoy or learn from in a constructive way. And since I was lacking that background, I felt I wouldn’t appreciate the biography of this author as much as I probably should.
In contemplating all of this, I decided that rather than review one book in particular (whether banned or not) it would be good to talk about what is the best way to determine whether we should choose to read a specific book or not. Book reviews are obviously very helpful to let us know what content might be in a book, but it may not have everything we need to make the best choice for ourselves or our children. Each person is at a different emotional and maturity level and that can affect if they have the ability to handle the content and/or style of a book or not. Or perhaps we can’t find a review so that we do not have even the most basic background about a book on which to make our decision.
How Do You Tell When A Book Is Good
So here are the things that I have learned for myself over the years to help me determine whether a book is a good choice for me to read or not. Hopefully these ideas will be helpful to others. And these ideas can be good in helping choose good books for your children too.
First of all, I do look at a summary of the basic plot of a book before I pick it up to read. Most recent books have a short summary somewhere on the book cover itself to give you a primary idea of content. There are also a ton of plot summaries online that you can look at to see if the basic content of the storyline in a given book contains something that might be objectionable or too rough to handle. Book reviews are still a good place to start. It might also be helpful ask other people whose opinions you trust and who hold the same standards as you if they have read it and whether they think it would a good read for you as well. Especially rely on the input of those who know you and your sensitivity level because they can recognize best if they think you can handle certain content or not.
Even starting out with good information like this, I have found that sometimes it is not until I have started reading a book that I have run across some material that I feel uncomfortable reading. When I was younger, I had the impression that if I started reading something, I needed to finish it no matter what. I didn’t want to be considered as someone who didn’t follow through with something. It’s a good quality to have, but unfortunately, that meant that I read a lot of stuff I didn’t care for or that did make me uncomfortable.
I didn’t understand for a long time that I could stop reading at any point and that those feelings of discomfort were probably a good indication that a particular book was not for me. I also learned that I could skip the stuff that was hard for me to handle and just pick up at the places I felt more comfortable with. That gave me a lot of freedom in my reading and I came to enjoy it a lot more.
I was so pleased that my son learned this lesson earlier than I did. He was reading the Harry Potter series (all of these books are on the banned book list, by the way) and he felt like the last book was getting too dark for him. I was happy to let him stop where he was in the books. When he gets older, maybe he will pick them up again to finish it, but for now I am happy to let him accept that his emotional level is not to the point where he can easily deal with the subject matter and keep himself in a comfortable place with literature by moving on to things that are more agreeable to him right now.
But for me the most important thing that can help me know whether I should be reading a particular book, or not, is whether it causes me to stop feeling the companionship of the Holy Ghost. If it seems to me that the spirit is a little more distant because of what I am reading, it is not something I should probably be taking in. And by the same token, if I am really in tune with the spirit, I know that the Holy Ghost can guide me to the books I should be reading, books that will give me knowledge and understanding in the best ways. We can even pray about the things we are reading or contemplating reading for guidance in doing it. Scriptures are not the only literature that the Holy Ghost can influence us through. The spirit can also help us to gain insights and learn from our reading in a way that will expand our worldview and connect us in a more significant way to our fellow human beings.
So, should we be reading banned books (I mean they are banned for a reason, right?) and encouraging others to do so as well, or not? It really is a personal choice. We need to recognize what the level is of our (and our children’s) maturity, our emotional capacity, and our spirituality. And what is right for us is not necessarily the right thing for everyone. Everyone is at a different level and everyone has their agency. Just because we choose read or not to read something (for whatever reason) does not mean that we should judge someone else for making a different decision. That is one of the amazing things about the gospel and life in general. Nothing is one-size-fits-all. Not books, not anything. It means that we are able to learn our own lessons and use our agency to make our own decisions, which is part of what helps us become more like God.
My recommendation to the students I work with, to my own children, and to the world at large is to do a little research and find some good books that uplift you and help you learn about the world around you. And whatever book you choose that’s right for you – happy reading!