To Read or Not to Read

5:29 AM

My mom taught me to read at age five. That's almost thirteen years of reading -- from Amish easy readers, Amelia Bedelia and American Girl to Milton, Dickens and Shakespeare. In those thirteen years, I've read some things I regret (like the popular but disturbing Water for Elephants) to things I've read multiple times (The Importance of Being Earnest almost has as many thumbing-throughs as Kit Learns a Lesson).

My mom also challenged me to think through what I read and defend it to her -- a feat rather impossible when I read nothing but Scholastic paperbacks. I distinctly remember one evening, the first of its kind, where I stumbled through a pitifully profound defense of IQ-guzzling Nancy Drew mysteries. I've always been grateful that my mother neither kept me on a diet of nineteenth-century moralistic tales nor encouraged the modern idea that anything and everything was worth my reading while. I came across many different genres and authors and philosophies and literary styles, and I learned to read critically -- as a snobbish literature lover and as a Christian committed to personal holiness.

It's unfashionable to have standards in what one reads (thanks, Harry Potter and Twilight), either for oneself or for others. It puts one in the category of censors and fundamentalists to object to anything on moral grounds. And the idea of morality trumping literature is absurd. Thus the scramble for Christians to write things darker, grittier and more profanity-laced.

In any case, I've been thinking about personal standards in reading ever since I caught wind of The Hunger Games phenomenon. I haven't read much fiction lately, since so much is so bad; that, maybe, is why I've thought more about it. I hear Christians objecting to its controversial subject material and its God-devoid worldview and the usual exaggerations hurled at popular books not written by C. S. Lewis.

I'm struggling through Katniss's egotism in the third book right now, so I'm entitled to an opinion on the series. For me, death and dystopia isn't enough to stamp a book as Unsuitable Reading Material. Indeed, people seem to mix up two similar but different questions: Is the book's topic right and good? and Is the book itself suitable for Christian reading? People seem to battle solely on the first point -- either insisting that because the book presents sinful behavior, it's inappropriate to read or (worse) softening the wrongness of the sin to justify reading it. The first reaction ignores the whole purpose of fiction and the second reaction ignores just how serious sin is.

I've read many books where the book is dead wrong or presents sin in all its sinfulness -- Lord of the Flies, Heart of Darkness, Frankenstein, Animal Farm and, yes, The Hunger Games. Do I regret it? A little, in a way, because evil is evil and it's no fun to stomach. But I don't regret reading. Neither do I begin a cult following behind it. The sin appalls me, I read the book for what it is, I learn, I think, I move on.

While a book has a definite moral setting and can be objectively good or bad, I think it's important to note the reader's role in how a book affects him. If he reads books portraying sin and immorality and death with sadistic delight, there's a good chance that something is more wrong with him than the book. It's true that a reader can become desensitized over time by guzzling down a steady diet of that stuff; but still, the reader is a person with individual bents, goals and responsibilities in his reading.

Personally, I stay away from books that glorify evil or present it as just for kicks -- horror for horror's sake, thrill for thrill's sake, evil for evil's sake. I don't avoid Twilight, for instance, just because it has vampires and sultry romance but because I don't really see how I could benefit from it. I don't like Frankenstein (read it a couple times, actually) because it has monsters and depression but because it sheds light on something I think important to understand -- the human condition.

It's entirely possible that one book could be a stumblingblock to one person and a point of illumination to another. That's why we've got to engage that second point, seriously rethinking our personal reading habits to make sure we don't delight in evil or become desensitized. Life involves sin and evil, and both living and literature brushes up against it. It takes sharp thinking and humility to be both innocent as doves and shrewd as serpents.

To read or not to read? That's a question everyone must answer himself -- and seriously think through the consequences.

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13 impressions

  1. Great post! I read the Hunger Games series last September and thought the books were really intense and thought-provoking. I can't say that I enjoyed them (won't that make me a little too similar to the Capitol?), but I am very glad that I read them. {The last one was my least favorite, by the way.} I have a strange interest in dystopian fiction. :)

    I've always been a major bookworm. I haven't read many books that I *regret* reading, but I will admit that I have read some things that I probably shouldn't have, especially when I was younger. (Like "The Green Mile" when I was about 14. Talk about profanity...good grief.) My parents always pretty much gave me free reign with my reading.

    Now, most of what I read is either Christian fiction or classics. Or children's literature. :) So I don't often have to worry about being desensitized by bad content. If it's modern fiction, I usually do research on Goodreads, and if anything stands out to me as something I don't want to read, I don't.


    P.S. I am a Harry Potter fan. Just felt like I should mention that, but I don't want to start a HP debate here. :) I read the books as adventure, good vs. evil stories (much like LOTR). I've been reading them since I was about ten. Me and my parents have always gone to see the movies together and discussed them, though they've never read the books (my mom's not much of a reader and my dad is mostly non-fiction). I have personally never felt convicted by God about reading them...I've only been criticized by other Christians for reading them. :) Everyone has different convictions, I know.

  2. "If he reads books portraying sin and immorality and death with sadistic delight, there's a good chance that something is more wrong with him than the book." Wow, you're dead on with this I think. I personally have an issue with THG, but what bothers me most is when I hear guys talk about how cool the the graphic violence is and how descriptive the author is. And to them, it isn't revolting. It's cool. yikes, guys.
    I never really thought about THG in the same category as Animal Farm...interesting thought.

  3. I've got mixed feelings about the Hunger Games. I think it's a good story, and it really does make you think. Katniss about kills me in the last one though. She's such a brat, really. Like I said, I've got mixed feelings.

    And Frankenstein didn't make much sense to me. Basically what I learned from it was don't make monsters, or they will make you suffer horribly.

  4. *Kendra - lol, I think I have the same view on books as you do. My siblings delight in hearing my (I think) obvious reasons for not reading them.

    I think we should all stick with Grimm's Fairy Tales and ignore all else. ;) But seriously, I think books are a matter of opinion, and we certainly all have the choice to ignore them or read them. Regardless of certain sisters who claim the book as irresistable (*coughs* The Importance of Being Earnest)

    Unless, of course, you are forced to read it for school. Which is why I now leave to finish that dreadful essay on how much I couldn't stand The Odyssey.

    And frankly, The Hunger Games were too long and gave me a headache - not to mention I can't stand confusing endings.

  5. The following is undiluted opinion. You have been warned. ;o)

    I read the Hunger Games over the span of a couple weeks shortly after the movie came out. Yes, it was dark. Yes, portions were rather disturbing. Yes, the ending felt somewhat hopeless. I came away with the books with one main impression, namely a disappointment with the overall lack of resolution, forgiveness, and healing.

    Some have complained that the series has few morals. In other words, "What's the point?"

    One of my friends theorizes that THG's dystopian world is a portrait of a world without Christ: despair, darkness, and misery. The utter depravity of man displays itself in full force, without the saving grace of the cross to bring hope. When I re-read parts of the books with that perspective, the rawness of pain shocked me. It is, in essence, a picture of why the world so desperately needs Christ.

    Note I'm not justifying the gruesome/gory portions of THG. But it is interesting to ponder the implications of Katniss's world-- the worldview that pervades each of the books, whether Collins intended such or not.

  6. Hi Bailey!
    Really good post- I know a lot of people who have been struggling with whether to let their kids read the Hunger Games because of it's violence and frankly disturbing elements. I read the books and watched the movie and I liked them a lot. I think it's interesting the way the author took the concept of the gladiator fights in ancient Rome and put her own futuristic twist on it.

    But I totally agree with you about being careful what you fill your mind with. And it's not just books- music can have an impact too. Growing up, I listened to nothing but Christian music. Once I started driving, I decided I was sick of that kind of music and switched almost completely to mainstream music. It was only recently that I was struck by how desensitized I have become to the dirty messages in those songs. It's a hard topic because I don't think it's right for Christians to completely shelter themselves from the world, but if we immerse ourselves in that stuff, it can go so far as to distance us from God.

    Anyway, sorry to ramble. Great post!

  7. I personally love all three books in the Hunger Games series, though I think the first is the best. I do actually enjoy reading them, not because I glory in the violence, but because I glory in the small, significant instances of nobility that come out in the midst of unbelievable pain, suffering, and, yes, evil.

    **** SPOILER ALERT ******

    To me, the books are about sacrifice, starting when Katniss volunteers in order to save her sister. I love the scene where Peetah talks about wanting to hold on to a part of himself and not allow the Hunger Games to change him. He does not want to become a pawn in the Capitol's game. I also like how Katniss says she understands, but can't afford to think that way. For Peetah, his ultimate goal was never to win, or even to survive, but rather to protect Katniss and try to keep some tiny remnant of his integrity intact. Katniss' goal was to win, but mostly because she had promised her sister it would be, and also because Katniss desperately wanted to return home to her family and loved ones.

    The theme of sacrifice continues with Peetah and Katniss' desperate plan to die rather than allow the Gamemakers to "win" and force them to kill one another and, in Catching Fire, when the older woman from Finnick's district sacrifices herself to avoid holding the others back. In the second book Katniss wanted to sacrifice herself to save Peetah, but she was not able to do that. Then, in the third book, she ultimately sacrifices her freedom and her life as an individual to become "The Mockingjay". Yes, she is frequently more than a little spoiled and petulant about this, but I think this is entirely understandable. Regarding her egotism - I think that is almost inevitable given what the situation and the people around her needed, in fact demanded, that she become. While I do not admire this or particularly enjoy reading about this aspect, I think it would be unrealistic and contrived if she did not react in this way at least somewhat.

    Just so you know my personal taste and perspective: I enjoyed the Harry Potter series, but I think Hunger Games is better. I watched the first two Twilight movies and thought they were so stupid I did not even try the books, so my husband says I do not get to have an opinion on those. ;-) Oh yes, and my 11-year-old daughter has read all the Hunger Games and Harry Potter books and the first two Twilight books without adverse effects so far as I can tell.

    Thanks for a fun and interesting topic!


  8. I really needed to read this post. It has so many great facts that, for some reason, I'd forgotten.

    Thanks a bunch!

  9. Another POV for Christians to consider is the world presented in the book: is it realistic? Not in Twilight. ; )

    Though I haven't read/seen THG, {because I have too many books on my list/parents don't approve}, I know enough to say that the movies spoil everything. Suzanne Collins is trying to warn us about desensitization--and what do we do? Make violent movies, of course. *Sigh* It's rather ridiculous how we misinterpret messages.

  10. Ah. A post about the Hunger Games. [:

    Basically, I'm torn about the books. My mom won't let me read them anyway, but I mean, I'm torn on how I feel about them personally. On one hand, I see the positive view - the violence *has* to be there to be able to show the dark, hopeless mess these people are in. But on the other hand, I see how people see the book being extremely violent to the point where reading is just feeling your mind with evil. So, I don't know.

    Although, Bailey, I'm curious to hear more of your opinion of it. Care to email me?


  11. Melody -

    Wow! Good point! I hadn't even thought of that! That's so ironic, in an unfortunate way.

    I have been debating whether or not to read the Hunger Games/watch the movie. I have heard so many conflicting opinions about them. I've been trying to make an educated decision that would be wise for me, personally, but I've just become confused! I have friends who rave about them and can't understand my desire to thoughtfully chose which books I read, and other people (especially my parents) who very much doubt that it's worthwhile entertainment.

    I think you put it very well though, Bailey, when you said:

    "While a book has a definite moral setting and can be objectively good or bad, I think it's important to note the reader's role in how a book affects him."

    I agree. But I'm still trying to answer the question. To read or not to read?! ;-)

  12. "I know enough to say that the movies spoil everything. Suzanne Collins is trying to warn us about desensitization--and what do we do? Make violent movies, of course"

    Because the BOOKS were violent. What were they supposed to do, cut the violence out? Warn us about disensitizing, my foot; how come then she had some of the "good" characters completely ignore and disrespect the privacy and dignity of those children, stripping them bare and treating them like chickens to be sent to sacrifice? Ugh. That makes me furious, as you can tell. I despise much of the stuff in those books.

  13. Alexxus, I'll just say that there asre many better books out there to describe the bad stuff about violence; "Scorpions", "Brothers in Arms", the film "Save the Last Dance".


Hit me with your best thought! I'm very interested in your unique perspective. If you'd like to discuss things in private, feel free to email me! :)