To Read or Not to Read5:29 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.