Mormon LitCrit: Why It’s Worth Reading “Hard” Subjects

Several years ago, I was a member of a pretty remarkable ward book club. We read a variety of titles, not limiting ourselves to just national titles, just genre fiction, just LDS fiction, or even to just fiction. We had some great discussions (and great treats). We read classics and new releases, self-help books and everything in between.

But we had one member who struggled. It seemed that no matter what book we picked to read, she didn’t have much to offer by way of discussion. The more emotionally intense a book was, the less she liked it. During the meeting after reading Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, she revealed what was bothering her: she didn’t like to read anything that discussed issues that were upsetting. Kidd’s book was about one of her two hardest topics. At the top of her list: Civil Rights and the Holocaust.

As someone who grew up breathing books and seeing stories as a way of life, I sat there in stunned silence, not sure what on earth to say. She hadn’t finished the book; she couldn’t. She out and out refused to read about difficult times of our past.

The obvious question resounded in my head: WHY?

I suppose to her, reading (and, I suppose, fiction reading in particular) should always be an escape. She liked happy, cute stories. I suppose the woes of Cinderella were about as deep as she was willing to go.

(What she was doing in a book club, I still don’t know. Did she think we’d spent our time reading nothing but fairy tales?)

I left with a lot to think about. The idea that she wouldn’t read about those two very big topics bothered me. A lot. My AP US History teacher’s lectures returned to mind as she hammered home the famous concept that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. This woman was intentionally allowing herself to move forward into the future blindly. She didn’t want to know where she’d come from, where her country and world had been.

The more I’ve pondered this woman and her stance, the more I pity her. Not only is she missing out on learning about history, but she’s missing out on so much more, because fiction isn’t just bedtime stories.

I will never live through World War II or try to survive a concentration camp, but thanks to books like Man’s Search for Meaning, The Hiding Place, and Traitor, I have an inkling of what that might have been like.

I’ll never personally experience racial prejudice, but reading Black Like Me, Margaret Young and Darius Gray’s Standing on the Promises series, and, yes, The Secret Life of Bees, among many other works have given me a glimpse.

Not every book has a big lesson to teach, and I still contend that the best books don’t set out to preach one. That said, every book is written by someone else: an obvious statement at first, sure, but it has deep implications.

Every book is written by a person who sees and experiences the world differently than I do. Even if our lives are somewhat similar (the author is female and LDS, like I am), our lives and ways of seeing the world still aren’t identical. I can learn from how others see things, gain new perspectives.

Books allow me to experience new things vicariously, whether it’s being a CIA agent, an Aes Sedai, a young boy chosen to save the world, the daughter of a preacher in Africa, or thousands of other things, some more mundane than others, but all experiences I could never have living my own simple life.

By reading books with different beliefs, I can ponder and solidify what I think and believe.

Books help me to be a more compassionate and less judgmental person as I learn through stories that things aren’t always what they seem and that everyone has trials, whether or not they’re visible to the outside world.

And yes, books have the potential to bring me closer to God. I contend that God does care about literature, that it’s one of His tools–and not just His own parables–that help us mortals experience and learn more in our short lifetimes than we possibly could otherwise.

Writing books has had a similar impact on me. I learn life lessons from my characters. On some level, I “experience” what they’re going through.

I sincerely believe that I become a better person as a result of both reading and writing. My rough edges get smoothed out just a bit as I gain wisdom and understanding from the written word. From stories. Novels. Fiction.

My children are getting older now, leaving behind well-loved copies of Captain Underpants and Dear Dumb Diary in favor of more mature, complex works. I have every intention of guiding them toward “hard” topics, including the Civil Rights Movement and the Holocaust. I plan to talking about those books and the things inside them with my kids. (I’m guessing I’ll learn as much from my children’s insights as I will from reading on my own.)

I know I’ve already messed up royally in a lot of parenting areas, but this one? I think I’m going to do okay.

If the end result is raising adult children with compassion, understanding, and a wider world view, I’ll consider at least part of my parenthood a success.

Let’s hear it for the “hard” stuff.

NOTE Tuesday, May 25th is the registration deadline for the 2nd annual Teen Writer’s Conference, held at Weber State University. It’ll be on Saturday, June 5th and will feature Janette Rallison, Dan Wells, and many others (including yours truly). Open only to teens, the conference costs $43 with lunch or $35 without. Teen are encouraged to enter the writing contest. For full information, visit THE Teen Writers Conference web site.

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51 Responses to Mormon LitCrit: Why It’s Worth Reading “Hard” Subjects

  1. Stories can help build imagination and empathy. Imagination and empathy are what make Jesus’ "two great commandments" concept work. I think you’re on very solid ground with your argument here.

    I also believe that confronting painful history is one way to fulfill the commandment to have a "broken heart and a contrite spirit." It’s not always easy–for sure–but I believe there are great blessings for those who learn to face the past in a way that it humble and vulnerable.

    But that’s another discussion for another day…

  2. Moriah Jovan says:

    I’ll admit I’ve put down books that were difficult for me to bear, but always with the caveat that I can pick it up later when I’m more able to bear it.

  3. Aubrey Mace says:

    Great post, Annette. I’m not opposed to an easy, marshmallow read every now and then, but I’ve discovered that it’s the "hard" stuff that really teaches me about myself and helps me to grow as a writer and, on a more basic level, as a human.

  4. Katya says:

    Well, I guess I have to be the one who stands up for fairy tales, here. I’m in the middle of reading a book of 20th century poetry based on Grimm’s fairy tales and I have to say, anyone who thinks all fairy tales are light and fluffy doesn’t know the history and breadth of the genre.

  5. Th. says:

    .

    I’ll give Katya an amen there but at the same time I want to throw out a bigger amen to the general concept of reading hard things (one) and the broad value of fiction generally (two).

  6. Annette Lyon says:

    Oh, I’m with you, Katya–I can’t always read heavy stuff, and like Aubrey said, sometimes it’s time for a marshmallow book. (For that matter, I recently WROTE a fairy tale–I’m not against them at all.) My beef is with people who turn a blind eye to everything else and refuse to read anything BUT the marshmallows when there’s an entire feast out there ready to be devoured, experienced, and digested.

  7. L.T. Elliot says:

    Amen and amen. On nearly everything you said. I often think about that phrase about history and it’s one of the biggest reasons why I try to keep my mind open.

  8. Moriah Jovan says:

    [b]My beef is with people who turn a blind eye to everything else and refuse to read anything BUT the marshmallows when there’s an entire feast out there ready to be devoured, experienced, and digested.[/b]

    Well, yeah, but… So what?

  9. Annette Lyon says:

    Oh, Moriah, you do like to pick a fight. :) Reread the post. THAT’S the so what. People who refuse to read anything but light stuff miss out on a lot–and that includes learning compassion, opening a wider world view, and so much more.

  10. Melinda W. says:

    I like fluffy stuff too, but that’s my own personal consumption. In a book club, I like reading about harder topics because the discussions are more interesting, and you get to know the other people in the book club better by finding out their opinions on those difficult topics.

    I would wonder why she was in a book club at all, but I bet I could tell you. She was in it for a night out with the girls. I was in a book club with a couple ladies who would come to the club, and announce they hadn’t finished the book so no one should give away any spoilers. That meant we couldn’t talk about the book. It made for a nice evening chatting with some friends, but it isn’t actually a book club if you can’t talk about the book.

    I can understand wanting to avoid certain topics in books, though. I’ve read several novels about WWII, but others I avoid as being too graphic. There are other books on hard topics I haven’t finished (The Lovely Bones). I’ve got some limits. If/when those books came up in a book club, I would simply skip that month, but not complain that people shouldn’t suggest we read books on hard topics.

  11. Mel says:

    I so agree that this is an important discussion to have. I loved something that a woman I know recently shared: A Rabbi friend of theirs said, "The most important words in any language are first, ‘remember,’ and second, ‘thank you.’ Remember your promises, remember what you have been taught, remember the price that has been paid so that it won’t have to be paid again."

    Maybe only through the first (remembering) are we able to truly do the second (say thank you)–and really know what we mean.

    As a general rule, I prefer to avoid "disturbing" things, too–like criminally pathological acts and occultism. But these things exist in vital history–the Holocaust was built on them, and the bible is loaded with disturbing things. The key difference is valuing the knowledge because it can make us wise against it (i.e., a parent’s voluntary ignorance of the atrocities that can be perpetrated on children by disturbed adults [an unquestionably ugly thing] makes children all the more vulnerable).

    The difference is the intent and purpose when we study and contemplate "hard things." Base and evil things should never be entertainment, but they should be respected as important and vital information–like knowing where the open trenches are, so we can avoid them.

  12. Moriah Jovan says:

    *sigh* Annette, I’m not picking a fight. You haven’t seen me pick a fight yet.

    I read the post. I understood and agreed with the post, and yeah, I have to admit that I sometimes have difficulty with reading emotionally "hard" things. I’m good with that.

    What I’m asking is why everybody should think/read like you do. Yeah, they miss out on a lot. And?

    Is it possible she had enough drama and hardship in her life that she didn’t need to wallow in it via fiction? Maybe she’s thought about it enough that she doesn’t need to think about it any more. Maybe she’s clinically depressed. Maybe she’s got some skeleton buried in her closet. Maybe, just maybe, she’s tired and wants to read to escape somewhere where it’s not all angsty and stuff. Maybe she’s ashamed that human beings can be so ugly and evil.

    You said:

    [b]As someone who grew up breathing books and seeing stories as a way of life, I sat there in stunned silence, not sure what on earth to say. She hadn’t finished the book; she couldn’t. She out and out refused to read about difficult times of our past.

    The obvious question resounded in my head: WHY? [/b]

    Did you ASK her?

    ***

    Believe it or not, I don’t come here to pick fights. I don’t have time.

    So now I’m gonna say something I’ve had on my mind for a while and then I think I’m gonna make myself scarce because I don’t fit here. It’s been uncomfortable for all of us.

    AML appears to be a solid group of people, and when I say solid, I mean IMPERMEABLE. I don’t see that debate (or at least, my style of debate, which is plain speaking because I don’t have time to add a whole bunch of words) is encouraged.

    A couple of regular posters write with tones of "this is my worldview and I can’t believe you have a different one–here, let me explain to you how wrong you are." There is a rigidness in the opinions expressed that doesn’t leave any room for other points of view, even if they’re not mine.

    It’s entirely possible that I’m the only one sensitive to this, and it’s probable that my tone (which is completely foreign here) gets people’s backs up. I accept the responsibility for that. I’m sure I come across the same way because my worldview is 180 degrees different from most posters and commenters on this blog.

    But since I’m not going to change, and it’s going to continue to be me "picking fights," I’ll just slip out the back door, and we can all breathe a little easier.

  13. Th. says:

    .

    Don’t go, Moriah.

  14. Tyler says:

    Annette:

    Interesting post. I’m with you on the virtues of reading hard subjects—of engaging narratives (fiction or non-fiction) that may be culturally/personally hard to bear. I find that in doing this, I’m able to follow (somewhat) the example of Christ who didn’t shrink from confronting things that were harder to bear than I can imagine. And I walk away from the experience (I hope) possessing a greater measure of compassion such that, ideally, I can reach out to those around me with increased understanding. On my best days, such reading helps me to be less judgmental of and more patient with others.

    But such a perspective on reading doesn’t come all at once. It’s learned through the process of continued engagement with progressively difficult stories. And not everyone is up—for whatever reasons—to taking that process on. For those of us who have spent a lifetime immersed in books and who are motivated to delve deeply into every aspect of human experience as represented in narrative art, whether because of a desire to write stories of depth and lasting value or as a matter of academic training as literary critics or as a matter of increasing personal faith and experience or any number of other reasons, this kind of reading comes as second nature. Not everyone sees reading that way, however, or even wants to see reading that way.

    And I think that’s what Moriah is getting at: as readers who are committed to this kind of reading (as a means of developing compassion and gaining experience), it’s not our place to pity those who see stories differently than we do, but to withhold our judgments of them as we try to understand their position. If I invest hours to understand the characters in my most cherished books in the name of exercising compassion, then turn around and rush to judgment, say, on someone who has doesn’t find the same merit as I do in engaging difficult stories, I’m convinced the hours I’ve spent reading and pondering narratives and considering the power of language have been wasted.

    Hence Moriah’s wonder (I think, but correct me if I’m wrong, MoJo) over whether you tried to understand the reasons this sister didn’t want to read about such difficult topics as the Holocaust and human rights.

    And, as a (loosely related) corollary, hence Katya’s defense of the fairy tale as a genre: like each human, most narrative genres are based in histories and degrees of complexity that we miss if we gloss over them based on preconceived notions (as the Disneyfied take that fairy tales are and should be all warm fuzzies). Rather, as Katya points out, many—if not most—original fairy tales are dark stories devoid of the happy endings we’ve grown accustomed to. As such, they’re not mere means of literary escapism. These original tales are complex narrative reflections of all aspects of human experience that serve specific narrative purposes and are therefore deserving of more nuanced readings than wee may be willing to give them.

  15. Let’s look on the bright side: if this woman hadn’t "revealed what was bothering her" (though I sit here in stunned silence wondering how on earth the "revelation" in question justifies the "suppositions" that follow), you couldn’t write a terrifically condescending post touting how superior your own literary tastes are in comparison to hers!

  16. Annette Lyon says:

    Oh, Eugene, how you misread me. I’ll try to assume that you know what I meant and are just playing devil’s advocate, but considering the words you used, that’s difficult.

    I’m glad most of the other commenters understood where I’m coming from–and how some even mentioned that Christ himself deliberately dealt with hard topics.

    I personally feel that I can become a better person by reading a variety of things and immersing myself in other people’s lives. Perhaps I could have gotten that across in a better way.

    But condesending, touting, and superior? I don’t know where you got those words from, but they certainly don’t apply to my position or my intent.

    Moriah, Please do stay. Debate is one thing–something you do well. Personal attacks (which you [i]don’t[/i] do) are something else entirely, and I don’t believe they belong here.

  17. Th. says:

    .

    I have a feeling we’re talking past each other a lot of the time. For example, Katya was talking about the hardness of fairy tales (and they can be extremely hard as any readers of old undisneyfied tales can tell you) but was understood to be in favor of pretty-pretty princesses. Not all hard things are Civil Rights and the Holocaust. Some hard things are actually very simple things — like just accepting ever-so-slight differences in opinion. And sometimes hard things don’t come in the shape of a book but, say, a blog comment.

  18. Th. says:

    .

    Oh.

    Note to everyone: Starting a comment and finishing it an hour later? Probably you should check and see if other people have commented since you started.

    My apologies for redundancies, obnoxion, etc.

  19. Annette, although you can apparently read this woman’s mind, I can’t read yours and you can’t read mine. I only have your words to go by.

    If your words–"the more I pity her"; "She liked happy, cute stories"; "Did she think we’d spent our time reading nothing but fairy tales?"; "fiction isn’t just bedtime stories"; "I suppose the woes of Cinderella were about as deep as she was willing to go"; "[she] was intentionally allowing herself to move forward into the future blindly"–don’t communicate your intent, then you need to learn to write better.

    You do have snobby snark down pat, I’ll grant you that.

    The title of the post, that "hard subjects" are [i]ipso facto[/i] "worth reading," itself drips with sanctimony, especially when couched in "us" (wise and enlightened) versus "them" (pitifully prole) terms. If you don’t want people to conclude that you are favorably comparing and contrasting yourself to others, then you shouldn’t, you know, favorably compare and contrast yourself to others.

    And by the way, the "woes of Cinderella" are pretty heavy "stuff."

  20. My inclination is to give the reader who preferred light topics the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps, as Moriah suggested, she has enough pain in her life and doesn’t need more in books. It may be that she isn’t cutting herself off from a chance to learn compassion, but instead feels such sharp compassion and empathy for those hurt by such things as racism and the Holocaust that she can’t bear to read about it because it’s too painful.

    I once started reading a fictional series on the Holocaust. It was superbly written, but partway through the series, I quit. It was just too real, too painful.

    As I’ve said before, I’m grateful for the wide variety of books available for the wide variety of tastes.

  21. Th. says:

    .

    I feel the need to throw out a mea culpa right here.

    I’ve been guilty of impatience with people who won’t read the hard things but, as has been pointed out, that’s just one more example of me unfairly judging people. I keep finding new ones all the time. Maybe someday I will have found and rooted out them all.

  22. Tyler says:

    I’m with you, Th. On my best days I try not to be judgmental. But on my worst days, I fail miserably.

  23. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    I’d like to add to all of this that the people who post here, as well as the people who comment here, are not necessarily AML, and therefore can not be judged "to be a solid group of people, and when I say solid, I mean IMPERMEABLE. I don’t see that debate (or at least, my style of debate, which is plain speaking because I don’t have time to add a whole bunch of words) is encouraged."

    They are all individuals, each bringing their own "baggage" to the discussion, and as such should really be given the benefit of the doubt instead of accused of being monolithic or snarky or judgemental themselves.

    The AML blog is called that because it is sponsored by AML, and the people who post here have been invited to share their own thoughts and experiences relative to the subject of "literature by, for, and about Mormons."

    If there is any "solid" group that calls itself AML, I have yet to meet it, and I’ve been serving on the AML board for over 10 years. The intent and purpose here is to provide webspace for a discussion.

    If you have something to add to that discussion, including your personal response to something that has been said, please go ahead and do it, but please don’t do it in an accusatory way.

    Please remember that it’s each person’s experience and opinion?

    Thank you.

  24. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    On topic comment: I belong to three reading groups (two are general and one is science fiction and fantasy), and recently read Kathryn Stockett’s THE HELP (civil rights) for one of the general ones. It was very well written, so well written that I had to put it down a lot. Why? Because I cared so much about the characters, and I knew what terrible things could happen to them if certain people found out what they were doing. It was hard for me to read the story because of my anticipations and fears for the characters.

    We have also read several Holocaust novels lately (THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak a while ago, SARAH’S KEY by Tatiana de Rosnay most recently, and YOUR NAME IS RENEE by Stacy Cretzmeyer and Beate Klarsfeld next in line). Not to mention LEFT TO TELL by Immaculee Ilibagiza about the Rwandan Holocaust of April 1994, and STOLEN LIVES by Malika Oufkir about a family spending twenty years in a prison in Morocco for political reasons.

    There’s a lot of "hard" stuff out there, and not all of it is hard because it’s painful. Some of it is hard because there’s just more than someone can read in a month’s time (such as TEAM OF RIVALS by Doris Kearns Goodwin and JOHN ADAMS and 1776 by David McCullough).

    But I agree with those who say that reading challenging work not only gives us insight into lives that we’d never experience in any other way, reading challenging work also helps us to grow–possibly even makes us better, stronger, more empathetic people because we have "lived" through challenging things with the people in those books.

    I also agree that some people may have enough challenges in their lives that they don’t need to read about them in books.

    In the two general reading groups I belong to, the group members take turns selecting the books, so not every book is "hard" and challenging, because not everyone in the group picks such books.

    For all three of my reading groups, the groups provide a reason for people to get together with friends, not just to talk about the book (though in one of the groups there is someone who tries to "keep us in line" and focussed on the book), but to socialize and share things from our lives–experience as much of each others’ challenges as we are willing to share.

    We had a panel discussion a few years ago at the AML annual meeting (the one we held at the main branch of the Salt Lake City Library) in which reading groups were discussed, and one of the points discussed was how to formalize a reading group so that everyone knows what to expect and agrees with how the group is conducted. Maybe such a topic would be a good thing to discuss at every reading group, just so everyone is on (so to speak) "the same page."

  25. Angela H. says:

    Why is Annette getting beat up for saying what so many people think?

    I’ll echo Annette here: I think people who choose to never read "hard things" are missing out. Good literature teaches us, helps us develop empathy, expands our minds. Yes, people might have good reasons for only reading escapist fiction, or fiction that never makes one uncomfortable. But in much the same way as some people are physically unable to exercise due to injury, it doesn’t change the fact that exercising is good for you, and that those who engage in it will reap increased physical benefits over those who don’t.

    Those who read the kinds of literature that Annette describes receive tangible benefits that those who spend their lives avoiding it will not receive.

    But, heck, at least people who are reading fluff are READING. They’re better off than people who don’t read at all, ever . . . which is most of our population anyway. And I’m not against fluff as a fun pastime in its own right, either (and neither is Annette!). It’s the idea that fluff–to the exclusion of all else–is somehow more righteous and laudable than allowing oneself to read books like The Kite Runner.

    I suppose I’ve spent too much time in the classroom, trying to convince high school students to read To Kill a Mockingbird or Lord of the Flies or college students to read a short story about death and loss. The resistance Annette describes is very real, and it’s a worthy subject do discuss.

  26. Th. says:

    .

    We’re talking about a balanced diet, yes? I just read The Autobiography of Malcolm X which was certainly hard and challenged my thinking and assumptions on every page. I’ve also recently read a simply fun space opera. Honestly, if anything, I think I need to add more of the latter to my diet.

  27. JMorgan says:

    I wish someone would have asked the woman why she was reluctant to read the hard stuff. As others have said, maybe she had so much pain in her life she couldn’t bear to read more. I think the crux of the issue is that the author states that she "pitied" the other woman because of her unwillingness to read and makes a lot of suppositions about her and her reading tastes without actually [i]knowing[/i] the reasons why. That’s what makes it sound snobby and superior. The author assumes, supposes, and makes judgments about the other woman while touting her own reading prowess and experiences. An interesting topic, however, the article seems to mostly highlight a sad commentary of our own inabilities to help and befriend and truly get to know those around us without judging them.

  28. As someone who heads up a book club, I can understand Annette’s frustration. When we first started up, we had 14 attendees, all eager to read and explore many genres. We opened the meeting discussing the genres we loved and how stories teach and open our minds and our small world. We talked about books that had touched us and started to compile a list of possible reads.
    Then, a woman came in late, missing our energetic discussion, took her seat, and promptly announced that she didn’t want to read stories, that she wanted to read works by the General Authorities, that if she wanted a story she would go see a movie, and how did any of us find time to read if we were studying our scriptures, reading the church magazines and our Sunday meeting lessons? She said all this without malice, with exuberance, as though we would all readily agree. The room deflated, an almost physical dampening of the spirit. I brought her up to speed on the genres we would be reading, including non-fiction doctrinal reading, and she could pick and choose if she wanted.
    She then repeated everything she had just said, more in-depth. There was a subdued discussion of the value of stories, but the woman was stuck on repeat.
    We had 6 women come the next month, including this woman. Over the next year, we dwindled down to 2 people meeting in my living room: this woman, and a rotation of several die-hards who were supporting me, willing to listen to this woman’s take on a book she did or did not deem worthy of her time, or that she didn’t read. When we read LDS non-fiction, she took pages of notes and reported on what she’d learned, sometimes taking 40 mins.
    I finally stopped, reformatted, and tried an online book club for several months. Those who really wanted to be part of a book club stayed with it, and this woman didn’t want to deal with it online. We missed meeting. I tried again. Now we meet every quarter, choosing 3 books for every 3 months. The members can pick and choose from the variety of genres, and this woman is not even participating. We have a woman who only wants to read the "fluff". She’s humble about it. I make sure to include a selection every quarter, and that’s the one she reads and joins in the discussion.

    My point is, I feel Annette’s frustration. And in the setting of a book club, being closed to the "stories" or the "hard stuff" is hard to take. Why join a book club? Its purpose is clear. If you don’t feel comfortable exploring books, start a lunch group or something that does interest you, and grow with it.

    People are different, come from different backgrounds and struggles, have different sensitivities, and they may have reasons for limiting their exposure to certain ideas (read: books). But generally speaking, seeking out the "hard stuff" and learning from it, making it part of who we are, isn’t that an echo of why we were sent to earth?

    I think Annette’s just sorting out the why’s and how’s of opposition against our divine natures as children of a god.

    For what it’s worth.

  29. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    I can just hear some people thinking, "Well, why didn’t you tell her to create her own group?" because such a question occurred to me.

    For those who haven’t been in a reading group, let me assure you that it isn’t that easy. Again, there is the get-together-with-other-women-to-talk factor, and even though the woman Krista was talking about wanted to only talk about certain books, she still probably wanted to get together with other women to talk.

    The thing is, it sounded to me as if what she REALLY wanted might have been more of a "Study Group" and not so much a "reading group" (caps and lower case intended). If there could have been people with whom she could have started her own Study Group, the problem might have been solved. But maybe that’s why she came (and seemed to be trying to take over the reading group–well, not "seemed" since she actually did in all operative ways), perhaps she hadn’t been able to find any such people.

    I think that Krista and her supporters should be commended for trying so hard to "love the unlovable" (in this case).

    Maybe we can all learn from such experiences–because if you are going to start something like a reading group or Study Group, people like the woman Krista described and like the woman Annette described will and do show up. Discussing our ideas of how to work with them as well as past experiences with them, might be one use of this blog/comment space.

    And we can hope that such a discussion can be of use in the future so that everyone who wants to participate in reading and study and whatever groups can have a good experience.

  30. Annette Lyon says:

    Thanks, Angela and Krista. I appreciate your comments more than you know.

    This entire thread is making me shake my head in confusion. In my past AML experiences, a large group tend to defend [i]only[/i] literary and deep works and pretty much thrash anything that could be considered light and fluffy–including just about all LDS fiction not published by a small press like Parables or Zarahemla.

    And now I’m being thrashed for defending what Th. called a "balanced diet" that includes deeper stuff?

    One thing I find ironic is that so many have assumed that no one asked my friend WHY or that somehow I didn’t know her or her struggles. There’s only so much room in an blog post. The facts: I DID ask why, and I’d known her as a very close friend for nearly a decade at that point. I loved her, our kids were great friends, we spent a lot of time together, and more. I knew firsthand many of her personal struggles. I didn’t look down on her as some seem to imply. I wished she’d open herself to other viewpoints, sure. I think she missed out on a lot because she refused to. But I still loved her.

    Since those weren’t the point of what I was trying to say (point = there is value in reading a wide variety of things, and we can learn from books that stretch us), I didn’t think it necessary to expand on our friendship. This is a blog post, not a long essay.

    Snobby snark was also not my point. I wrote a long response to E’s commentary on that but deleted it.

    So, when does someone else’s post go up? As "fun" as this has been, I’d love for someone else to have a turn . . . :)

  31. It seems the subject of reading is, in itself, a hard subject. Having skimmed through the comments I see a lot of confusion and hurt feelings and misunderstandings.

    What you wrote about Annette really resonates with me, but for two very conflicting reasons. I grew up reading "hard stuff", but during a particularly hard time in my life I gave it up. I was so overwhelmed by the emotion of my own life that facing it in my reading pushed me over the edge. I’ve come back to it in recent years and have found that reading the hard stuff can be emotionally cleansing, and I regret the years I spent avoiding that.

    Anyway, this was a thoroughly thought-provoking read for me and I really enjoyed mulling over the questions you brought to light. The main one I’m left asking myself is – Why do I read?

  32. Articulate post as always, Annette. xxoo

  33. charrette says:

    My husband is a filmmaker. A few years ago he showed his parents his latest feature film–one he wrote, directed and produced himself. His parents did not love it the way we expected them to. His dad simply stated "I go to the movies to be innertained." [sic] My husband’s film contained "hard things": Certainly not the holocaust, but a blended family, marital and sibling dysfunction, and a child hiding a drug addiction. At Christmas. Hard.

    My husband and I both love stories about hard things, stories that resonate deeply, stories that make us think, grow, ponder, pray. It has taken us a long time to figure out that not everyone reads (or watches movies) for the same reasons. At times when I’ve been in crisis, seeing something similar on screen has been cathartic, reading poignant passages has been healing. But that’s just me. Some need to probe; others escape.

  34. Gamila says:

    I think in regards to dealing with hard things each person has a different capacity to bear certain things. Some people have extremely tender hearts, and very compassionate souls. I personally, probably emphathize too much with the people I read about in books. I literally sobbed on my bed for ten minutes after reading All’s Quiet on the Western Front. Hard Sobbing. I was not a happy camper. I read 1-2 books a week. Really, don’t want to have a huge sob fest twice a week. Really, I don’t want to have a huge sob fest every other week! I had serious issues when I read Night.

    Really? Is it such a bad thing to avoid sadness and extra burdens in your life? In fact I think reading too many hard things can numb your reaction to them. When you read difficult, violent, and vile things your brain has to figure out a way to cope. We are human after are and you can sear your conscience into not feeling anything, or feeling very little. In fact much literature glorifies and dramatizes hard issues in a way that romanticizes traumatic experiences. Trama is not romantic. I feel it can be extremely disrespectful to turn the pain and genuine suffering of another person into entertainment.
    Not only that, but often scenes I read in books stay in my head and often pop in at the most horrible times. I remember reading Stolen Lives (mentioned in the post above) and still have horrible memories of the things that happened to that girl as she was growing up, horrible abuses, and experiences. I now have to carry that knowlege around with me, and sometime remember it anew with the same sorrow and distress. There is only so much we can all bear and only each person can be the judge of that.

    It could also be said that the savior suffered these experiences and pains for us so we didn’t have to bear them. So we don’t have to make sense of everything and emphathize with every "hard" situation life has to offer. Thankfully, he has all the experince and knowledge necessary to help other heal their souls where I fall short in that understanding and experience.

  35. Moriah Jovan says:

    Hrmf. So much for the Epic Flounce. Never did do those well.

    @Kathleen

    [b]If you have something to add to that discussion, including your personal response to something that has been said, please go ahead and do it, but please don’t do it in an accusatory way. Please remember that it’s each person’s experience and opinion?[/b]

    Ah, you know what? When a representative of the group accuses me of picking a fight right out of the gate, the group has spoken.

    Now, you and Annette may view that as an opinion or, better, a joke (because the smiley makes it All!Better!), but I saw it as a personal attack. You know, of the passive-aggressive sort.

    If you want to throw stones, that’s fine. Don’t hide behind smileys and don’t be surprised when they get thrown back.

    And why, oh why, do you come after me and not Eugene, who said exactly what I was thinking, but didn’t, in fact, say?

    @Annette

    I thought I was alone in my opinion when I posted, so I was about as shocked as you were at the turn of the thread. This tells me one thing: You didn’t communicate your point well enough.

    In fact, I still don’t know what it is.

  36. Th. says:

    .

    Speaking from the perspective of a high-school English teacher, I think her point was that many people refuse to use reading as a conduit for thinking. My bias is also in the direction of roasting those poor souls who are missing out on all this great and difficult stuff, which is why I have felt cowed by the valid pointingoutery of my snobbery that you started.

    Though honestly, I don’t read that much superhard stuff either. But neither can I abide fluff. I like my lit in the middle, I suppose. Lukewarm.

  37. Moriah Jovan says:

    @Th.

    [b]I think her point was that many people refuse to use reading as a conduit for thinking.[/b]

    Well, okay. I can grok that.

    What I can also grok is that people think in different ways and they put different values on their time. Perhaps [i]reading[/i] or the reading of emotionally difficult fiction is not the way they get it.

    Lots of people don’t think or read at all, and they’re okay with that. They’re content with whatever lot in life they have and don’t care to change or know enough that they understand change is a possibility. And…they’re okay with that. Do I pity them? No.

    The premise I’m coming from is this:

    [i][b]We can’t all function at the same level and in the same plane intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, talent-ly, and any combination thereof[/b][/i].

    We simply can’t. To pity people who occupy another level and plane, and who are happy where they are (or don’t want to change) is wasted emotion. Further, I would posit that it’s a slight infringement on their agency to pity or push or prod.

    (Not that I’m saying we should stop pitying people if we want to, because, you know, whatever.)

    [b]My[/b] point (in case I haven’t made it clear) is that expecting people to believe as I do or expecting them to share my every value or expecting them to perform to my level/satisfaction–and pity if they can’t–is indicative of a failure to connect with those people and understand what [i][b]they[/b][/i] value and how [i][b]they[/b][/i] receive their truth and understanding and emotional/intellectual growth.

    [i][b]I[/b][/i] don’t read fiction to learn empathy. I go out in the real world and listen to people. In my opinion, empathy is learned in the trenches, not in books. And it starts by figuring out what [i][b]they[/b][/i] value and why.

  38. Moriah Jovan says:

    Thought experiment:

    How many times have you re-read a book and gotten something completely different out of it each time for whatever reason? That’s a function of age and experience.

    How many times have you and a friend read the same thing and gotten completely different (but valid) points out of it?

    How many ways have the scriptures been interpreted, re-interpreted, re-re-re-re-interpreted? And that’s just your reading, not everybody else’s too.

    How many times have you read something lightly/intensely, and then re-read some time later in the opposite mood?

    How many times have you picked up something you couldn’t finish for whatever reason (it was "hard," it was above your reading level, it was boring), then picked it up later and you were then able to read it once you’d had some life experience behind you?

    Maybe, some time in the future, this woman will be able to read things that are difficult for her now. Maybe she won’t. But she’ll learn [i][b]her[/b][/i] life lessons and empathy [i][b]her[/b][/i] way.

    Because isn’t that what we’re here for? To gain experience? Take it from a chronic DIY’er: You don’t get any experience from reading. You get it by doing.

  39. A persistent problem with collective aesthetic behavior (say, a book club or a writing group or Sunday school) is the propensity to take any kind of implied or explicit criticism personally and to rally around group think in defense.

    I know the feeling well. When I recommend the [i]bestest thing ever![/i] to someone, only to hear them say, "No, it sucks," my initial reaction is always at a visceral level, along the lines of:

    1. You’re obviously a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal who doesn’t belong in the company of intelligent, civilized people (like me).

    But since those aren’t exactly "Christian" sentiments, and self-described "civilized" people tend to shrink from saying them (out loud), the typical recourse is–logic!

    2. A series of superficially Socratic (but emotion-laden) arguments (full of straw men and false dichotomies) designed to convince that person of their total wrongness on the issue (see Bernard Shaw’s introduction to [i]Saint Joan[/i]).

    Which have zero chance of actually doing so (look at what good they did Socrates). But at least doing so will convince you of your own rightness and make you feel all the more superior.

    It is one thing to say: [i]I like this; I don’t like that.[/i] Such value judgments are part and parcel of practically every choice we make. It is quite another to say: I like this and [i]you must too[/i] (to be accepted by me).

    We do say such things when matters of great moral weight are involved. But whether one prefers HEA romance (as an example) to "gritty" historical fiction (as an example) is definitely [i]not[/i] one of them.

    (BTW, I’ve noticed that the current literary snob status signifier is to sniff and declare, "I don’t read [i]fiction.[/i]")

  40. Katya says:

    [b]A persistent problem with collective aesthetic behavior (say, a book club or a writing group or Sunday school) is the propensity to take any kind of implied or explicit criticism personally and to rally around group think in defense.[/b]

    Even when I can avoid reacting defensively, I can’t help but be sad when someone rejects something I hold dear. It’s not because I pity them for being so unenlightened and it’s not because I feel personally rejected. I think it’s more along the lines of "If you don’t get this or get what it means to me, there’s a part of me you’ll never understand."

    Conversely, my closest friends and I tend to have heavily overlapping tastes in books, films, etc., not because we’re all so terribly elite, but because we’re coming from the same place, in a lot of ways.

  41. Th. says:

    .

    When I first discovered Scott Card’s writing about movies I was blown away. In critique after critique he expressed concise and intelligent observations on film — things I had felt but been unable to describe for myself.

    Then, in one post, he poured love on the first Harry Potter movie and hate on The Royal Tenenbaums and I’ve read his movie posts maybe five times since.

    That can’t speak very favorably of me.

  42. Josi says:

    I think Annette’s post can be summed up in a lamentation of the fact that not ‘stretching’ meant lack of growth opportunities that Annette herself had found essential to her personal development. I’ll admit to feeling the same way when I learn someone never has a sit down meal with their family or explores their talents because those things are ‘essential’ to me and I’m sad that they’ve missed out on the opportunity of such pursuits.

    There is a wide range of ‘intensity’ for those types of books–think Anne Frank vs. Stolen Lives–but this woman was rejecting all of them. She likely had good reasons to do so, we all have times and seasons, but her rejection of such things were a canvas for Annette’s own realization of her growth by having read hard topics. It was a powerful moment of reflection for Annette that she shared with us in order to encourage us to look for growth opportunities in addition to entertainment.

    Right now I have a 16 year old who has struggled through an Honors Language Arts class that had Lord of the Flies and Night on the reading list. Many parents objected to the books and she asked me to file a complaint as well because the heaviness is hard for her to take. I told her no. She never has to read them again (she assured me that she won’t) but she needs to explore the topics and why the teacher–whom I respect–included them to be read. The day may come when I do lodge a complaint over suggested reading, but it’s not yet. Right now, she needs to grow and these books are part of that journey.

  43. The Franchise says:

    Theric, I thoroughly loathed _The Royal Tenenbaums_. To watch was to experience the pretentious navel-gazing of the Modern Artist, a practice for which I, like Card, have very little patience. This is rooted in my belief that the objective of art is to communicate. However, it’s possible the film has value others can see while I’m distracted.

  44. Th. says:

    .

    Franch! You’re killing me! I find that movie to be funnier and more moving everytime I see it. The gloss of artificiality should not distract you from the rough-sanded reality beneath.

    But please tell me you did not also like HP1.

  45. Th. says:

    .

    Actually, if I may, the reason OSC’s love for HP1 was particularly awful had less to do with HP1 being an awful movie (though it was that) and more to do with it being a Chris Columbus movie. OSC had explained to me why I had never been able to like a Chris Columbus movie — in fact, he said that CC was one of two multifilm directors to never make a passably good film. So for OSC to then like a really lousy literary adaptation by none other than CC felt more like a betrayal than a simple difference of opinion. That he didn’t like Wes Anderson’s best movie the same day just pushed me over the edge.

  46. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Theric, maybe OSC was so surprised at how much better HP1 was than any other CC movie, that he liked it by comparison. He usually provides plenty of support for his arguments, and I figure that anyone who can support his opinion that well deserves my attention, even if I don’t agree with him.

    Where I have trouble with a discussion is where someone isn’t also willing to listen to my supports for my opinion after I have listened to theirs.

  47. Th. says:

    .

    Oh, I agree. And I recognize the unfairness in what I’ve said. really, the even bigger issue here is the size of the internet. Plenty of sites I love to frequent can get neglected for months at a time, and when I have returned to OSC’s site, I find the navigation problematic.

    For what it’s worth, his is the only Mormon Times column I read frequently. (Well, that and Today in the Bloggernacle. Because I always hope that maybe [i]this[/i] time I’ll get my second mention! One ain’t enough! It’s like a drug.)

    (I clearly have many problems.)

    I would love to know what OSC thinks of HP1 from the distance of 2010. I wonder if he still feels as he once did.

  48. J. Scott Bronson says:

    When Card reviewed HP3 I believe he said something like, "Well, now those other two weren’t so good after all as it turns out." Words to that effect. It’s late, I’m not gonna search the archives. It proves one thing, though; as we go along, we get to revise our thinking as we go. So, you can always change your mind about reading his reviews.

  49. Th. says:

    .

    I actually already have, it just hasn’t turned into action yet.

  50. Th. says:

    .

    From a Cracroft essay on Brigham Young:

    “If I had my way,” his daughter Clarissa Young Spencer recollects him saying, “I would never have a tragedy played on these boards. There is enough tragedy in every day life and we ought to have amusement when we come here” (BY at Home 160). While “tragedy is favoured by the outside world,” he grants, “I am not in favour of it.”

  51. Moriah Jovan says:

    Something occurred to me last night.

    The Holocaust was mentioned as one of this lady’s hot buttons, which I see as a perfectly reasonable hot button. (In fact, I found myself unable to read anything about it after reading [i]The Hiding Place[/i] when I was 10.)

    So my question is this: Is watching difficult movies, e.g. [i]Schindler’s List[/i], which carries an R rating, and we are exhorted not to watch movies with R ratings, analogous to reading difficult books, considering books aren’t rated?

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