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.