“Good Books”

February 29, 2004 | 13 comments
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How are we to understand the injunction to “study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people”? More to the point, how do we choose the books we will or will not read? This post was inspired by The Da Vinci Code, which I have been reading with my wife. One of my vices is that I love a well-written mystery. While this book has occasional moments of suspense, Dan Brown is a clumsy writer who makes the story as tedious as it is implausible. But I am not here to do a book review. Instead, reading this book has prompted some thoughts about the nature of “good books.”

If you are not familiar with The Da Vinci Code, it describes a search for the Holy Grail. Here is a squib about the book from Publisher’s Weekly:

The action kicks off in modern-day Paris with the murder of the Louvre’s chief curator, whose body is found laid out in symbolic repose at the foot of the Mona Lisa. Seizing control of the case are Sophie Neveu, a lovely French police cryptologist, and Harvard symbol expert Robert Langdon, reprising his role from Brown’s last book. The two find several puzzling codes at the murder scene, all of which form a treasure map to the fabled Holy Grail. As their search moves from France to England, Neveu and Langdon are confounded by two mysterious groups–the legendary Priory of Sion, a nearly 1,000-year-old secret society whose members have included Botticelli and Isaac Newton, and the conservative Catholic organization Opus Dei. Both have their own reasons for wanting to ensure that the Grail isn’t found.

Throughout the book, Brown sprinkles bits and pieces of supposed historical facts, and I find myself wondering how much of what I am reading is “true.” Does it matter? Is this all harmless drivel? Or do false ideas have a corrupting effect on our souls? Somewhere in my education, I was taught to cast a wide net in search of truth, but the admonition to “become acquainted with all good books” must imply a charge to avoid “bad” books. That is, if truth elevates, surely lies degrade.

The problem here is obvious: sorting good from bad is terribly hard to do. Not only do we not have an official list of good books, but the standards for selecting good books are opaque. Moroni 7:16 offers this test: “every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God.” Doesn’t this standard imply that our search for good requires that we expose ourselves to evil? Also, when was the last time that you found a book that was thoroughly evil? When I look for God, I find him. As observed by Alma, “All things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.” (Alma 30:44) Suffice it to say that the quest for “good books” admits of value in works that fall short of being the “word of God.”

Which leaves me somewhat up in the air. What are these “good books” and how do I find them?

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13 Responses to “Good Books”

  1. Clark Goble on February 29, 2004 at 4:01 am

    “A book must be an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us.”
    — Franz Kafka

  2. Renee on February 29, 2004 at 9:28 am

    One problem I see is that books have no rating (or disclosure) system. TV, movies, even video games have ratings that can help guide you beyond the description. But I can’t open a book cover and and see a box saying “This book contains: rape, violence, mild peril” etc.

    I lamented this last month (http://midwestbloggin.blogspot.com/2004_01_01_midwestbloggin_archive.html#107331647654045132), after picking up a book called “Why girls are weird” which had an appealing description on the back cover.

    The first 10 pages were strewn with profanity, ridiculous sexual talk, and even discussion of a child pretending her Osmond dolls were having incestous sex. I’m not prude but what person in their right mind even puts child and sex in the same sentence? Totally sick. But where was my warning? I see some rated R movies but not until I know why they are rated R to determine if they are worth my time/money.

  3. Logan on February 29, 2004 at 11:28 am

    It probably won’t surprise people for me to admit to being fairly “liberal” on this issue. I love hearing ideas of all kinds, and sometimes I’m sure I’m exposed to “false” ones. The adventure is to figure out which ones those are. I’m taking a political theory class taught by a self-described “radical feminist” and “marxist.” I love it. I find it exhilarating to hear ideas that differ from mine. “Capitalism” is even something I practically have a *testimony* of, but it’s quite a rush to have those ideas challenged so that I have to defend and/or alter my conception of what I believe.

    To some degree my testimony of the gospel is very similar. My conception of what it means for “the church to be true” has changed and evolved over time as I’ve matured and had more spiritual experience, and I expect it to continue to do so. In that light, potentially “false” ideas don’t really scare me too much.

    Of course, it’s something to be careful of. But as far as seeking out “good” books, I think that sort of naturally happens as we learn for ourselves what we enjoy and what rings “true” and “good” for us. As that happens, we spiritually “outgrow” other things.

  4. lyle on February 29, 2004 at 4:30 pm

    Renee:

    That is a fabulous idea. Would you like to start such a rating system? that would be great! :)

  5. brayden on February 29, 2004 at 6:44 pm

    I love to read! My problem is that I just don’t have enough time to do all the reading I’d like. Given those time constraints, I have to rely on word-of-mouth a lot to find “good” books so that I don’t waste my time on the “bad” ones. The nice thing about reading is that once you find a good book, it puts you in contact with a host of other books that will likely be “good.” Read reviews, talk with trusted friends about books, and then find something that interests you – this is what I tell to students when counseling them about personal education.

    Last spring I read Megnad Desai’s Marx’s Revenge, a wonderful synopsis of classical Marxism and its intellectual offspring. This book peaked my interest in other economic issues, and I started doing a lot of reading in political economy (Schumpeter, Polanyi, Keynes, etc.). I loved all of it and didn’t feel like I’d wasted time in my explorations. The question remains – was this reading “good” in the sense advocated by Moroni?

    I believe it was. Now, reading books about political economy didn’t necessarily strengthen my testimony of Christ nor did it help solidify my understanding of the gospel, but it did help me to gain useful knowledge and to develop a greater understanding of worldly philosophies of economics.

    Intellectual growth, I believe, is one of the accomplishments of this life. We’ll take our knowledge and theories with us to the next world where we can use them in a more perfect way to fulfill eternal goals. So, in that sense, it is “good” for us to sharpen our intellect and increase our knowledge of anything and everything. We should all be Renaissance humans, although we will more than likely know much more about some bodies of knowledge than others.

    I’d be interested in hearing how other people combine worldly education with their spiritual education.

  6. Nate Oman on March 1, 2004 at 11:37 am

    Gordon: I also love to read. However, I find that I have little time to do so. I have a job. (In which I read all day, but that is a different kind of reading.) I have a wife. I have a toddler. I also have academic ambitions, which means that my “spare” reading time tends to be taken up with law review articles. I love reading legal scholarship, but I find that it tends to make me into a bit of grind. I start finding myself very boring with nothing but legal theory running around my head. So I self-consciously try to read things that are unrelated to work or research projects. But I don’t get time to do much of this. I find that I have a hard time reading fiction. (I do listen to fiction in the form of books on tape while driving in the car. Does that count as reading? I am listening to A.B. Byant’s _Posession_ right now and very much enjoying it.) Lately I have been reading Simon Schama’s _Citizens_, which is a fabulous history of the French Revolution. (Other good recent reads: Hernando De Soto, _The Mystery of Capital_, Leo Lyman, _Political Deliverance_, Gerald Gunther, _Learned Hand_). I find that I tend to structure my personal reading around “research agendas” in spite of myself. Rather than looking for particular books, I tend to latch on to subjects and then read my way through several books related to the subject. Things that I have looked at recently (in the last last year) include: history of Christian theology, Islamic law, the Civil War, contemporary Anglo-America political philosophy, the Deseret period of Mormon history, the history of British India. I very seldom feel as though I have wasted time reading books.

    I find, however, that I am interested in far too many things, which means that in the end I never spend enough time on any one thing to really learn anything. On the other hand, when I hunker down and focus in on something that I feel like I should specialize in, I find that I get intellectually stale. Hence my compulsive dillettantism.

  7. Kaimi on March 1, 2004 at 12:11 pm

    In New York, there are always people selling books. I buy books that I’ve heard about whenever I have a chance, and I often eventually get around to reading them. I often take books on the subway, or for plane flights.

    My most recent reads of that sort include C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 100 Years of Solitude. Before that it was Washington Square. Before that Nathaniel West. And so forth. I’m aware of the (many) gaps in my reading, and I’m slowly filling them up.

    I’ve also started reading many of the books on our Essential Texts thread. I splurged and bought several of them on Amazon. I finished Mormon Enigma and am working on Jopesph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism; my wife has long-term-borrowed/stolen my Compton, Plural Wives, and I plan to eventually get to Quinn, though that one looks pretty daunting.

  8. Melissa on March 1, 2004 at 1:51 pm

    I recently read The DaVinci Code myself. As a mystery novel it is only mediocre. However, as a bestseller, it is an interesting peek into what the nation is reading and thinking about female religion and spirituality. As a “dillettantish” sociologist, I find that being aware of what the rest of America (i.e. those who aren’t reading theory of religion) is reading is instructive. I was quite surprised when it appeared along with _The Red Tent_ and _The Secret Life of Bees_ on a syllabus this semester.

    Nate, A.S. Byatt’s (not A.B. Byant’s) Possession is one of my favorite books written in the last 15 years. The poetic language is delicious. Enjoy!

  9. Greg Call on March 1, 2004 at 1:56 pm

    For the last couple of years, I have settled into a groove where I read fiction, then a Mormon Studies or philosophical or theological book, then non-fiction/biography. For example, my last cycle was Nabokov’s _Lolita_, Givens’s _By the Hand of Mormon_, then _Moneyball_ (a fun book about baseball). Before that, it was Jonathan Lethem’s _Fortress of Solitude_, the Jim Faulconer-edited collection _Transcendence in Philosophy and Religion_, and Ellis’s _Founding Brothers_. I’ve found that this system prevents me from getting either bored or obsessed. As for finding books, I like the Modern Library lists for fiction and nonfiction (http://www.randomhouse.com/modernlibrary/100bestnonfiction.html http://www.randomhouse.com/modernlibrary/100bestnovels.html ) For Mormon Studies, I plan on checking out some of the suggestions in our Essential Texts threads.

  10. Kaimi on March 1, 2004 at 2:40 pm

    Greg,

    That novels list is great. The best part is that it is placed beside their “readers list,” (apparently based on some sort of reader vote), and the differences are striking. Three L. Ron Hubbards and 4 Ayn Rands in the top-10 of the readers list – yikes!

  11. William Morris on March 1, 2004 at 3:45 pm

    I am also a compulsive dilettante. I follow a similar pattern to Greg, although my rotation is speculative fiction, literary fiction, non-fiction (usually literary theory/history, history or cultural studies), and Mormon fiction.

    I don’t know that I can make a broad ‘good books’ judgement, other than to say that I would encourage omnivorous reading habits, but I do want to throw down my favorite books of the past year’s reading:

    The Necessary Nation by Gregory Jusdanis (exactly what the title suggests — a defense of the nation as a political and economic entity with an emphasis on taking on critiques of the nation by not only political scientists and sociologists but also cultural studies scholars).

    Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King — I haven’t read his horror novels, but King’s Dark Tower series is, imo, one of the great works of American literature

    The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgramige by Paul Elie — Literary biography/history with some literary criticism about the four mid-20th century American Catholic writers Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy — wonderfully written — Elie does an amazing job of linking not only the lives and works of these four authors to each other [they all had some correspondence with each other but weren’t like best friends] but also to cultural and historical events/trends during the time they were writing

    The Chosen by Chaim Potok — one of those books that it seems everyone with an interest in Mormon literature has read and references — which is perhaps why I put off reading it — I was surprised to discover that it lived up to the hype

    Letters on Cezanne by Ranier Maria Rilke — read as a result of reading The Chosen — a lovely, intense piece of creative art criticism

    A Country Doctor by Kafka — okay so I’ve read this story many times before, but I read it again more intensely recently in preparation of attempting a new translation of it — it remains my favorite Kafka piece and, I think, on of the most powerful pieces of fiction ever

  12. Nate Oman on March 1, 2004 at 4:10 pm

    I find that I love books of essays or articles because they facilitate my pin-ball reading habits. I can read a couple of the essays, and then put down the book guilt free without finishing it. For example, I recently got Dworkin’s _A Matter of Principle_ and read three of the essays before putting the book down, which was nice. Dworkin is interesting, but I find it difficult to take him in large chunks. (Reading _Law’s Empire_ had a certain endurance run aspect to it for me, even though it is not a particularlly long book).

  13. Clark Goble on March 1, 2004 at 4:42 pm

    I’ve not read the Da Vinci code, but I have read other books by Dan Brown. He definitely isn’t a good writer even if he comes up with interesting plots. He’s better than Robin Cook, but that’s probably the best complement I can give. (Reading Robin Cook is painful. It is written by someone with no appreciation of the English language – even if he comes up with intriguing plots.)

    I don’t read much fiction since I graduated. Umberto Eco’s first two books are among my favorites. Foucalt’s Pendulum is similar in certain ways to Da Vinci code but is *very* well written. (If perhaps, assuming some familiarity with history that many don’t have) His Name of the Rose is also an extremely good book. They both function on numerous levels. They are, I suppose, philosophical mystery books. His other fiction books aren’t that good and I can’t recommend them.

    Somewhat in the same vein as Eco, Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas is also a must read. (Ignore the poor film by Polanski of the book – it excludes half the story and misses the entire point of the novel)

    I’ve always had a soft spot for Kafka’s shorter stories as well.