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?