When I was a little girl in elementary school, we had Library Class once a week. Our friendly children’s librarian with the warm voice would read Encyclopedia Brown stories to us, and then encourage us to choose a book and spend the last fifteen minutes of the hour reading on our own (my picks were usually the Little House on the Prairie series!) As we formed a single file line to head back to our class, the smiling librarian would hand us each a bookmark for the week. Sometimes they were decorated with kitties or horses, or space rockets and sports heroes. One week they were a laminated computer-created bookmark made by the librarian herself. I remember it went something sort of like this:
“Read. Read. Read. Read again. Read some more. Read read read. Read a lot. Read all the time. Read EVERYTHING!”
I’m not going to make this bookmark the issue. I’m sure our teacher meant well. But I will make the last statement printed above a starting point for this post.
As kids, we are greatly encouraged to read. Or at least, this should be the case! Reading opens the world up for us, and in many respects is the first step toward freedom. Johannes Gutenberg is often praised as the single most influential person of the past millennium [see this source], having founded the printing press and thereby ushered in the era of printed BOOKS! Without his invention, no one would be reading Shakespeare, or The Federalist Papers, or the King James Bible. For all of this, I am grateful.
However, the question I pose is: should one read EVERYTHING?
I’m not asking should a person physically try to read every word ever printed. I’m asking is it good and healthy for a person to read just anything?
When I was in the grade school, I was friends with a girl whom I shared a common interest with. We both loved to read. We both loved “Little House”, both read volumes of the updated versions of Childcraft, and we both diligently brought our fiction books to school everyday and read during all the spare moments we had… at lunch, at recess, study hall, on the bus, between classes… But S. didn’t just read books. She had the gift of speed-reading. She often read one or two books a day, and when we were 12 years old, she conquered Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which I distinctly remember checking had precisely 629 pages) in three days. Reading so quickly often meant she was desperate for books, any books to get her hands on. She would reread the BabySitter’s Club series a dozen times, but she began to grasp for any other reading material she had access to. Soon she began consuming her mother’s old paperback romances (you know the kind…).
Reading is a great pastime, and it’s also a way we learn things about the world, about God, and about ourselves. All things are readable (provided you can read), but not everything is read-worthy. WE ARE WHAT WE READ. Just as fluffy foods and sugary sweets, juicy fruits and healthy greens have an affect on our bodies, so what we read has an effect on our minds. Theodore Roosevelt was spot on when he said, “I am apart of everything I have read.” Whether we realize it or not, what we’re choosing to engross ourselves in matters, be it non-fiction, mysteries, romance, vintage publications, etc.
Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”
Wonderful advice for our minds! And pertaining to the issue of books, there are harmful stories we can choose to immerse ourselves in, or we can select the edifying, the noble, the healthy.
What exactly constitutes harmful reading for the soul? This is a ticklish subject and one that I will not particularly draw the line at here. For one thing, I realize that not everyone reading this will share the same values that I do. I also do not wish to become legalistic and say that “what’s bad for me is bad for you.” I think if the Spirit of God is residing in you, He can be excellent guide as to what are edifying reads. I know sometimes when I pick up a book and get a certain amount of the way through it, I begin to find that something doesn’t sit right inside. I may feel uncomfortable, even if I happen to enjoy the book. I believe there is a reason for that, being that the Lord is gently nudging me that this may not be the most profitable for me.
Or maybe the book turns out to not be what I expected it to be. I recently began a book that I thought would be a suspenseful story. I really didn’t know anything about the author, but by Chapter 2 I knew that I was uncomfortable with his worldview. Not all of the books I read are written by authors who share my same values, and I don’t think we have to be narrow-mindedly bound by selecting say, only “Christian” books. But for this particular story, I didn’t feel up to committing myself for the long-haul to a main character who nonchalantly accepted prostitution and sleeping around as a matter of course.
We live in the real world. Ugly things happen. Good writers won’t deny this, and some of the best classics in the literary world deal with hard questions in a way we can relate to. But it is necessary to be able to distinguish between the stories that glorify evil (those that seem to revel in it, accept it, share it), and those that acknowledge it and then confront it in a constructive way.
Some might disagree with me here (that’s fine), but I don’t slam a book shut the moment I encounter a bad word. I’ve even put up with a story or two included among it’s cast of characters a fortune-teller, even though that goes against my personal beliefs. But there have been other books that I’ve discarded because the dialogue increasingly was made up of four-letter words, and others where the plots seemed to center around witchcraft. Again, discernment is needed.
I think it boils down to how well you trust the storyteller, their worldview and intent. I can read books by others who do not share my faith. Almost every story, even ones created by non-Christians, have an element of the Gospel in them (see John Eldredge’s book, Epic). But I will be careful with the book selections I make. When I open a book, I become a bit vulnerable. I am entrusting myself to the storyteller’s leading. If the creator-writer is leading me down a dark tunnel where there is nothing profitable for me, no light, and it is full of only ugly things, I do not find it to be a good use of my time or of my mind. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t believe it’s good to just anything.
It’s important to stretch ourselves when it comes to reading, but I also think it is good to know your limitations. Ted Dekker is a well-known Christian writer who often writes about the dark side of the world. But he doesn’t leave us there in his stories. He doesn’t forget that there can be a way for redemption, a path that can lead us out of the mire and toward the light. My mother and cousins all enjoy his books. However, after having tried him out for myself, I know that I personally cannot handle the violence and psychological suspense. And so, I don’t add that genre to my reading diet. Is it wrong to read violent, psychological thrillers? Not necessarily, depending on the author. But I can’t.
I think it is imperative we become picky and choosy even among ‘clean books’ and the ‘Christian’ fiction genre. Not all books that fall into these categories are well written. Remember, we are after the cultivation of the mind! Or at least should be, I hope! Christian authors, like those secular, vary in creative talent like paper plates from fine china. We can choose to make our diet consist of nutrient-less stories that will never cause us to think, ponder, and grow. But reading well-written, fine-crafted tales hones one into a connoisseur of literature. The mind is being stretched and taught in the higher, finer things.
I have a confession. I enjoy the classics, a love born out of watching Wishbone reruns as a kid. But,… I’m starting to like some of the Christian chick lit out there, too. GASP! Alright, so I’m doomed right? Whatever we read, I think there needs to be moderation. A healthy balance. A steady course of nineteenth century classics can get stuffy and boring after a while. Reading chick lit would probably turn my mind into a fluffy cheese puff right quick. But I enjoy the lighter literature more after I have persevered through a nice thick volume of Sir Walter Scott. And (providing I select the lighter reads wisely) there are things to learn from fun, contemporary stories, too. We can always decide to read with a discerning eye, taking things with a grain of salt.
So, who is it you want to become? What paths do you want your mind go down? Books are teachers. Let’s choose our teachers with care towards healthiness and talent. Don’t read ‘everything’—read objectively!
What are your thoughts on this matter? Feel free to share!