As a disclaimer to my disclaimer, let me say that these are just some of my rambling thoughts that I'm working through as I think about what makes good art good, and how to be thoughtful about all things in life, especially that which I put into my mind.
As I'm diving into reading more than I ever have in the past and posting here about the books I'm reading, I want to be clear about a few things. First and foremost, just because I post about books I'm reading, doesn't mean that I think you should read them. I'm not listing book recommendations per se, but more an account of what I'm reading for future reference, and so that maybe you can broaden your horizons and find something new on the shelf of your local library or bookstore. I absolutely LOVE getting book recommendations from friends and complete strangers alike! And I frequently do attach my "stamp of approval" (meaning, Go out and purchase this NOW!) that means without doubt or hesitation, I would recommend reading said book.
But how do I choose books? And why do I choose to read what I do?
I try to use discretion when I pick up a new book. Have I heard of the author? What does the back cover say about the book's content? Did a trusted friend or blog recommend it? Sometimes I branch out and try something completely new to me; I feel better about doing so when I'm not spending $15 but am instead borrowing from the library, but I've been known to purchase books I didn't care so much for in the end...or twenty pages in. (Having a life "Idiot Fund," especially when living abroad, is a good idea.)
Here's where the disclaimer comes in: I do read books that have language, a sexual scene (or scenes) or themes, or content that I am perhaps not so comfortable with, or a combination thereof. And sometimes those things weigh on me. (I remember the semester in college where I took an African American literature class, one of my favorite classes of my undergraduate studies, as well as a class on teaching adolescents. The content in the reading in both of those classes was very heavy at times, and I cried more that semester than any other. I have to be careful, and yet life isn't all chocolate cake with mint ice cream...) Just because a book has questionable scenes, dialogue, or themes is no reason to throw the baby out with the bath water. It takes discretion to determine if you should keep on keepin' on with a book.
So I try to look at the bigger picture: instead of counting f-bombs, I ask myself, What is the author's purpose in writing? What themes is she shaping? What questions is she asking us to consider? If you've ever cracked open the Bible, you quickly realize it has a good bit of ugly--sometimes heinous--scenes, but the bigger picture is so much greater, so much more beautiful. Now, the analogy falls apart, I know--East of Eden isn't equal to the story of redemption found in Scripture, and it isn't inspired by God. But you get the idea.
But all art, all writing, is not created equal. I've picked up books and realized the content was not appropriate (by which I mean that it was in no way edifying or over-archingly redemptive), and have said a simple, "No, thanks." Or I found that the writing was just poorly constructed and shallow. (I'm also learning how to put down books that I simply don't find interesting. It's a learning process.) Take Fifty Shades of Grey, for example; I've read the back cover and know enough: it's not going to help me to think more deeply, ask good, hard questions about the world and humanity, or learn how to better empathize with others. Not everything has to be the equivalent of Anna Karenina, but it's got to have some sort of substance.
In part, good art shows us the reality of the human condition, which is pretty ugly, sometimes very sad, and at other times incredibly beautiful and winsome. But at some point such art hints at, perhaps even boldly points us toward, hope. It doesn't wallow in the filth and leave us in the mire. And yet, good art isn't moralizing, either, because we should be challenged to think and question, not simply to be handed a moral: Be a nice person and others will be nice to you. Or, Be a good, Christian girl and Prince Charming will sweep you off your feet when you go to college. That's cheesy and simplistic, and quite honestly, just not true.
In the end, everyone has to personally decide on what books they should be reading. At this time in my life, I just don't think I can handle Lolita by Nabokov; maybe I never will be able to. (It's been sitting on my bookshelf for at least five years.) But when I pick up a book, I want to be willing to hear what other people have to say, people who are from different backgrounds and countries and faiths, listening openly but always thinking critically. Reading allows us to travel, to meet new people, and to hear voices from across the globe and over the centuries. I may not agree with every voice, but isn't my life richer for having had those literary "conversations"?