Saturday, April 30, 2011

Bad Novels: Envoi

Well, thank goodness that's over!
Writing and thinking about these “really, really bad” books has got me thinking about if, why, and when we should read books, even bad ones.
When I think of the purpose of reading books, I generally think of education or recreation. You get an education from reading non-fiction and the very best novels; novels that make you think. Then there is recreation, which is different to amusement: the former means to re-create and the latter means no mind. Recreation is building up and edifying at the same time as well as resting and relaxing, but amusement is brainless; “all the discernment of a vaccuum-cleaner” as Douglas Wilson put it once. 

We're finite creatures. We can't always be busy; we can't always be working hard. That's why we have sleep and the day of rest, and even beyond that there is the idea of the year of jubilee, the holy day and the rejoicing tithe. Seasons of rest and refreshment—taken at times during our lives, whether it's an hour with a good novel before turning in at night or a month at the sea-side after fighting the good fight without rest for a few years—are good and proper. Likewise, we can't always be reading St Augustine. We're told to enjoy God as well as to glorify Him, and that can be done as well—perhaps better!--between the pages of a good story as it can be in work.
A lot of the novels I review on this site are not obviously shining examples of literature. Some are neither particularly good nor particularly bad; they seem to give no positive message, beyond narrating, for a while, the implausible adventures of their characters. I don't think such books are wrong, though it would be wrong to read nothing else. There is a wide difference between a book that tells a positive falsehood about the world and a book that fails to tell some revolutionary truth. Even a fluffy story like The Man in the Brown Suit, or Captain Blood, shows us something good and desirable in the virtues of perseverance, courage, and gumption. This is not news; it is not saving grace; it is not gospel; but it is the truth.
A book becomes positively bad to read per se when it begins to lie, or to make one created thing a god. A book that despises matrimony is as bad as one that enthrones it. Such books should not be read for recreation.
However, they may be read for education. For example, if you asked me if I recommended the Orlando Furioso, I would ask why you wished to read it. If it was for the purposes of amusement or recreation, I wouldn't recommend it; I'd steer you in the direction of Bulfinch's precis. But if I knew you were a scholar of old stories, one who truly wishes to understand the times and thoughts of the writer and his influence on his culture, then by all means, you should read it. And because the Orlando Furioso was such a classic, I would urge you to read the whole thing.
This kind of educational reading—reading a bad book for discernment—is just as important as any other reading. But you should always keep in mind what Douglas Wilson said as he struggled through Twilight: Should Christians read this dreck for discernment? Yes, if necessary—but having gained discernment (around Chapter 5), they should then stop. Some books you can understand without having to read the whole story.
I haven't always followed my own rules. If I had, I wouldn't have been able to run this Feature Week. I think I can honestly say, however, that I don't read nearly as many bad books now as I used to—a heartening thought.

1 comment:

Radagast said...

There's a lot of dreck where the community has to delegate somebody to read it for discernment. You seem to have volunteered...


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