Sunday, January 11, 2015

A Good Book is (kind of) Hard to Find

A few weeks ago, an acquaintance asked that I recommend her a short story to read. I suggested Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a famously grotesque little story about a Southern family who, while on a road-trip to Florida, is kidnapped by highway bandits. My friend read the story, and returned to me as follows:
          Sarah: Why did you recommend that story to me??
          Me: Hi, Sarah! Did you read it?
          Sarah: Yes and it was terrible! That poor family! Oh and the grandmother was so awful! How could you like a story like that??
          Me: I like the character of the grandmother; I think she’s a good example of the obliviousness that plagues the grey generation.
          Sarah: Well I thought she was weird. Why would you want to read about someone so terrible? I want something to read that’s fun!
This conversation with my friend illustrates an all-too-common refusal to deal with literature that we don’t understand. She didn’t like the story because she didn’t like the grandmother—but should literature really be restricted to depicting pleasant people? And this is the mentality that leads to escapism in literature, the repressive flight from what we dislike: anytime that art shows me something I don’t want to see, it must therefore be “bad” art.

The author (center) in an attempt to try and take a normal family photo. 
I find the commandment to read scripture, and the subsequent Mormon culture of knowledge-pursuit, completely contrary to the practice of escapist reading. We are instructed to read God’s word precisely because it is unfamiliar. The scriptures show a lot of people, good and bad, whose examples are given not to pat us on the back and make us feel good about ourselves, but to instruct us as to how we can progressively become better people.

Literature, ultimately, is impotent in terms of morality. It is free to depict the good and evil in the world, but it is powerless to affect its reader to choose that good or evil, unless the reader grants it that influence. So reading well, for me, requires two things: confidence, in your own ability to discern and resist the evil in what you read, and humility, enough to receive its good and implement it in your life.


  1. I have had a similar experience. One of my favorite novels is Wuthering Heights for many reasons. I love delving into the psychological issues and, as you said, discerning what I can learn from these characters. My aunt and I had a discussion about this where she told she loved Jane Eyre because of the happy ending but hated Wuthering Heights because it was too dark. I totally agree that people avoid literature or anything else for that matter that isnt sunny and happy. I do not like Kathy from this novel but I appreciate her character because I think there is much to be learned from her. We are taught that the Lord chasteneth His people and if I can read about a character, recognize that I have similar characteristics and accept that I need to change, I find that quite worth while.

  2. I agree that the modern taste for escapist literature is really more of an overall escapist attitude. I'll admit that I often turn to literature as an escape from my worries. But my worries are still there when I put down that escapist book. However, in the case of the scriptures and other praiseworthy literature, sometimes the study of them brings me the Spirit and helps me actually decrease the source of my worries. Maybe that's one way to judge "good" literature.

    1. That's a cool idea; I am with you 100% that there are certain books (and obviously the scriptures) that can bring peace to the soul just through the act of reading them. While I think it's the reader's responsibility to approach literature as an agent, not an object, I also think that it is the author's responsibility to create literature that uplifts and instructs. Can you imagine what the world would be like if all art tried to do that?

      Thanks for responding! This blog thing is fun.

  3. Beautifully written Tyler. I definitely fit in the category that would rather read sunshine than hardship but I can see where you are coming from as well. Well done!