Back when I was an English teacher, one of my students’ parents told me I was an immoral person for teaching Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. It’s full of swearing, after all, and how can a book be good when it ends with a man killing his own brother? "You have a moral obligation, a moral opportunity," this mother told me, "to stand up to the school board for forcing you to teach this book." I took a deep breath and prepared myself to discuss my ideas about good literature, and to let her in on the fact that I had actually chosen to teach OMAM. To point out that students hear swearing every single day of their lives, and to make the point that George killing Lennie was an act of mercy on George’s part, simultaneously sparing Lennie from the death he would face from the angry farmers and delivering him to the perfect, idealistic farm.
But I could hardly get a word of my own opinion out of my mouth, so barraged was I by this parent’s ideas about literature and morality. In the end, I thanked her for her opinion and transferred her to her student’s guidance councilor, so he could be removed from my class (every other tenth-grade English class was also reading OMAM, so I’m not sure how that helped). It felt pointless to argue with her, to defend the set of ideas I’ve come to think of as my reading philosophy, because I was as unwilling to understand her reading philosophy as she was mine.
I thought of that experience tonight at work, when a patron called to express her disappointment in me, personally, for recommending the novel Blessings by Anna Quindlen. She liked the story, she said, but couldn’t keep reading it because of all the swearing. Another deep breath, another transfer to someone else (who probably shares my reading philosophy but is better at recommending swearing-free books). But I’m still feeling frustrated. In fact, I’m feeling hesitant to recommend any book to anyone.
Because here’s the thing: I don’t really notice if a book has swearing in it. If there’s a sex scene, I tend to just skim over it and move on, quickly forgetting it. To me, the presence of the F word or of intimacy in a book doesn’t make the book bad. Bad writing makes a book bad. Faulty logic. Weak, predictable plot lines. Characters or experiences based on shaky ideas. Manipulative emotion. Fluffy, pointless structures that fail to challenge me, fail to force me to look at the world in a different light. Not naked bodies or swear words
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that pornography is art. I’m not. Or that there aren’t plenty of books that don’t really need to use the language they do. What I’m saying is that there is a difference between gratuitous sex in a book and sex that furthers the story—explains something about the character, for example, shows us something we wouldn’t otherwise know. There are plenty of books whose plot exists just to get to the sex scenes, and those books aren’t worth my time. There are books who glorify violence, or turn sex into perversion and women into objects, and of course: those are bad books, too.
What I am suggesting is this: by limiting themselves to books without swearing, violence, or intimacy, readers severely limit their reading options. They miss out on great stories as well as great learning experiences. I am also suggesting: a sex scene doesn’t necessarily make a book immoral. And I’m not even suggesting, I am simply stating: not being bothered by these things does not make me an immoral person.
Take the novel Atonement, for example. It’s got the C word in it, a word I really hate. It’s got a dirty letter written by a boy thinking boyish thoughts. It’s got a fairly intense sex scene. But I don’t consider it to be a bad book. In fact, I’d say it’s one of the best books I’ve read in the past five years or so. Had I been unwilling to read it because of those three objectionable things, I would have also missed reading a story with powerful ideas about the limits of forgiveness, the impossibility of changing decisions, the way a person can think themselves into justifying anything. I wouldn’t have learned about the Dunkirk evacuation during World War II. I wouldn’t have been reminded of both the power in words and the inherent powerlessness. How pride and hysteria and wanting to be right cause as much damage as anything else in the world.
I just don’t see how the sex scene matters more than what is excellent in the novel.
I could make the same argument for many of my favorite books. The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, is a novel that tends to freak people out, and I only recommend it to those I know can deal with it. Without its strange twisting of religious customs and sexual practices, the novel wouldn’t mean anything, wouldn’t be able to make its myriad points. March has that moment of near-adultery, but it also says something about the process of irrevocable change that no other novel I’ve read says in just that way. In fact, it is hard for me to think of a novel I’ve read that doesn’t have sex or swearing or other "questionable" things. Even the Bible is full of questionables.
Why I didn’t argue, though, with that upset mom or tonight’s upset library patron, is that everyone reads for a different reason. Neither of them will change their reading philosophies because of mine, no matter how well I state it. But I wanted to write mine, anyway. I don’t read to have my personal religious beliefs confirmed or upheld. I don’t read to inhabit perspectives that are identical to those I see when I’m not reading. I read because reading is, for me, a way of thinking. I read because I love stories, to be strung along the line of what-happened-next. I love finding my own thoughts inside a character’s head and I love finding in a character’s head thoughts I would never have come to inside my own. I love going to a fantastical, improbable place—be it Narnia or Middle Earth, a planet in another galaxy or an imagined past right here on earth—only to discover that humanity dwells there, too.
And, more than anything, reading is, for me, a space for experiencing something I never could in my own life. "If there were less of this delicate concealment of facts—this whispering "Peace, peace," when there is no peace," Anne Brontë wrote when one of her critics found her novels too questionable, "there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience." Anne and I would have been fast friends I think. I will never be George, yearning for the peaceful, imagined spot I know I will never find, raising a gun to the back of my brother’s head, will probably never find a baby left on my porch, walk through southern France with shrapnel in my belly or incorrectly identify my cousin’s rapist, be forced to be a surrogate mother, or feel incomplete in my life because of war experiences (all things that happen in the novels I’ve mentioned here). But, because I have read those books, I have learned a small piece of what I might have learned if I had experienced them. I read because real life isn’t fair, because people die, governments become corrupt, wars explode, dictators rise to power. Friends stab you in the back, spouses cheat, all manner of harsh things happen. In between them, people brush their teeth. They have sex, they put in their contacts, they send their kids off to school. They even swear. But they learn to cope, and that’s what happens in the good books: characters cope, too. Or they don’t cope and we manage to understand why.
I don’t want to be judgmental about other reading philosophies. There is a type of book for everyone, thank the literary powers that be. But I am a little bit tired of the suggestion that I am immoral because I’ll keep reading a book with sex or swearing. Or that I am less, somehow, in my religious beliefs because I read more than religious books. I believe that there is a morality to be found in good novels that cannot be undone by their inclusion of questionables. I also know that anything I am likely to say won’t change the opinion of those who think that of me. Perhaps there is a bookmark I could buy, to give out just at those times when my questionable reading habits come into focus. "‘Shall I sit down and read the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Book of Covenants all the time?’" it would quote, right from Brigham Young’s mouth. "Yes, if you please, and when you have done, you may be nothing but a sectarian after all. It is your duty to study, to know everything upon the face of the earth, in addition to reading those books…. We should not only study good, and its effect upon our race, but also evil, and its consequences. If I do not learn what is in the world, from first to last, somebody will be wiser than I am. I intend to know the whole of it, both good and bad. Shall I practice evil? No; neither have I told you to practice it, but to learn by the light of truth every principle there is in existence in the world."
There it is, right there: the difference between bad books and good ones. Bad ones encourage the practice of evil; good ones describe the practice of evil, the implications of it, the way it spreads, the way it is everywhere. But they also offer up some small little spark of hope—a piece, even if only the tiniest, of the light of truth that is scattered everywhere. Reading only "good" books doesn’t make a person stronger or better. I believe it makes them weaker, less able to recognize the sparks of truth. Life is always a filtering between good and bad, and reading is no different: a process in which we learn about truth not by avoiding all that is bad, but by experiencing both.