The Bad Content/Good Literature Problem (and vice versa)

Have you ever been reading a book and realized “holy cow, this is kind of a bad book,” and not been able to finish it? I have, plenty.

What makes a bad book? Offensive content or sloppy writing? In English classes, professors drill it into you that a “bad book” must mean the latter–it’s just not written well. Maybe most people agree that good literature means it (whatever it may be) is communicated with excellence, or that there is something expressed in an artful way.

They don’t actually ever agree on a formula, but that’s why there’s still an English major. We like to discuss.

I read plenty of material in English classes that had horrible content–I mean, pretty dang wretched–but certain poems or novels were in the anthologies because they were good literature. Shakespeare, John Donne, Robert Herrick–they all wrote beautifully, but more often than not the subject matter wasn’t exactly edifying (looking at you, Robert Herrick a la “The Vine”).

How come we can excuse inappropriate content if it’s presented artfully, but a book that’s badly-written gets dismissed immediately, even if its content is admirable?

This is opening like five cans of worms all at once, and I know I don’t have all the answers to the questions I’m asking. I’m genuinely asking for some perspective on what makes something worth reading–whether you’re more motivated to read a book that will help you or a book that will entertain you. I want to know whether you would choose a better-written book with salacious content or, all things being equal, a not-so-eloquent book that has great themes and characters but nothing in it you couldn’t comfortably read aloud to your grandmother.



I need to clarify something. I am of the opinion that children don’t need to read about grown-up things until they’re grown up. I am also of the opinion that grown-ups may choose to read what suits them. I think that there is some content inappropriate for some people that’s fine for others, and here’s the key thing: I think there are some stories that require less-savory details to be included, because stories should be in some way true to life, and there are parts of life that are less-savory.

I’m not arguing for censorship, or making every piece of literature the Bible. But I am frustrated that in order to write a good novel, some writers feel they must include some explicit scene or language, even if it isn’t needed for the story. It makes me mad as a hopeful writer to be told any stories I write can’t be good literature unless they include certain “realistic” elements, as if a book must be as heavy-handed as a movie in telling the reader what’s happening elsewhere.

am arguing for imagination, and for a sense of reserve when telling a story. I think, although I don’t know for certain, that a good story-teller is like a painter in that there should always be something more there than at first meets the eye. There is more in a good impression given to a reader, than in a thousand actions described.

And then I start thinking about the fact that there are such things as “Twilight” and “Fifty Shades of Grey” and I just really think the printing press should have been destroyed after all.

I mean really. 

To be continued, maybe, if I get mad again.


Small is Beautiful, E.F. Schumacher

“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “to talk of many things. Of shoes and ships and ceiling wax–of cabbages and kings! –And why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings!”

And small books about Buddhist economics that turn out not to have been Buddhist after all.

All last summer I labored over “Small is Beautiful,” by E.F. Schumacher (1973), stubbornly trying to read the book cover-to-cover before I started another on my reading list. It was a desperate attempt to rehabilitate my reading habits from my usual hit-and-run style, wherein I start a book, get to the middle, start another book, get the middle of that one, and start another book…

I used the word “labored” but I don’t really mean it was a hard read–at least not at first. In fact, in just a bit I’ll write down some of the many quotations I took note of in my earnest but doomed attempt to really digest a book. It’s a very good book, and I recommend it, especially if you like authors who work on their words, refining their sentences until every other phrase seems worth putting on a coffee mug.

Maybe I have strange taste in coffee mugs.

Schumacher, apart from having possibly the best title for a book I can imagine (the subtitle is “Economics as if People Mattered”), is a thoughtful, sharp writer whose curiosity is evident–he inspired me to think about how things are, and how they ought to be. His main idea, as I understood it, was that economics is more than a (pseudo)science of how businesses interact and nations prosper; rather, there are deeper questions that economists ought to be asking, about human nature, about what people believe and value and why people work in the first place. He questions and he prods, and advocates, in the end, a return to certain values that have been dismissed as unproductive or lazy. Of course, he says, we oughtn’t be lazy, but nor must we work merely for money. There is, or at least there ought to be, something in men and women that makes them want to work, to produce something valuable, to create. 

But as a society, America doesn’t tend to value anything that is, perhaps, less lucrative but more fulfilling–we prize profit in monetary terms and sometimes, just sometimes, lose sight of why we’re working. The values which drive our actions get pushed to the back of our minds, and, if we’re not careful, we lose the values altogether. Schumacher takes issue with both Keynes and Carnegie, and sums up five to seven “ideas of the age” which have crept through science, education, and economics.

With that small teaser for an already small book (but a small book very much worth reading), here are some of the more fascinating sections I found.

About man’s nature:

“…we are estranged from reality and inclined to treat as valueless everything that we have not made ourselves (15).

“The substance of man cannot be measured by Gross National Product (20).

“We still have to learn how to live peacably, not only with our fellow men but also with nature and, above all, with those Higher Powers which have made nature and have made us, for, assuredly, we have not come about by accident and certainly have not made ourselves (21).

About pollution:

“As nothing can be proved about the future…it is always possible to dismiss even the most threatening problems with the suggestion that something will turn up (28).

“Nothing makes economic sense unless its continuance for a long time can be projected without running into absurdities. . . Permanence is incompatible with a predatory attitue which rejoices in the fact that ‘what were luxuries for our fathers have become necesities for us’ [Keynes]. . . Every increase of needs tends to increase one’s dependence on outside forces over which one cannot have control, and therefore increases existenstial fear (33).

About greed:

“The modern economy is propelled by a frenzy of greed and indulges in an orgy of envy, and these are not accidental features but the very causes of its expansionist success (31).

“If human vices such as greed and envy are systematically cultivated, the inevitable result is nothing less than a collapse of intelligence. A man driven by greed or envy loses the power of seeing things as they are, of seeing things in their roundness and wholeness, and his very successes become failures (31).

About work:

“There is need for a proper philosophy of work which understands work not as that which it has indeed become, an inhuman chore as soon as possible to be abolished by automation, but as something ‘decreed by Providence for the good of Man’s body and soul’ (37).

“…insights of wisdom…enable us to see the hollowness and fundamental unsatisfactoriness of a life devoted primarily to the pursuit of material ends, to the neglect of the spiritual (38).

“To organise work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-wracking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with good than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence. Equally, to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure (55).

About education:

“…The task of education would be, first and foremost, the transmission of ideas of value, of what to do with our lives. There is no doubt also the need to transmit know-how but this must take second place, for it is obviously somewhat foolhardy to put great powers into the hands of people without making sure that they have a reasonable idea of what to do with them. . . When we think, we do not just think: we think with ideas. Our mind is not a blank, a tabula rasa. When we begin to think, we can do so only because our mind is already filled with all sorts of ideas with which to think (82).

“What do I miss, as a human being, if I have never heard of the Second Law of Thermodynamics? The answer is: Nothing. And what do I miss by not knowing Shakespeare? Unless I get my understanding from another source, I simply miss my life. . . Science cannot produce ideas by which we could live (87).

About everything:

“All subjects, no matter how specialised, are connected with a centre; they are like rays emanating from a sun. The centre is constituted by our most basic convictions, by those ideas which really have the power to move us. In other words, the centre consists of metaphysics and ethics, of ideas that–whether we like it or not–transcend the world of facts. . . they cannot be proved or disproved by ordinary scientific method. . . but that does not mean they are purely ‘subjective’ or ‘relative’ or mere arbitrary conventions. They must be true to reality… (94).

“It is easy enough to see that all through our lives we are faced with the task of reconciling opposites which, in logical thought, cannot be reconciled (97).

Like what you read? You can find this book on Thriftbooks, Amazon, Goodreads–pretty much anywhere there are books to be found. Give it a read and tell me what you think!

P.S. Coming soon: A GoodReads thing where you can see what book(s) I happen to be bumbling through at the moment. Whenever I can figure out the blogging things.

Review of “If You Can Keep it,” Metaxas

I love it when things remind me of Chesterton and I have an excuse to dive back into Orthodoxy. I never finish it–I almost don’t want to. I read a chapter here, and a chapter there, and months from now I’ll probably read the same chapters and be pleasantly surprised by something I never caught before. That’s either evidence of a gloriously insightful author, or of early onset memory loss in myself. Hey there, Grandma Jo.

What reminded me this time was reading If You Can Keep It, by Eric Metaxas. It was the first book on my summer reading list, and I sped read the second half of it yesterday in one sitting. Not that it was the most well-written book I’d ever read, but I’d resolved to finish what I started so I could get on to something else. I don’t have any business critiquing Metaxas’ writing style, given my own rambling tendencies, so I’ll just mention his frequent insertion of unrelated, sort-of-but-not-really rhetorical questions at the ends of paragraphs. That, and some repetition I didn’t think he needed. All I’m saying is he’s not Chesterton. Which he never claimed to be.

He did quote Chesterton, however, about halfway through the book, which is probably why I stuck it out. Actually, once I decided it was an okay book, it really was pretty good. His main idea, I gather, is that we as an American people have forgotten both the heritage of our country and our resulting responsibility, given our unique beginning.

Early on, he clarifies his view of America’s exceptionalism:

Our exceptionalness is not for us but for others. That is the paradox at the heart of who we are. So what makes us different has nothing to do with jingoism and nationalistic chest beating. If we have ever been great, it is only because we have been good. If we have ever been great, it is only because we have longed to help make others great too (Metaxas 25).

In other words, Metaxas goes deeper than simply yelling “Merica” and slamming the book shut, his point made. He presents a thoughtful and compelling account of how and why the country was founded, acknowledging what he sees as the three key ingredients in America’s success while admitting that there is plenty of room for failure. These three elements are freedom, virtue, and faith, each of which requires the other to exist in any meaningful form. He cites example after example of early American thinkers who hoped to cultivate a citizenry marked by these elements, including Washington, Franklin, and Tocqueville (who, though not an American thinker, was certainly a thinker about America).

Metaxas discusses other figures in America’s early history who helped to make the country not only great, but good: George Whitefield, Nathan Hale, George Washington, and Paul Revere, to name a few. For centuries, these and other American heroes were venerated and taught to schoolchildren; now, however, the excellent things such individuals achieved are dismissed the moment anything can be discovered to discredit them. While it wouldn’t be healthy for a country to hold up its leaders as perfect examples with no faults at all, Metaxas is concerned that we are erasing our heroes and, consequently, our heritage without instilling in the next generation such good virtues of bravery, honor, and integrity.

After quoting a section from one of George Washington’s speeches to his military officers, Metaxas notes the difference in his choice of words from anything one would hear today:

…More important is [Washington’s] use of specific words and phrases like “reputation,” “patient virtue,” “dignity,” “glory,” and “sacred honor.”

These words and phrases are most striking to us in that they have disappeared, generally speaking, and not just as words but as concepts. Who speaks of “sacred honor” or “glory” today? These words and ideas have been quietly banished from our cultural conversation. Nor is it that we have replaced these terms with less antiquated equivalents. We’ve lost them altogether. The question is whether we can ever recover them, and whether, short of that, we can survive. Can it be that the further we have strayed from thinking of such things, the further we have strayed from what is necessary for the ordered liberty bequeathed to us by the founders? And that in neglecting the cultivation of these virtues have we unwittingly undermined our entire way of life? (165, emphasis added)

It’s a troubling thought to me–that perhaps not only our vocabulary has changed, but that we’ve dismissed as too old-fashioned some virtues that turn out to be essential to keeping a republic both good and great.

After reading If You Can Keep It, I’m thinking of a couple of things-how I have not done well with informing myself of my responsibility as a U.S. citizen; how there’s so much of my American heritage (both good and bad) that I don’t know, and haven’t cared to learn; how I have not loved my country very well.

That, finally, is what Metaxas leaves with his readers–the necessity of loving something in order to make it better. It’s what reminds me of Chesterton and Lewis and other writers who have resonated with me–that, although my being a member of American society isn’t my ultimate identity (by any means), it’s such a society in which any change I want to see requires my active engagement with whatever it is I think needs to be changed.

Again, this isn’t a “my country, right or wrong” attitude, exactly–Metaxas puts it this way:

…we can say that to love someone is not to avoid seeing their flaws, but to avoid so focusing on them that the person gets a feeling of hopelessness about changing them.

Those who have adopted an “America is the problem” attitude, who have characterized America as an imperialistic “world bully,” are simply wrong. They are no different from those who would say America has no flaws and can do no wrong. Both are fundamental misunderstandings of what it it means to love one’s country and to be a good citizen who is helping lead one’s nation in the right direction. (233)

The way Chesterton puts it is, well, more eloquent than I can properly summarize–if you really want a wordsmith, go and read the chapter “The Flag of the World” from Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton and then find me and we can revel in having read such things. But, to give a short glimpse of the connection between the two writers, here is Chesterton talking about the need for a love and loyalty toward something in order to make it worth anyone’s while:

…what we need is not the cold acceptance of the world as a compromise, but some way in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it. We do not want joy and anger to neutralize each other and produce a surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent. We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return at evening.

No one doubts that an ordinary man can get on with this world: but we demand not strength enough to get on with it, but strength enough to get it on. Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing? Can he look up at its colossal good without once feeling acquiescence? Can he look up at its colossal evil without once feeling despair? Can he, in short, be at once not only a pessimist and an optimist, but a fanatical pessimist and a fanatical optimist? Is he enough of a pagan to die for the world, and enough of a Christian to die to it? (320-321)

Chesterton may not have been talking about America, but I think his ideas apply here, especially to Christians who are wondering where, if anywhere, their convictions as Christians and their responsibilities as voting citizens overlap. I’m not sure I can answer that question for anyone except myself, but what I’m thinking increasingly is that it’s not enough to keep quiet when you’ve been given a voice, even if it’s only a small voice. If you can whisper, you can speak on someone else’s behalf.

True that one oughtn’t to accept blindly all that America has stood for in the past–some evils need to be remembered so that they aren’t repeated. There are quite a number of social ills, past and present, for which we as a nation ought to repent. It’s also true that, as of 2017, there can still be public conversations about what direction is best and which values or virtues we ought to cultivate.

To quote Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Thanks for reading! Comment below if you have something to share:)


The Plan

A couple weeks ago I had just completed my final undergraduate assignment–reading my paper about Flannery O’Connor for faculty and friends–and I was waiting for the next day’s graduation.

So then I graduated. It was the perfect day: I smiled and cried and spent the afternoon with a few people, quietly celebrating four lovely years. I love celebrating things in a certain way–with people who understand that joy doesn’t always have to be raucous (although belly laughter is one of the best feelings in the world). Often, I find a certain kind of joy that’s real and glad and good, but that’s a little bit solemn–or maybe I mean serious. I have been seriously happy these weeks, just being with my family.

I’ve unpacked and cleaned and painted and written notes and gone to a piano recital and to the lake. I’ve mowed and picked apples and had a tea party on the floor with my niece and nephew. We jumped on the trampoline and my niece taught me how to feed her baby heifer Isabel, who had a very slimy nose. I’ve had time to read, and I’ve played Chopin and Amy Beach purely for pleasure. I’ve had coffee with my mom, which is what I wanted just about most of all. It’s been idyllic, mainly.

But then a week had gone by and I didn’t know what I was doing. I was half afraid someone from school would come knock on my door and say, “Now, Jo, what is your plan, now that you’ve graduated?” I doubted whether any of what I just listed would satisfy a future employer or potential grad school. And I didn’t feel any closer to knowing what it is I want to do with my life, as far as job titles go. Can writer please count?

If you’ll notice, I didn’t list “writing” as one of the things I did that first week–this blog post is my first attempt at sorting things out, and I’m terrified that writing is just one of the things I would tell people to try to get them to stop asking about the plan–rather than something I really mean to put effort toward.

The truth was I didn’t have a plan, and I was realizing how audacious (read, stupid) of me that was. I joked with my family that after college, I was going to be a bum for a year. Except now I kinda felt like a bum, and it had only been a week.

Every now and then, in the middle of walking through my house–I would be quite happy, then suddenly the thought would come, almost audible: what are you doing, Jo? How dare you not be planning for the future? You can’t bum off your parents forever and living on your own is going to require money. You aren’t being a productive member of society if you aren’t at least sending out your resume to work or continuing with grad school.

If you haven’t noticed, friend, this is shaping up to be a blog post about what almost all my blog posts are about, which is the struggle between working and worrying; between striving and trusting. It’s about fretting and constantly wondering if I’ve done the right thing or if the other decision would have been better. And Oh, God, I don’t know if I’ll ever learn the lesson.

But we do keep trying.

A dear friend sent the following to me, and at the time I didn’t think I needed it–I just thanked my friend and went on unpacking (or whatever I was doing at the time):

Don’t forget to find your self-worth in Christ’s righteousness, instead of whether or not you have a stereotypical job.

I don’t understand how the Holy Spirit does that–prompts people to send words of encouragement that, even if they don’t seem relevant at the time, at some point will be effective in another person’s life.

What I mean to do is make a sort-of plan for this year, a plan that’s still not quite up-to-par with anything someone aspiring to be CEO of a company would have in mind after college. It’s a plan for what I want to learn and do and accomplish, and write. I’ll be putting some updates on here, probably, as I go, and as I descend into various existential crises and, by God’s grace, come back out.

I’m starting off by reading all the books that have accumulated in the packing crates I used for bookshelves in the dorm room:

If You Can Keep It and Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, both by Eric Metaxas. Small is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher, The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers and Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton (both of which I have been reading for years now and haven’t finished yet!). The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis.

There are others, and when I’m done with mine, my father has bookshelf upon bookshelf of things he’s promised I may read. To keep myself accountable, I’ll try to write a quick thought or two about what I learned, so that if you’ve read the same book, we can compare notes and learn something together.

I’m also working on projects around my parents’ house, many of which involve learning handy skills, such as scraping, painting, plumbing, and things they generally don’t teach you in college. I’ll be figuring out how to save and spend money wisely (hopefully), and when to take a rest and when to keep working.

I suppose I want to figure out what is worth doing–and then I want to learn to do those things really well. It’s not that impressive of a plan, but thank you for reading:)


Rumination (about books and food)

We know this word, right? Ruminate? What does it make you think of? I visualize two things, mainly: first, a cow’s second or third stomach or whatever, where it chews up (again) food that’s been partially digested. I also think of stew–but I try never to visualize these two things at the same time, because that’s just nasty.

Apparently “ruminate” has other meanings–did you know, for example, that it can be an adjective describing the “endosperm of a seed?”–specifically, of a seed that “appears chewed.” Nutmeg looks like this, apparently, as does some random seed called soursop (scientific name, Annona muricata). Completely beside the point I’m trying to make.

Other than the whole chewing thing, the more common definitions have to do with “meditating, contemplating, musing, pondering,” etc. My favorite of these:”To turn over repeatedly in the mind; to meditate deeply upon.” It makes sense: If something is worth thinking about, it’s worth thinking about again. Ask any cow–I’d imagine they’d confirm this. If something is worth eating, it’s worth eating again. It’s worth ruminating over.

Imagine this blog post is a slim little paperback–hold one finger here and keep this thought handy while I skip over one chapter (cause I can’t think of a good transition). We’ll come back to this idea of rumination (at which point I suppose we’ll be ruminating). Aaaah.

I was thinking about books and how, in my favorite books, the protagonist dies, or nearly dies, anyway. No, wait, that’s not what I’m getting at–let me try again.

was thinking about books. I was thinking about how there are all kinds of books: books that make you think, books that instruct you or improve your mind, books that entertain you, and books that distract you from problems of real life. And there are a few good books that take you deeper into real life.

It seemed sort of like different kinds of food–think of a four or five-course meal. There’s an appetizer, which may be excellent in a light, anticipatory way, but mainly serves to whet your appetite for something more filling. There are books like that.

There are also books more like salads than anything else–which are good for you but perhaps not the most delightful to devour, sometimes read as an obligation before you can get on to what you really want.

There are all sorts of dessert books: enjoyable, fluffy delights that are usually the most fun to read. They’re not always the healthiest, and sometimes they distract more than help you to think.

And there’s a main course. Think of any rich, hearty food you like–say, roast beef and potatoes, really excellently made. There is a sort of book that ought, anyway, to do most of the filling and which had better take you deeper into real life than merely help you escape it for a few hours.  I’ve been thinking of this lately: what are some books that are like that in the way they portray true life, even through fiction?

You can flip back to the place you saved in thought, where we were talking about what “ruminate” means. I mentioned early on that I think of a stew, but I didn’t explain why. I like thinking of synonyms for words I like, and one synonym for “ruminate” could be, I think, “to simmer.” I’m not sure you’ll find that in a thesaurus, but it makes sense to me to identify words like “simmer, meditate, ponder, and ruminate” with something like a slow-cooking, savory stew. One reason people always use “savory” to describe a stew is because you’ve got all these different tastes and textures in the same dish and it takes on a little of every ingredient. You taste all these elements and you can’t have one without the other.

[If you hate orange vegetables, don’t read this bit or I’ll ruin this illustration, but think of carrots by themselves versus carrots in stew. They’re not even the same vegetable anymore, because the stewed carrots have taken on eight or nine other flavors and absorbed them.]

My point is just that I’ve found some books like this, that draw on what’s been written previously and turn both works into something glorious. Some examples: Snake, by D.H. Lawrence, alluding wonderfully to Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Or Milton’s Paradise Lost, drawing in part from Spenser’s Faerie Queene. There are so many beautiful things in literature that I miss because I don’t take the time to dwell on what it’s saying or what’s been said before.

I’d forgotten how lovely a good book can be. Caught up in books of instruction (none of which are bad) and fact, I forgot how deeply a good author can probe and help me reflect earnestly on real life. Recently I read C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, and I suddenly remembered. He’d redeemed a story I loved anyway, and made it better than before. It was a story that prompted thought, rather than suspended it. It took me this whole time to get to it, but if you haven’t read it I wholeheartedly recommend that you do.

If you have read it, or if you’ve thought, while reading this, of another especially lovely book, feel free to share those thoughts. Thanks for reading.