Point of View
Reading what we should?
by Melanie Springer Mock
I try to avoid eye contact on airplanes, in coffee shops, in places where I might have to talk with someone I do not know; as an introvert, I don’t often relish banter with strangers. If I do begin a conversation, however, invariably someone will discover I am an English professor, and will say one of two things: 1) “I better watch my grammar when I talk to you, then, so you can’t correct me” and 2) “What kind of books should I be reading?”
I never really offer a good reply, at least to the first remark. To be honest, I sometimes fix people’s spoken grammar, but only in my head. My mama taught me to be nice, and offering uninvited correction is impolite. My response to the second question is also problematic. My initial answer is that people should read whatever they want. There are too many good books in this world (and too little time in our lives) to feel we must have a reading agenda dictated by others. My second, seemingly contradictory, answer is this: read what you want, but also use books to open your world in a different way.
Directing inquisitors to the many “great books” lists floating in the ether might be an easier approach to this well meaning question. I imagine people expect an English professor might hand out such lists, advocating that everyone, everywhere, should read only the literary canon. But I have problems with a reading diet heavy on books deemed notable by others. Most lists of great literature focus too narrowly on works written by the privileged classes — by westerners, by Caucasians, by men — because the lists themselves were constructed primarily by the privileged classes (westerners, Caucasians, men). Those who intend to read only books considered “classic” will miss too many other great works by women and minorities.
Christians may feel more challenged by the consideration of what we should be reading. After all, Paul reminds us we are to fill our minds with that which is noble, pure, right, and lovely (Philippians 4:8). Does this mean we should only read literature with happy endings? Or books devoid of things unlovely, like murder, deception, adultery, debauchery?
As an English professor at a Christian university, I often contend with these questions. Some believe we should study only books written by Christian authors, describing Christian situations, and are at times disappointed when we read in our classes works by authors of many faiths, exploring issues of deep moral complexity. At first blush, many works taught in George Fox literature classes do not seem to fill minds with what is pure, right, or holy. But through deeper consideration and intelligent discussion we find good works of literature often uncover a greater truth. God’s truth: what is pure, right, and holy.
And so, the books we read should lead us to a greater understanding of God and grace, incarnation and our need for redemption. This understanding cannot happen if we read only works offering a sanitized or Christianized view of life. Nor can we get a real sense of how to love our neighbors without knowing our neighbors: something reading often facilitates. Recently, for example, I discovered a great deal about love for my Indian neighbors from a novel about poverty and AIDS set in Mumbai, written by a female Hindu writer; I also learned about God’s mercy and grace, more than I ever might from a Christian romance describing two young Evangelicals falling in love.
What should you be reading? Whatever you want. If you want to read the classics, feel free. If you want to read Christian romances, bemy guest. But if you are seeking fare different than the normal diet you consume, if you want your mind opened to new understanding of God and the world around you, I suggest reading something not found on a list of great books or in a Christian bookstore.
And, if you want to know what I have been reading lately, catch my eye (if you can) and feel free to ask. Just don’t expect me to tell you that my list should be yours too.
Melanie SpringerMock (G90) is associate professor of writing/literature.