Tag: classics (Page 1 of 4)

Tips for Finding Clean Fiction Part 5: Thoughts on Book Bans

Book cover of A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

In this series of blog posts, I give strategies for finding “clean reads” that go beyond relying on curated book lists. Please see “Part 1: The Toxic Sea” for a list of resources to help you find books that others think are clean, “Part 2: Know Where to Fish” to learn what types of books will be least likely to contain profanity, graphic sex and violence, and immoral themes, “Part 3: Sort through the Catch” to find tips for evaluating the books you find, and “Part 4: Enjoy the Harvest!” for ideas on how to read widely and wholesomely without going broke.

Book cover of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

There have been many stories in the news lately about parents who want books they consider offensive removed from their children’s schools. Some of these books contain explicit material. Others promote practices and ideologies that conflict with the parents’ core values. Some parents want to ban books from classroom shelves and school libraries, and others are calling for the removal of books from curriculum. Others simply want more care taken by school staff to ensure their young children aren’t given books that are meant to be read by older teens and adults. Still others want their children to be given alternate assignments when the rest of the class will be reading something they find objectionable—a right that’s being lost in some school districts.

O Pioneers!

Teachers and librarians are pushing back against what they see as censorship and attacks against their professional judgment, and many parents are supporting them. A librarian might say, “All young people, no matter what their beliefs and life experience, should be able to find books that speak to them in the library. If we remove all challenged books, there won’t be any books left for anyone to read. Just because a book is there doesn’t mean a youth has to read it.” A teacher might say, “We need newer books that better reflect the attitudes, life experiences, and culture of modern young people. They need to hear diverse voices—especially when they’re disturbing; that’s what provokes thought. The context of a book is more important than any one scene.” Both might say, “The parents issuing challenges often haven’t even read the books they’re protesting. We’ve read many books and have been educated to identify those that are well-written and meaningful.”

Book cover of The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I lay out a few of the concerns on both sides in an effort to show that this issue is more complex than the news stories usually report. A curriculum challenge that makes sense at a middle school in one community may not apply to the same book at a high school library in a different region of the country. I don’t believe there’s a one-size-fits-all solution that will work for every community, but I do believe there are a few principles that should guide these decisions.

Throughout all of my study and thought on this issue, I keep coming back to something I said in the first post of this series: “In the end, you’re the only one who can decide what to put into your mind, just as you’re the only one who can decide what to put into your mouth.” While this statement is almost always true for adults, it isn’t always true for children or even teens. In a school classroom, children and teens can be forced to consume adult material they aren’t ready for or that offends their sensibilities. In the larger school environment, inexperienced fishers can be innocently exposed to material they and their parents think is indecent.

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Tips for Finding Clean Fiction Part 4: Enjoy the Harvest!

In this series of blog posts, I give strategies for finding “clean reads” that go beyond relying on curated book lists. Please see “Part 1: The Toxic Sea” for a list of resources to help you find books that others think are clean, “Part 2: Know Where to Fish” to learn what types of books will be least likely to contain profanity, graphic sex and violence, and immoral themes, and “Part 3: Sort through the Catch” to find tips for evaluating the books you find. In this post, I’ll tell you how to read widely and wholesomely without going broke.

If you live in the United States, it’ll be easy for you to get free and low-priced books of all different types. The more of those you can find, the more money you’ll have left to spend on the books you’ll be required to pay full price to read. I don’t know how this process works in other countries, but my guess is that there are similarities.

Your harvest will be larger and, at the same time, less expensive if you follow these two practices:

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Tips for Finding Clean Fiction Part 3: Sort through the Catch

In this series of blog posts, I give strategies for finding “clean reads” that go beyond relying on curated book lists. Please see “Part 1: The Toxic Sea” for a list of resources to help you find books that others think are clean and “Part 2: Know Where to Fish” to learn what types of books will be least likely to contain profanity, graphic sex and violence, and immoral themes.

Book cover for Foundation, by Isaac Asimov

Now that you’ve dropped your net into the water and pulled out an abundance of book titles, it’s important to sort through the catch and evaluate each book for specific content. This step takes time, but in the end, it’s time well spent. How often have you begun reading a book and been frustrated three-quarters of the way through it when something pops up that doesn’t meet your standards? That still happens to me sometimes, but it happens less often when I make an effort to do a preliminary evaluation of every book I read. In the long run, I save time and money.

There are several components to this evaluation, and I do them in whatever order seems natural, depending on whether I’m looking into downloading an ebook or standing in a bookstore or library with a book in my hands.

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Tips for Finding Clean Fiction Part 2: Know Where to Fish

In this series of blog posts, I give strategies for finding “clean reads” that go beyond relying on curated book lists. Please see “Part 1: The Toxic Sea” for the introductory post.

As a young married woman in the early 1980s, I was frustrated with the books I was reading. The ones with depth contained profanity, graphic sex and violence, and immoral themes, and the ones that didn’t were so lacking in substance that I always came away from them feeling as if I had wasted my time. I remember saying to my husband in exasperation, “There is nothing to read!” He laughed at me and replied, “How can you say that? You haven’t read anything yet!”

He was right. I had not yet learned to “fish.” Not only that, but I had refused to search for wholesome fiction in the very place that would provide one of the best harvests.

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Tips for Finding Clean Fiction Part 1: The Toxic Sea

I was about twelve years old when I learned that big books written for adults usually contain profanity, graphic sex and violence, and immoral themes. In those days, there weren’t nearly as many books written for teens as there are now, and kids in my junior high school who liked to read devoured adult books and loaned them to their friends.

I understood that there was adult content I shouldn’t read, watch, or listen to, but it was all relative. While I avoided the bigger offenders, I was surrounded by profanity and sex talk every day at school. It was in the PG movies I went to see with my friends, and it was rampant on broadcast TV too, even if it wasn’t always as obvious. Even a lot of the music I listened to on the radio had innuendo.

It was all just a part of my world, and when I encountered unwholesome content in a book, I often read on and didn’t think much about it. I was, in many ways, both innocent and desensitized. The detoxification process took years, and I still struggle at times to keep my media choices at the level of cleanliness I want them to be.

You may be asking, “Why bother? Does it really matter?”

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Natty Bumppo: Flawed Philosopher or Man of God?

The Leatherstocking Tales, by James Fenimore Cooper (American classics)

  1. The Deerslayer
  2. The Last of the Mohicans
  3. The Pathfinder
  4. The Pioneers
  5. The Prairie

After reading two excellent Christian historical novels set in seventeenth and eighteenth century America, I realized that I wasn’t ready to leave that world yet and decided to try James Fenimore Cooper’s The Leatherstocking Tales. The Deerslayer sucked me into the series and held me captive until the final pages of The Prairie, and that astonished me; I really didn’t expect to love these books as much as I did.

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Ruth, by Elizabeth Gaskell (English classic)

“Ruth Hilton is an orphaned young seamstress who catches the eye of a gentleman, Henry Bellingham, who is captivated by her simplicity and beauty. When she loses her job and home, he offers her comfort and shelter, only to cruelly desert her soon after. Nearly dead with grief and shame, Ruth is offered the chance of a new life among people who give her love and respect, even though they are at first unaware of her secret—an illegitimate child.”

Book cover of Ruth, by Elizabeth Gaskell.

Ruth is a deeply religious novel that explores the intellectual, social, and spiritual life of a “fallen” young woman. The depiction of the attitudes and mores of mid-nineteen century England fascinated me and often made me angry. By modern standards, and in many places, the innocent and sexually ignorant sixteen-year-old Ruth would be a victim of statutory rape. I was appalled at the way so many wanted to vindicate the seducer and assume he was “beguiled” by this “very artful and bold young creature.”

After being so carefully groomed, used, and then deserted by her seducer, Ruth is found ill and in despair by a middle-aged minister who takes her to his home to live with him, his sister, and their housekeeper. Thurstan and Faith Benson make enormous social and financial sacrifices to take Ruth into their home, and Faith is, naturally, disturbed by Ruth’s lack of gratitude. Her brother consoles her with these words:

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Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, by Lew Wallace (American classic, Biblical)

“In first century Judaea, Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur is betrayed by his childhood friend Messala and sentenced to life as a Roman slave. When, during a pirate attack in the Aegean, Ben-Hur saves the life of a galley commander, his fortunes improve and he returns to Galilee a free man. There, his quest for vengeance turns into insurrection, but his life is transformed when he witnesses Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist.”

Movie photo for Ben-Hur, 1959
Ben-Hur 1959

When I was a child, one of the three big television networks in the U.S. ran the film Ben-Hur [1959] every year around Easter. In those days, the only way to watch a motion picture was to see it in a theater when it came out or watch it on network television. There was no streaming. There were no DVDs. There was no cable TV. There weren’t even video cassettes! When one of the networks broadcast a major motion picture like Ben-Hur, it was a big deal. Families like mine made arrangements to watch it, because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t get the chance to see it again for another year.

Because of that, the movie Ben-Hur not only became a part of my Easter tradition, it became ingrained in my consciousness. I loved this film as a child, and I still love it as an adult. It should be no surprise, then, that shortly after I became a part of the Great Books Group, I suggested that we read Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Imagine my own surprise at the time when, after reading a good part of the book, I realized that I didn’t care for it enough to even finish it.

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Cranford and Democracy in America, Volume 2

Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell (English classic)

“The formidable Miss Deborah Jenkyns and the kindly Miss Matty live in a village where women rule and men usually tend to get in the way. Their days revolve around card games, tea, thriftiness, friendship and an endless appetite for scandal (from the alarming sight of a cow in flannel pyjamas to the shocking news of the titled lady who marries a surgeon). But, like it or not, change is coming into their world—whether it is the new ideas of Captain Brown, a bank collapse, rumours of burglars or the unexpected return of someone from the past.”

My Lady Ludlow, by Elizabeth Gaskell (English classic)

“Lady Ludlow is absolute mistress of Hanbury Court and a resolute opponent of anything that might disturb the class system into which she was born. . . . The vicar, Mr. Gray, wishes to start a Sunday school for religious reasons; Mr. Horner wants to educate the citizens for economic reasons. But Lady Ludlow is not as rigid as one may think.

Mr. Harrison’s Confessions, by Elizabeth Gaskell (English classic)

“The story revolves around the arrival in the town of a young doctor and the attempts of the ladies of the town to place his status within their society and of course to find him a suitable wife.”

Democracy in America, Volume 2by Alexis de Tocqueville, translated by Henry Reeve (French classic, American classic)

“From America’s call for a free press to its embrace of the capitalist system Democracy in America enlightens, entertains, and endures as a brilliant study of our national government and character.”

Book cover for Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell

I’ll admit that the little novel Cranford, by Elizabeth Gaskell, didn’t impress me much at first or even engage me.  The story is told by a young woman who writes about her experiences in Cranford as if she’s writing in her journal, which makes for a whole lot of telling and not a lot of showing. That, combined with the episodic nature of the plot, results in a lack of strong narrative drive. I kept reading because the style of writing, sense of place, and quaint characters relaxed me. I felt as if I had stepped into a world that didn’t exist anymore, and that, while not always happy or comfortable, was more self-sacrificing and less frenetic than our own.

Cranford gave me such a pleasant feeling that I went on to read two other stories by Elizabeth Gaskell that are similar to it: My Lady Ludlow and Mr. Harrison’s Confessions. It wasn’t until I had finished reading all three stories that I realized they dramatize some of what Alexis de Tocqueville describes—in philosophical and political terms—in Democracy in America, Volume 2. Tocqueville details the differences between aristocratic and democratic ages in great depth, and Gaskell breathes life into those differences as she looks back at the diminishing agricultural, aristocratic age of the generation that came before hers and gently carries her characters—and readers—into a more industrialized democratic world. Tocqueville observes:

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The Song of the Lark

The Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather (American classic)

“In this powerful portrait of the self-making of an artist, Willa Cather created one of her most extraordinary heroines. Thea Kronberg, a minister’s daughter in a provincial Colorado town, seems destined from childhood for a place in the wider world. But as her path to the world stage leads her ever farther from the humble town she can’t forget and from the man she can’t afford to love, Thea learns that her exceptional musical talent and fierce ambition are not enough.”

I’ll confess that I was surprised when I read this book and found that one-third of it chronicles Thea’s childhood. I expected it to be more about her professional life and, by the time I finished the book, was glad it wasn’t. I thought that the life she led as an opera singer was dreary and that many of the people connected to her at that stage of life were shallow. I found satisfaction, however, in the fact that Thea, herself, recognizes that the professional world she lives in runs on false values. I loved her assessment of it in this conversation she has with a friend of her youth:

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