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.
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?”
The Leatherstocking Tales, by James Fenimore Cooper (American classics)
The Last of the Mohicans
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.
“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.”
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:
“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.”
When I was a child, one of the three big television networks in the U.S. ran the film Ben-Hur  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.
“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.”
“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.“
“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.”
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:
“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:
“Narrated by A. Square, Flatland is Edwin A. Abbott’s delightful mathematical fantasy about life in a two-dimensional world. All existence is limited to length and breadth in Flatland, its inhabitants unable even to imagine a third dimension. Abbott’s amiable narrator provides an overview of this fantastic world-its physics and metaphysics, its history, customs, and religious beliefs. But when a strange visitor mysteriously appears and transports the incredulous Flatlander to the Land of Three Dimensions, his worldview is forever shattered.”
We read this clever little novella in my book group. I was initially intrigued by the premise, but I’ll confess that I didn’t care for it at first. What sounded like a science fiction story appeared to really be a math puzzle. I like science fiction, but my brain rebels against math puzzles. As I continued to read, however, I realized that it was both science fiction and a math puzzle and, to my astonishment, religious fiction. I shouldn’t have been surprised, however, because the title page of the Project Gutenberg edition I read identifies Edwin A. Abbott as an English scholar, theologian, and writer.
When I saw that one of my favorite LibriVox readers recorded The Scarlet Pimpernel and two of its sequels, I decided to listen to them. The Scarlet Pimpernel isn’t great literature, but it’s fun, and I’ve been in the mood for light reading.
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, Volume 1 and Volume 2, by Mark Twain (American classic)
“Regarded by many as the most luminous example of Twain’s work, this historical novel chronicles the French heroine’s life, as purportedly told by her longtime friend—Sieur Louis de Conté. A panorama of stirring scenes recount Joan’s childhood in Domremy, the story of her voices, the fight for Orleans, the splendid march to Rheims, and much more. An amazing record that disclosed Twain’s unrestrained admiration for Joan’s nobility of character, the book is matchless in its workmanship—one of Twain’s lesser-known novels that will charm and delightfully surprise his admirers and devotees.”
Joan of Arc’s fascinating holy life, combined with Mark Twain’s superb storytelling, make Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc the most compelling, uplifting novel I’ve read in a while. With this novel, Twain accomplishes what I believe is a difficult, if almost impossible, feat for an author—he makes a holy person both believable and accessible. At the other end of the spectrum, his evil characters are also just as real and believable—horrifyingly so. Moreover, all of his characters, both fictional and historic, are unique and interesting. With his phenomenal insight into human character, Twain helped me understand how so many real people—both commoners and aristocrats—could have believed that a seventeen-year-old peasant girl had been visited by angels and called of God to deliver France from English bondage.
“The Men of the Mark do not lie, and therefore they are not easily deceived” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers).
“God has just such gladness every time he sees from heaven that a sinner is praying to Him with all his heart, as a mother has when she sees the first smile on her baby’s face” (Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot).
“God’s love and mercy can overcome all things—our ignorance, and weakness, and all the burden of our past wickedness—all things but our wilful sin, sin that we cling to, and will not give up” (George Eliot, Adam Bede).
“Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing; human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion, and God alone can be omnipotent, because His wisdom and His justice are always equal to His power” (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America).
“I decided that God, a kind and loving God, could never be proved. In fact there are . . . a lot of arguments against him. But there isn’t any point to life without him. Without him we’re just a skin disease on the face of the earth, and I feel too strongly about the human spirit to be able to settle for that. So what I did for a long time was to live life as though I believed in God. And eventually I found out that the as though had turned into a reality” (Madeleine L’Engle, The Moon by Night).
About the Author
Creator of spaced-out Christian fiction and clean-reading resources. See my BIO.