What to Read? What Not to Read?

undefinedThis long-ish post essentially covers my reading adventures and my thoughts about said adventures. Feel free to skim my ramblings. 

I have been thinking for the last few months about reading because I have been doing more of it. I am ashamed to say I read far less before the time of COVID. I think my time was absorbed in getting reading for work each morning and prepping my meals at night, my commute, exercise and the general things everyone must do to keep their homes in order. Once I spent time with friends and family, slept, ate, and “relaxed,” which really means scrolling mindlessly through YouTube and Instagram, most of the time in the week was accounted for. (I should add that a week or two ago I deleted the YouTube and Instagram apps from my phone, which has been a tremendous help. I might delete Netflix next, but it’s my brother’s account and neither of us remembers the password, so if I delete it, it might be gone forever. But, maybe that’s not a bad thing.) 

Now, as I work from home and spend more time indoors, time still moves quickly, but it seems to have expanded; I think I have far more hours in each week. I have spent a lot of the time completing my self-designed list of “Quarantine Projects,” which includes a variety of tasks that I wanted to complete but did not have the time to pre-COVID: starting a garden, cleaning various parts of the house, organizing closets, hand washing winter sweaters, washing and vacuuming my car, making a homemade carrot cake (I ended up making this twice), baking sourdough bread (I still need to make a second loaf), and getting a number of things in order for school in the fall. 

I included “read” on this list, and recorded a variety of books that I wanted to read or reread, most of which are included in my previous blog post. Then, I started ordering books because 1) the library is closed, and 2) while the ebooks are available for free through the library, I have never been able to read a book from a screen. I was pleased with the variety of books I had selected and was happy to spend time entertaining my brain rather than watching pointless YouTube videos, but I started to wonder if spending hours reading the Bible or related literature is better or more valuable than reading a novel–even if it is a classic. 

Not long after I started to ponder this, I saw a Christian woman post on Instagram, who essentially said (my paraphrase) that reading is completely fine, but that we must also devote time to the Scripture and ensure that our understanding of what is true and right originates from the Bible. I agreed with her, and I also added that the content of what I read must be sound. (Of course, “sound” can be interpreted in a variety of ways. I’m thinking of Philippians 4:8.)

Here’s an example. My reading list included Beloved, which is a novel by Toni Morrison. I’ve never read anything by her, so I selected this book, which had won an award and was highly praised. I think I completed two chapters. I was so shocked by the content in the first thirty or so pages. I felt this sickening weight in my chest, and I knew I had to get rid of the book. 

A few days later, I saw my dad, who reads all the time. “Dad, have you read Beloved?” 

“A long time ago.” He said he started Beloved but did not finish. 

“I tried to read it,” I replied. “No one ever told me that it was about a woman who lives with her only child in a home that is terrorized by a poltergeist who is essentially the demonic remnant of her other dead daughter. No one said there was beastality in the first few pages.” 

Dad confirmed my convictions. “I had trouble stomaching those things, too.”

“It’s too bad because she is an excellent writer, but I don’t think you have to include those elements in a book to get your point across.” 

That was the end of my experience with Toni Morrison. 

Then, there was the question of whether some of the books I read were edifying. For example, I decided to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. (I finished it yesterday.) I have read a fair amount of Civil Rights literature and seen a lot of documentaries over the years, and I had developed the suspicion that Malcolm X was misrepresented. I didn’t think his general reputation as a racist, black nationalist was completely accurate, but I could not explain why I sensed this. Something was missing from the narratives I had encountered, but I didn’t know what it was. I knew that the only way to prove or disprove my suspicion was to read the primary source: his autobiography, which he narrated to Alex Haley, who wrote the book. 

I was hesitant and a little bit nervous when I started The Autobiography because I didn’t know what to expect or what I would find. I even got close to breaking up with the book a few times, but I am very glad I stuck with it because reading the book from cover to cover (this includes all the introductory sections and the very long epilogue) provides great context. Combined, all the components show how Malcolm X changed over time. Unfortunately, he was murdered just as his very harsh and often hard-to-stomach comments about race were transforming for the better. 

As I read this book, I thought a lot about what scripture would say in response to Malcolm X’s ideologies and how our environments (particularly the circumstances under which we are raised) often shape what we believe about other people and who we become. Malcolm X was a product of his childhood; his wild, debaucherous years in his teens and early twenties; the seven years he spent in jail, and his involvement with the Nation of Islam. Then, his 1964 trip to Mecca (about one year before he died) introduced him to some of the first people with fair skin and light eyes who were kind to him, which fostered a sense of mutual respect. From there, Malcolm X began to change. 

The Autobiography also reveals a quality Malcolm X had that I respect. He is very quick to admit his faults, which surprised me because it seems like a rare thing for people to confess and apologize to each other these days. There are times throughout the book in which he confesses the things he regrets most in his life: a white woman he wishes he could apologize to but doesn’t know where she lives or what her name is, the biggest error he made in his marriage, and comments he made publicly that make him cringe. “I wish I had never said that,” he would say. Once, he publicly insulted a white reporter and called him later to apologize. I noticed that as the autobiography progressed, he made more of these comments and confessions as his thoughts and feelings began to change toward white people. I realized that this Malcolm X is not the Malcolm X we learn about in school. We didn’t learn that his theology was transforming in the few years before he was murdered. 

I wondered about who Malcolm X would have become in 20 or 30 years. I wondered who Malcolm X could have become if he had become a Christian. I thought about his unusual conviction to admit fault and apologize, which are qualities that are both desirable and hard-to-find in any leader, not to mention Christian ones. He makes one or two points in the last two chapters that imply that he is simply seeking truth, and I wonder what would have happened if Malcolm X had encountered the only truth, which is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I think about what a great testimony that would have been, to see where Malcolm’s life began and where it ended because of the transformative power of the Gospel. Sadly, the world will never know. 

Overall, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, was one of the most fascinating books I have read in a long time because it included nearly all the elements of a book that I seek: 

  1. Character development. 
  2. Perspectives that differ from my own and make me think. 
  3. Increases my understanding and knowledge of a person or event. 
  4. The opportunity to critique and consider ideologies and events through 1) the lens of the Gospel and 2) through the eyes of someone whose life experiences are completely different than my own. 
  5. Civil Rights history. 

I highly recommend The Autobiography of Malcolm X: 1) expect to be offended, 2) expect to learn things you did not know, and 3) expect to ponder the ideologies you might develop if you had the same childhood Malcolm X had.  

I started this blog post so that I could think about what I’m reading, whether I should read it, and if I should diversify the genres. I did decide to add more theology books to what I’m reading; I’m waiting for two books on reformed theology to arrive in the mail because I know next to nothing about reformed theology. These types of books take me a while to get through because they’re more systematic in nature and I need time to ponder, but I think it is important for me to read books about Christianity in addition to non-fiction like The Autobiography or novels. Speaking of novels, I am noticing that I am not very fond of novels unless they are historical fiction. I’d rather read a memoir or an autobiography, or in the least, I prefer dystopian novels like Fahrenheit 451 because they provide interesting commentaries on society. (This reminds me that I need to tackle Animal Farm; I started it when I was too young to understand, and therefore, I never finished it.)

For now, I’m on to my next book, Elli, which came in the mail today. I read a later version of this book called I Have Lived a Thousand Years in middle school, and I wanted to see how this one compares. It’s memoir by a Jewish woman (Livia Bitton-Jackson) who survived Auschwitz.  

4 Comments

  1. I’ve always wanted to read “Malcolm X”, I really like the movie by spike lee . Based on your recommendation I’ll definitely try and check it out now, thanks . It’s edifying hearing your thoughts on what you’re reading (and not reading), thanks for sharing . And congrats on starting school!

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  2. Thanks for reading! I haven’t watched the movie, but I want to watch it sometime soon. I hope you find the book as fascinating as I did. My next goal is to read literature that is less depressing. I just finished a Holocaust memoir, and I need something to balance out the sad literature that makes you despair at humanity.

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    1. Whew, you have been in dark territory. I have a recommendation, if you’re interested. Did you ever read a children’s book called “The Tale of Despereaux”? They made an animated movie based on it several years ago. The book is about a mouse that wants to be a knight . It’s a unique and rich book and surprisingly engrossing. It may fit the need for something more hopeful . You already have quite a list but that book came to mind. Ether way, I’m sure you’ll find something more uplifting .

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