Friday, April 4, 2014

Faith and the Best Books

There are millions of books in the world – far too many for anyone to read. Of course, most of what is published is hardly worth spending time with. But even for the comparatively few worthy titles, the list is large – prohibitively large – and it continues to accumulate.  

For Latter-day Saints, this dilemma can take on an added angst. We are, after all, encouraged to find out and read from the best titles and authors we can. “[S]eek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (Doctrine and Covenants 88: 118).

These words to the Prophet Joseph Smith came as an inspired bequest to the members of the new Mormon Church just after Christmas in 1832. The entire revelation came to be called The Olive Leaf that was “plucked from the Tree of Paradise.”

It is a grand ideal, as many ideas from Holy Writ are. But it is also something that many Mormons try to achieve, especially those of us that love reading anyway. The challenge stems from our accumulating choices and from the fact that the original revelation leaves us without a list of what these “best books” might be. In short, we don’t have a final list to work from. For young aspiring Mormon readers, this can be a real limitation.

I have been dealing with this reality for over three decades now, and I am certainly not even close to having an adequate list. Nonetheless, the sheer effort of my reading addiction has yielded a few insights that I offer here to anyone interested. You may not agree with my preferences, but I hope you might be introduced to a few titles – and lists of titles – you might otherwise miss, or discover too late.

But first let me make a difficult admission. It involves something I have occasionally and intentionally ignored through the years. It has to do with the very same verse in the Olive Leaf revelation that I just quoted. It begins by stating, “And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another…” And then this is followed by the injunction to read out of the best books.

As a lover of many kinds of literature, I have wanted the scriptural statement to be a universal call to letters. But this important prefatory line is quite clearly no such thing. On the contrary, it implies that we are to seek out of the best books words of wisdom in order to teach, or to build, faith. Actually, the requirement to study is to help those who lack sufficient faith. What, exactly, this faith is to entail is not stated. It seems to be implied. I believe it must refer to the main sort of knowledge we are to achieve in this life – I mean the knowledge of God. For this is life eternal, the scripture says, “that we might know thee, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom thou has sent” (John 17: 3).

In other words this bibliotheca (unspecified and open as it is) probably was not meant to include my Tarzan books, the occasional Western novel, or the science thriller habit that I sometimes indulge.

In short, not all books are the same. And the universal virtue of reading in general – the message I picked up from my many school teachers through the years – was not the same virtue that the Olive Leaf revelation proclaimed. Very often I catch myself wanting these two virtues to line up. I want my reading addiction to be scripturally vindicated. I’m sad to say that I don’t think it is. In fact, it really does matter what we read.

That said, I have found a lot of faith-related books through the years. Some of these are written on subjects and by authors you would expect. But I have also found inspiring books in unexpected places.

Take for example my interest in adventure. There are a handful of adventure books for boys that even elementary students love to read – when they will hardly read anything else. This same genre exists for every age group, but especially for the grown-up adventurer (actual or virtual alike). I just discovered, for example, Reader’s Digest’s True Stories of Great Escapes, published in 1977. As a grown man, I still can’t help but love such books. Do these books increase my knowledge of God? Well, not always. But they very often cause me to reflect on the human condition. And a religious person, like me, can find many life lessons here. These stories can ground us to the basic realities of survival in a way that other theoretical works cannot.

Some classic adventure books that I have thoroughly enjoyed are Anapurna by Maurice Herzog, Alive by Piers Paul Read, Touching the Void by Joe Simpson. I could name many others. If you like adventure books, I suggest pulling up the list of titles in The Adventure Library published several years ago. These books with their matching covers are no longer in print. However, many of the titles are still available from other publishers, and most are available as used copies.

But let us move along to other categories. It isn’t healthy to linger in one corner of the candy shop. Many other publishers have collected great books or classics and made them available through the years. Some of these are still in print and can be purchased in installments. Others are available in libraries. And while it is true that all such lists are subjective (and incomplete as a result) they are quite useful as a starting place for great books.   

Perhaps the most ambitious collection is the Britannica Great Books of the Western World project. This collection consists of 54 volumes (most containing more than one book) that begin with Homer and end with Freud. There are many titles in this collection that will not appeal to every reader. They were chosen because of the influence they have had on Western civilization and include books on mathematics, religion, history, literature, etc. Someone wishing to read a classic would do well to glance at the titles in this collection.

And there are many other lists of classics. Some are more academic than others. If you want to find a classic that is also likely to appeal to the general reader, I recommend Reader’s Digest’s The World’s Best Reading. This collection of over a hundred titles includes Dickens, The Bronte sisters, Twain, Douglas, Doyle, etc. The collection is out of print, but used copies can still be found and the list itself is a useful guide.

Easton Press (including the former Franklin Press which it acquired) still makes expensive high quality classics available for the reader that can afford them. And for the reader on a budget – who enjoys owning her own books – the erstwhile Everyman’s Library is another place to look.

I also enjoy the collection of American classics published by the Library of America. This collection now includes over 200 titles and the list continues to grow every year. Some of the authors – especially some of the more modern ones – cannot be considered faith promoting. Some, in fact, should be avoided. But the publishing effort is well worth looking into for good titles.

And then there are the Harvard classics, the Penguin classics, and other lists and volumes. Great books often get included in these lists at some point, at least the ones with staying power. Sadly, however, there are many faith-promoting authors that get over-looked by these lists.

C.S. Lewis is a clear example of a classic Christian author that is rarely anthologized. Even his popular children stories (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe series) have had to stand on their own. And then there are classic authors such as John Henry Newman (for the more serious reader), G.K. Chesterton (for all ages), George McDonald (for all ages) and others who are likewise marginalized or forgotten.

There are many great faith-promoting stories for children and young adults. Many of these have become (or should become) classics. Besides books written by the authors mentioned above, I think immediately of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss, The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare, The Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and many others.

A good place to look for good titles appealing to young and old alike is the list of Newbery Medal winners. Many great stories have received this award through the years. Books published before 1922 (the first year the award was given) are not included. And other good stories didn’t make the list (like Lassie Come Home by Eric Knight) or are from other countries (like Heidi by Johanna Spyri). But for the beginning home library, the list of Newbery winners is a real aid.

Other awards are also helpful. My son Spencer advised me several years ago of the value of the Pulitzer Prize award for general non-fiction. The Pulitzer Prize is given once a year for American literary excellence in many areas (such as journalism, literature, poetry, photography, history, etc.). These lists include many worthy titles (although many recent winners in the category of literature are clearly not something that Christians will want to read). But the category of general non-fiction, being a bit of a collection for anything that doesn’t fit the other categories, often includes surprises that can be quite valuable.

The list of Parkman Prize winners is another place to find good books. This annual award goes to the best American work of history, but winners are also chosen because of literary excellence. This combination often highlights books that deal with important but challenging themes that are also written well enough to be quite accessible to an interested general reader. The History Book Club has reprinted over a dozen of the best of thesse winners and made them available in inexpensive copies (although not all of them are still in print).

Literary excellence, I need to add, is only a nice addition in the search for faith-promoting literature. It is not a necessary corollary. In fact, it can often lead to trouble. In the long aisles of fictional volumes that fill libraries and bookstores, most titles are of no value whatsoever in our search for God. In fact very many of them are quite offensive.

For this reason I cannot recommend a list of prize-wining novels for faith-seeking Christians. Several titles show up in the above lists, but I have only been frustrated in my efforts to find faith-promoting titles from lists of literary prize winners. I should qualify this by admitting that prize winners from earlier decades are often worthwhile – and frequently safe. More recent titles are frequently disappointing.

Of course there are Christian literary awards. And you may find these helpful. My experience, however, is that these awards are usually fairly parochial, and most winners have not been shown to have any real staying power. We really need a quality book award for excellence in virtuous literature. We could also use a Christian book review service – maybe something that provides ratings like the motion picture industry has developed. It can be quite frustrating to spend money on a book that looks interesting (even a book with good reviews) only to find that it is too offensive to read.

Finally, there is the trustworthy category of authors and books cited by general authorities in General Conference talks (the 2-day conferences held by the Mormon Church twice a year) and in their own publications. I have come to appreciate this little-recognized category more and more through the years. Many conference speakers are well-read men and women who are also individuals of faith. And while the vast majority of their sources come from the standard works of the church, other church authors and previous conference addresses, many speakers also draw from the authors of the world in their search for faithful literature.

The availability of conference talks (including citations) on the official Church website ( going back to 1971 is a valuable resource for discovering who these authors are.  By far the most frequently cited non-LDS sources are dictionaries, newspapers and news magazines. Many speakers also draw from their own professional sources such as legal documents (among the several layers) and medical journals (among the doctors and surgeons). But, for the most part, popular authors are more frequently referred to.

The two most popular ones are C.S. Lewis and William Shakespeare. Those of us that listen regularly to conference will not be surprised by this. Some poets are also frequently cited. Wordsworth and Tennyson lead the list but Kipling, Frost, Pope, Browning, Longfellow, Guest, Yeats, Milton, Whittier, Markham and others are also important.

Among other religious writers (besides C.S. Lewis) Farrar is important (primarily The Life of Christ) but so is G.K. Chesterton and H.E. Fosdick. In Children’s literature, Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland) and J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan) are understandably important but so is Antione Saint-Exupery (The Little Prince). 

Authors such as Dickens, Donne, Hugo, and (Joseph) Stein (for Fiddler on the Roof) are important. World leaders, critics and historians are also cited. Important names include Lincoln, Jefferson, Carlyle, Churchill, (William) James, (Will and Ariel) Durant, etc. 

Occasionally an author is cited that is less expected or is no longer popular (and probably deserves more attention). Corrie ten Boom and Lloyd Douglas come to mind. But also Anne Lindbergh, J.E. McCulloch (for Home: the Savior of Civilization), Barbara Tuchman, etc.

It is always refreshing for me to hear a church leader draw from great literature to build faith. This, of course, is what the Olive Leaf is asking us to do. It is also a reminder to me that great books should fill a couple of different roles. Aristotle (in his Nicomachean Ethics) taught us about primary and secondary goods. A primary good is something that is good in and of itself, like health or virtue. A secondary good is something that helps us acquire a primary good, like a job or an instrument or tool.

Some things fall into both categories. Food, for instance, can be enjoyed just for what it is. It can also help us live healthy lives or fuel our virtuous deeds. Books too can be both primary and secondary goods. Few things are more enjoyable to me than spending a couple of hours with a well-made book by an inspired author.

Of course, the literature of faith does not deny us this literary good. But it does require us to realize that as means of bringing us to God, great books are secondary goods. It is faith that is the primary good.

I think we instinctively know this. It is during those moments when we put the book aside, reflecting on important things, that we find ourselves truly lifted. These moments can be some of the greatest moments of life. That we associate them with books is natural and inevitable. It is often a book that is the catalyst that leads us to God.

And this, perhaps, is where books achieve their highest value. Faith is the motivating influence of all of our intentions. This is one of the great teachings of Joseph Smith in Lectures on Faith. But where does this desire come from in the first place? Alma taught that a beginning to faith can be nurtured even from a small seed if we will but give it place in our hearts (see Alma Chapter 32, in The Book of Mormon). Very few things are more capable than great books for planting this desire.

Of course, other kinds of books can do just the opposite. We need to help each other make this important distinction and find the truly great books. For many of us – especially children – our faith depends on it.

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