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Dangerous books - A Sorta Fairytale
October 2013
 
 
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hymnia
hymnia
Joie
Sat, Nov. 19th, 2011 10:18 pm
Dangerous books

Almost any book worth reading is a dangerous book. I once knew a young man who jumped off a roof and broke his leg after reading the Harry Potter books. It seems he wanted to test himself for latent magical abilities, like Neville's relatives did to him when he was a kid, trying to prove that he wasn't a Squib. (This young man had high-functioning Downs Syndrome; he was bright enough to read Harry Potter, but lacked a clear understanding of the line between reality and fantasy.)

Books have the power to shape our ideas, for good or ill. Speculative fiction may have even greater power because it is not bounded by the limits of the real world. Of course, not everyone who reads Harry Potter will respond the way this young man did—the vast majority will not. But the ideas contained in books—whether ideas intentionally worked into the themes of the story by the author or not—will inevitably interact with our own, and shifts in understanding can take place. Stories may challenge our beliefs, or they may confirm and solidify them—or perhaps they will affect them in more oblique ways. Either way, whenever we encounter good story-telling, it is unlikely we will walk away unchanged.

This is not a bad thing, of course. In fact, I think this is how any well-told story should be. I don't reject books because I consider them “dangerous”. In fact, I think the word could be applied to almost any of my favorite books, and certainly to the ones I recommend most. “Read this book. It will change you.” Haven't you ever recommended a book to someone that way? But because I know they can have a powerful influence on our beliefs—and by extension, how we live our lives—I do think carefully about what books I pass on to others, and under what circumstances. Some books I may recommend only to certain people, like the series I will discuss in a moment. Some I may recommend while expressing reservations or adding disclaimers. (The Twilight books come immediately to mind.) With children and teens, there are a lot of books I would prefer to share and discuss with them, rather than just setting them loose unguided. (I feel this way about much of the Bible, as well as a lot of classic works). And, though I can't think of any off the top of my head (at least not any I actually finished reading), there may be some books I wouldn't pass on to anyone under any circumstances.

Some time ago on Mark Reads I caused a bit of a stir by saying that I wouldn't recommend Philip Pullman's YA fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials to young people. Why not? In essence, I feel that the series co-opts the thrill of numinous experience through its fantasy setting and inspiring characters and utilizes this thrill for such a harshly anti-Christian and anti-God message that I cannot support putting the books in the hands of people who I feel are likely to accept that message too easily and uncritically.

I have recommended the books to adult readers, especially fellow Christians, for the purpose of examining challenges to the faith and discussing the implications of them. There's no doubt they are well-written, highly engaging books with many elements and themes that appeal to a broad audience, including young people. And I would even say that I agree with some of the themes—themes like embracing the pursuit of knowledge and sacrificing one's own immediate happiness for long-term goals and greater good. But there are a couple of points that I object to strongly, and the fact that the books are well-written and contain some positive themes make me feel all the more compelled to avoid endorsing them. It's like hiding poison in a delicious chocolate cake.

I don't support censorship. However, I think there will always be some tendency by human institutions run by humans to have a certain bias in what information we select or include in our media and communication materials. People in certain positions in a free society—librarians at public libraries, for example—have a responsibility to repress their inclinations to “select out” that which they disagree with (and maybe also to “select in” that which they wish to promote) to a degree that could reasonably be considered censorship. Were I in such a position, I wouldn't “select out” HDM from the shelves of YA fantasy fiction. There is no doubt that it belongs there.

But does that same idea apply to my position as a classroom teacher? I don't believe it does. The books I place on my classroom bookshelves are: 1) obviously not meant to be a comprehensive collection of YA books, and 2) could be viewed as receiving my personal endorsement. Therefore, I have chosen not to put the HDM books on my classroom bookshelves.

Finally, I wouldn't dream of forbidding or even discouraging a teen who is already inclined to pick up the HDM books from doing so. I'm not as dumb as Professor Umbridge, after all! I might—if in a situation where it is appropriate to offer some guidance—encourage her to search out the underlying themes and ideas Pullman might be trying to promote, and to think carefully about whether or not she agrees with them, and what other viewpoints there might be. I might even articulate some of those other viewpoints.

Censorship is not the right approach to "dangerous books". People have the right to access information and ideas--even if others dislike those ideas or the effects they might produce. However, I believe that in a free society people also have the right to make selections about what information and ideas we personally endorse.

Joie

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Current Mood: thoughtful thoughtful

7CommentReply

senior_witch
senior_witch
susanna
Sun, Nov. 20th, 2011 11:31 am (UTC)

I don't understand why you don't pass on HDM the same way you pass on Twilight ("with reservations").


ReplyThread
hymnia
hymnia
Joie
Sun, Nov. 20th, 2011 07:49 pm (UTC)

Actually, come to think of it, my approach to both sets of books is similar. I never put Twilight on my classroom bookshelves, either. But most teens I know are already well aware of the series and have chosen to either read or reject them on their own, without my influence. So Twilight is more like the scenario I described in the last part of my post, where I find myself not in a position to influence whether or not someone reads them, so I would instead want to discuss them and help them think critically about the books. (I do recommend the books to adults, though, or not so much recommend them as encourage adults not to avoid them. To be perfectly honest, I enjoyed reading the books--in much the same way I used to enjoy watching soap operas in my teens. I recognize they are problematic in many ways, but there's something about them that keeps me turning the pages.)

I will add that my concerns about HDM are much stronger than for Twilight, because my religious faith is very dear and personal. The HDM books are just very offensive at points. I enjoyed 80% of them, because they are creative and well-written, and the characters are so engaging. But there are certain parts that just hurt to read and think about. The HDM books bother me more, if that makes sense. It's a personal choice.


ReplyThread Parent
senior_witch
senior_witch
susanna
Sun, Nov. 20th, 2011 09:46 pm (UTC)

Yes, HDM was popular quite some time ago. I read it around the year 2000. I liked it actually, it was a page-turner to me, even though I am Christian too (then more than now, but I am still a member of the church, only an inactive one.)

My most important objection to the book would be that its portrayal of Christianity is factually inaccurate and has nothing to do with the religion I was raised in. It's typical for a lot of atheist or "humanist" criticism of religion, which is often directed against a strawman that has nothing to do with protestant Christianity in Germany, nor with typical Catholic people here (though the present pope is really problematic.) On the other hand, since I grew up I have met people who have encountered the kind of religion Pullman writes about, and also, coming to think of it, if the reformation had been successful in the conventional way, that is not splitting off but really reforming the Catholic church, it might have become as powerful as in HDM. It's the church's controversies within itself (e.g. between different denominations), with other religions and with secular movements as the European Enlightenment that tamed it.

(Pullman is not the only militant atheist who needs a caricature of church to rant against. Dawkins does the same for adults. It's when I found out that he is one of the best-know sociobiologists that I ceased to take him seriously. I am interested in the forms of atheism/humanism that come up with a morality that's founded on reason and no longer needs God as its foundation, but I don't take any interest in big boys who simply want the right to do whatever they want.)

I really like the demons in "HDM" - they alone are worth the books. They make me think of Socrates' daimonion, and of Hannah Arendt's idea of being in dialogue with yourself, and that this is what protects you against becoming evil.

There's other things in HDM that are far more problematic than the rants against Christianity. One of them is the uncritical acceptance of magical artefacts for truthtelling, and even worse, the idea of death he seems to prefer to that of Christianity: dissolving and becoming one with the universe. It seems taken from Buddhism, but Buddhism can be as problematic as Christianity.

(Though in the end it's not that bad, and not better or worse than the idea of death promoted by Christianity. The real problem about both ideas about death is that they may be abused to turn people into obedient subjects who will wait for the next life instead of demanding justice now. It always depends: Hoping for some afterlife may also give you courage to resist political authority.)

And then there's the usual conservative rubbish: Child of destiny who saves the world, while other people sacrifice themselves for her. I still wonder about the psychological explanation why this is so important to children.

But all in all the story is suffiently well-written to make it worth reading. There's a lot of ideas in it that are worth thinking about, and children who know a different version of Christianity than the strawman in the book won't be turned away from their faith. The real problem is atheists who feel confirmed in their disgust, instead of setting out and having a look at religion in its various forms.

On the other hand, Twilight is a book I would never recommend neither to a child nor an adult. Actually I would warn adults against it, not because I think the books dangerous, but because I think them a waste of time and money. For me they weren't even page-turners - I had to force me to make my way through the first volume, which is very rare with me with "light reading." (Actually I only read the first volume, and mostly because I am "reading mentor" to a girl who loves the books. I wanted to be able to discuss the books with her. With the other volumes I decided that reading summaries was enough.)

I guess it's because I am too old to long for that kind of wish fulfillment that I didn't enjoy the book. I know the regressive yearning for someone who takes upon him the burden of your life, but I have also learnt to turn away from that kind of yearning.



ReplyThread Parent
hymnia
hymnia
Joie
Mon, Nov. 21st, 2011 12:31 am (UTC)

I started to write a line-by-line response to this, but I found that it essentially amounted to me nodding and saying, "I agree" to almost everything you posted. Your views on the problems with the HDM books are very similar to mine. I especially take exception to how it portrays the Christian view of life after death as inherently more dangerous than other views. And it rankles to see Pullman throw insults at a version of Christianity that is, as you say, mostly a strawman (although I admit some of the criticism has merit), seemingly to promote reason over faith, while at the same time drawing off of mystical ideas from Buddhism and the I Ching. It's like he's saying, "Religion is bad--but only if it's Western religion."

As for Twilight, well, I think it does reveal some things about the inner life of teen girls, and sometimes of women who are past (maybe long past) their teens. Some women may find these things embarrassing or unworthy of womankind, but the reality is that these books wouldn't be as popular as they are if they didn't have a certain resonance with many girls and women. And that phenomenon is, in and of itself, worth exploring and discussing, IMO. So I think the books are worth reading. And I freely admit to enjoying them, although I accept that is not and will not be everyone's experience.


ReplyThread Parent
marikunin
marikunin
Mary
Sun, Nov. 20th, 2011 01:43 pm (UTC)

"I have recommended the books to adult readers, especially fellow Christians, for the purpose of examining challenges to the faith and discussing the implications of them. There's no doubt they are well-written, highly engaging books with many elements and themes that appeal to a broad audience, including young people. And I would even say that I agree with some of the themes—themes like embracing the pursuit of knowledge and sacrificing one's own immediate happiness for long-term goals and greater good. But there are a couple of points that I object to strongly, and the fact that the books are well-written and contain some positive themes make me feel all the more compelled to avoid endorsing them. It's like hiding poison in a delicious chocolate cake."

This. I'd recommend it to older teens, too. (I do like the whole daemon concept though, lol)


ReplyThread
hymnia
hymnia
Joie
Sun, Nov. 20th, 2011 07:56 pm (UTC)

When I read the books I was in my mid-twenties, so...yeah, it's hard to explain, but the farther removed I get from my own teenage years, the more I realize how psychologically vulnerable I was. And I think that's true for most teens. There may be individual exceptions to that, but as a general rule, I just couldn't recommend them to anyone younger than about 20, TBH.


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nevrafire
nevrafire
nevrafire
Sun, Nov. 20th, 2011 03:08 pm (UTC)
glad to see i'm not the only one

you feel the same way I feel about HDM. and thanks, because now i have a valid response to give to my friend when they ask me why i dont like the books that is not "the author is a clear bad case anti-religious guy"

interesting thoughts too! i'm so glad i follow your lj!


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