Reading Books We Don’t Like?

True confessions time. I get some of my blogging ideas from the good folks over at Bookriot who host some of the most interesting conversations about reading for the general reading public. Today they posted an article on “The Benefits of Reading a Book You Don’t Like.”

The article talked about exploring what it is that makes us uncomfortable and what we find that is not working for us in books we don’t like rather than simply dismissing them with “I don’t like that.” And it strikes me that such an exploration may reveal qualities both in the work and in ourselves and that these can enrich and enlarge our worlds even when this is uncomfortable.

Fate of AfricaI can’t say, for example, that I liked reading The Fate of Africa recently. It was a thoroughly depressing account of corrupt leadership in country after country, the devastation of AIDS and genocides, with occasional glimmers of hope. Yet I think we are woefully ignorant of the importance of this huge continent, the richness of its peoples and cultures, and how we cannot divorce the “fate” of Africa from our own.

SolitudeI did not enjoy Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of SolitudeFundamentally, the story is the chronicle of a truly dysfunctional family that would be rich material for a Dr. Phil show. I also have to say I’m not a fan of magical realism and both of these facts probably reveal something about me. But discussing this book on and offline revealed why others like it, the implicit critique of colonialism that runs through it, as well as the fact that families and sexuality can sometimes be just about as bizarre as they are portrayed here.

Jim CrowReading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow was just plain uncomfortable as a white man in a middle class suburb. Whether I agree with all of her analysis or not, I have to ask what is wrong with a culture that incarcerates a substantially greater portion of people from one minority ethnicity, even while the incidence of drug use may be as prevalent in my own suburb if only more cleverly hidden. And it was chilling to read about the erosion of our Fourth Amendment protections against illegal searches and seizures that are integral to policing strategies in some communities.

The last kind of book I think of are books by those who do not agree with me. Reading books by writers like Daniel Dennett or E.O. Wilson, who are often quite critical of Christians help me understand the source of their animus, some of which might be justified even while i believe some is built on misconceptions of Christian belief. Likewise, reading authors from different theological persuasions and parts of the church is important, and even those of other faiths. It keeps me from caricaturing their beliefs and helps me understand why they might think differently.

Admittedly, a number of the books I read are those I think I’ll like. But sometimes it is the ones I don’t like that have left the most lasting impressions and force me to re-examine my own conceptions of the world. Reading the Bible actually falls in this category for me, which may be a surprise, but this is true because the Bible doesn’t sanitize human ugliness, it doesn’t portray a tame and domesticated God, and it makes uncomfortable ethical demands upon my life. It is a collection of books out of other times and cultures that sometimes can be difficult to understand and sometimes uncomfortable because I do understand it, which has been to my profound benefit.

I would be curious, how have you benefited from books you didn’t like, and what were these books?