Seeking the Lofty

Wilder Quote

I came across this quote yesterday, on the birthday of Thornton Wilder, its author. It reflects one of the bedrock ideas of this blog. I am convinced that a life well-lived is shaped by the pursuit of the “lofty.” Any social structure, from a family, to a business, to a country flourishes to the degree that it pursues the good, the true, and the beautiful rather than the tawdry, the base, and the unjust.

The Apostle Paul said something similar:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8, NIV)

I’m struck with Paul’s repeated “whatever’s.” One might most naturally think of sacred scriptures, prayers, or other religious texts. Paul and Thornton Wilder agree. To read, hear, or see great works, whatever they might be, are necessary to “seeking the lofty.”

Implicit in both statements is the idea that there may be other than great things to read, hear, and see and other than lofty lives we might live. We are formed and shaped by what we read, and see, and hear, and think about for good or for ill, every day.

This blog represents my own attempt to curate a reading life around the qualities Paul mentions. As quickly as I read, I can only read in a lifetime a few thousand out of the vast number of books that have ever been published. The real question is, do I want a life that is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy? If my answer to that is yes, then why would I read–or for that matter view or listen to–anything lacking in these qualities.

I don’t think this means that we only engage things that look like a Thomas Kinkade painting, reflecting some idyllic world. I would read no crime fiction were that case–nor  the Bible for that matter! Great works often do portray the underside of life, but their effect at the end of the day is not to encourage me to embrace that life, but to strive for something better, to repent my sins, to leave aside meanness and selfishness and small-mindedness.

It does mean that all of us become curators of the material we admit to the museum, the library, the concert hall, of our lives. Every publisher, every librarian, every museum curator, every one who creates a playlist curates. So do the people who feed us the news, whether via social media, online websites, print or televised media. The question is whether we will forfeit the curation of our lives, and the things we see, and read, and watch to someone else. It is an important question if we are “seeking the lofty.”

I don’t want to curate your life. My own is more than enough challenge, one for which I need great grace. I do hope that what I write, and the books I commend point toward some “great work” that may enrich at least some moments of your days. I sometimes despair that our modern world is descending into balefulness, barrenness, and banality. I need voices from beyond the void to remind me of the lofty. I hope in some small way I might be one.

 

Banning…Or Curating?

pyramid of transparency_updated“Every time you turn around, it seems a school somewhere is banning a book after parental complaints. What we should or shouldn’t be allowing–or requiring–students to read is a topic of constant, heated debate.”

This is the opening paragraph in a recent Bookriot article. I would contend that the writer is engaging in a bit of hyperbole. In 2016, according to the American Library Association, there were 323 challenges of all sorts, including challenges to databases, filtering, speakers, programs, or social media, as well as to books. That is less than one challenge per million people living in this country or just over six challenges in each state, on average The ALA contends this may be only about 10 percent of all actual challenges, which would mean there might be 3230 challenges, yet they quote a number of 10,766 but give no rationale for this number. Furthermore, these numbers are dropping. In 1995, 762 books were challenged. The reality is, in most cases the challenges are unsuccessful.

I do think we have to take a look at the reasons these books are challenged. Primarily, especially in the most recent top ten, the subject matter of the books which is objected often has to do with content that is sexually objectionable for a particular age group, or is “transgressive” on terms of sexuality, violence, drug use or language. One of the top 10 books was by Bill Cosby, challenged because of criminal sexual allegations against the author. Particularly in the light of #MeToo allegations, I think a credible case could be made for not promoting works by this author. We are “banning” figures facing similar allegations from political office, media positions and other workplaces.

The puzzling thing is that on the one hand we are promoting books that violate traditional sexual moral standards, and then attacking people, mostly men who make unwanted sexual advances against women. In no way, in writing this am I justifying these acts, which are inexcusable, nor suggesting that the one causes the other. Nor am I necessarily contending that such books should be “banned” from schools or libraries, particularly if they are of high literary merit, or if non-fiction, represent a well-argued and researched account the deals with different views fairly.

What troubles me more is the double rhetorical standard applied to this discussion. When parents object to books being available to their children that seem to affirm what they would view as transgressive, it is called “challenging, banning, and censorship.” But what is it called when librarians decide not to acquire books by white supremacists, by homophobic writers, or others of their ilk? It is called “curating” and even though the decisions they make affect the selection of books in the stacks for adults (not children), few people challenge the librarians for violating intellectual freedom. If one flipped the rhetoric, one could contend that librarians are the single largest group of book banners around, making conscious decisions to exclude far more titles than parents or patrons ever do.

I happen to think the librarians who make such choices are entirely justified in doing so and I would agree with them. But is there any role parents have in “curating” the books their children are exposed to? At very least, is there not a place for them in the decision processes, particular given the fact that there are only so many books that can be included in a curriculum, or in a library?

I would also observe that no one is banning these books from book stores or challenging stores for selling them. And with our online sellers, anything in print or e-book format is a click away. In fact, “banned books” are a bonanza for booksellers who promote them each year.

If we really care about “banned books” we may want to look at the books that are truly banned in other countries, beginning with the sacred scriptures of any religion not in the majority. In repressive regimes, books about democracy are often prohibited. In patriarchal regimes, books advocating the rights of women are banned. In some countries possession of some books is considered criminal.

Personally, I think trying to challenge or ban a book is a fool’s errand. I think a better tactic is for parents to read these books with their children and talk about them. I also think some questions we might explore more in curating books that our children are exposed to are:

  • What are some of the best books by age group, across different subject areas, that have stood the test of time, as well as newer books of widely recognized excellence, to which we want our children exposed?
  • What books will encourage our children to be readers?
  • What books will cultivate a sense of our history, our shared values, and highest aspirations, appealing to the better, rather than lesser, angels of our nature?

One thing everyone in this discussion agrees upon is that books matter. They shape our view of the world and the way we live. In an era where people may be reading less, might there be more discussion of how we might foster literacy and a lifelong love of reading. That seems to me a far more worthwhile endeavor than discussing what not to read.