“Can you suggest ways to select good reading material?” Ensign, Feb. 1979, 41–42
Stephen L. Tanner, associate professor of English, Brigham Young University Selecting reading material can be a puzzling task, since so much is being published nowadays. It’s tempting to choose on the basis of an inviting cover or a publisher’s “blurbs.” Before you buy, though, remember that we do have some criteria to help. The Lord has counseled us through his prophets to learn all good things, but reading the scriptures should be one’s first priority. Even a good Church book is no substitute for scripture study. We shouldn’t neglect the word of God for the word of man.
In addition to the scriptures, which give us both specific examples and general counsel, many other materials can enrich and delight us. But we must be discriminating in our choices. This is true for light reading as well as for serious reading. The distinguished poet-critic T. S. Eliot rightly concluded that “It is just the literature that we read for ‘amusement,’ or ‘purely for pleasure’ that may have the greatest and least suspected influence upon us. It is the literature which we read with the least effort that can have the easiest and most insidious influence upon us.” Eliot realized that such reading “affects us as entire human beings; it affects our moral and religious existence.” (Selected Essays, New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1950, p. 350.)
We should choose the books we read as carefully as we choose the company we keep. They need not be widely recognized classics any more than our friends need be famous people. Good books can be as humble and unpretentious as a good neighbor. It is character rather than fame that counts.
The effort required to be a discriminating reader need not be great. Selections made by book clubs can help if you discount the elements of advertising and sales promotion. Best-seller lists can give guidance, but they reflect only sales in major cities. Moreover, popularity is a questionable test of quality, since your interests, tastes, and values may not correspond with those of the book-buying public.
Therefore, choose books that suit you, rather than those that conform to public taste. Many fine books never reach best-seller lists. Become acquainted with your local library. Your librarian may be willing to recommend less books.
Many newspapers and magazines have book reviews that may help you find appropriate reading material. The periodical section of a library puts hundreds of reviews at your fingertips.
At the same time you satisfy your present interests, cultivate new ones. Discovery is one of reading’s greatest pleasures. Do you like animals? Try a book on animal behavior. Have you wondered what causes rain? Try a book on meteorology or a popular treatment of science. Have you ever read a travel book? A how-to book? A biography of a famous person? A “whodunit” mystery? A history of the Civil War? Reviews can introduce you to new authors and subjects, guide you in your choices, and whet your appetite.
Books about books can be stimulating, particularly if you are choosing classics. Books like Clifton Fadiman’s The Lifetime Reading Plan or Will Durant’s Great Men of Literature contain lists, descriptions, and commentaries on classics. Two of my favorite books on books are Gilbert Highet’s People, Places, and Books and A Clerk of Oxenford. These contain brief essays on books ranging from history to science fiction. For poetry lovers, I recommend Highet’s The Powers of Poetry.
Some general authorities have written similar essays on books. Elder Adam S. Bennion, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve who died in 1958, discusses reading in The Candle of the Lord and offers a list of one hundred worthwhile books. In The Majesty of Books, Elder Sterling W. Sill of the First Quorum of the Seventy discusses his favorites among the world’s great literature.
A little time spent reading about reading will generate dividends of pleasure and knowledge during that precious time you devote to books. As you search and study, remember that the Spirit of the Lord can help us know how and what to study:
“Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand;
“Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowldege also of countries and of kingdoms.” (D&C 88:78–79.)