On the Reading of Good Books and Bad Books

There are two types of good book and two types of bad book. Here's how to tell them apart.

Friedrich Prölß, “In Gedanken”, 1894
Friedrich Prölß, “In Gedanken”, 1894 (photo: Public Domain)

It has been said, quite correctly, that we write as well as we read. It can also be said, equally correctly, that we think as well as we read. Since our very thoughts are communicated to ourselves and to others by the use of words, it stands to reason that the better our vocabulary the better will be our ability to make sense of reality. This is why the Anglo-Saxons spoke of each person possessing their own individual word-horde. The larger the word-horde we possess, the richer we are.

Since reading well is so important, it is good to get into the habit of reading good books. The better the book, the better will be our ability to think well and write well. This being so, it is good to be able to judge what constitutes a good book from a bad book. 

Generally speaking, there are two types of good book and two types of bad book. A book can be good in the sense that it is well-written and it can also be good in the sense of the morality that it communicates. Conversely a book can be bad in the sense that it is poorly-written and can also be bad in the sense of the morality, or lack thereof, that it conveys. Logically, therefore, we can say that there are four types of books. There are good-good books, bad-good books, good-bad books, and bad-bad books. There are books that are well-written and convey good morals; books that are poorly-written but convey good morals; books that are well-written that are immoral; and books that are poorly-written and immoral.

Needless to say, we needn’t waste our time on bad-bad books; those which are poorly-written and convey a bad moral philosophy. But what of the other types of books?

It goes without saying that good-good books are worth reading, but what of the bad-good books and the good-bad books? The former are poorly-written but are morally sound. Many self-published works of Christian fiction fall into this category, though by no means all. Should we read them? There is perhaps no moral objection to our doing so, except insofar as we are wasting time that could be better spent reading good-good books. 

But what about the good-bad books, which are well-written but convey questionable or execrable morals? These are certainly seductive, insofar as we might enjoy their literary merit and even perceive real beauty in the masterful control of language or the presence of pyrotechnic eloquence. One thinks perhaps of the works of James Joyce, a Meistersinger in terms of his use of words and his mythopoeic power, who nonetheless uses his superlative talents subversively, warring with the Faith in which he was raised, casting his priceless pearls before swine. Should such books be read? Should we be comfortable reading great writers whose philosophies grate with a Christian understanding of the truth? Should we read James Joyce, for instance? Should we encourage others to do so?

These were questions with which I struggled when teaching literature at undergraduate level. For years I omitted teaching Joyce because doing so would have meant leaving out a good-good book, which I thought it more important for my students to read and study, in order to make room for a good-bad book. I was prevailed upon to teach Joyce on the basis that any of my students proceeding to graduate school would be seriously disadvantaged if they hadn’t read him. I saw the argument but was unconvinced that 90% of my students needed to be forced to read a good-bad book instead of a good-good book in order to accommodate the 10% who arguably needed to read the former.

Most of us do not need to face such a dilemma. If we can freely choose to read whatever we like, or whatever our conscience dictates, why would we want to read anything but good-good books? Life is too short for us to be able to read all the good-good books that have been written, so why waste our time on anything else?

Christian civilization has given birth to numerous Great Books as it has given birth to numerous great saints. The former should be canonized as are the latter. Great books, like great saints, enrich our faith as they enrich our culture. As such, reading good books (or specifically good-good books!) should be an integrated part of leading a good life. 

This article was first published in Faith & Culture: The Journal of the Augustine Institute.