Every reader has a teetering “TBR” (to be read) pile that either entices or intimidates, depending on the moment. Between the vast array of reading choices and the army of “bookstagrammers” and Goodreads members posting about their latest literary delicacy, the feeling of “so many books, so little time” presses in powerfully. As a resource for harried readers who want their reading to count, Sarah Clarkson, a writer and lifelong reader, offers Book Girl: A Journey through the Treasures and Transforming Power of a Reading Life.
Packed with book lists in categories ranging from theology to children’s books to fantasy novels, Book Girl makes the case for reading as a pathway to delight, spiritual formation, and intellectual growth. Lorilee Craker, author of Anne of Green Gables, My Daughter, and Me: What My Favorite Book Taught Me about Grace, Belonging, and the Orphan in Us All, spoke with Clarkson about how she “set[s] a course of reading through an ocean of endless books.”
Let’s start at the beginning, with nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Many young parents today are avoiding these classic tales of grandmothers being eaten by wolves, on the grounds that they are too dark. What do you say?
There is so much confusion surrounding the question of how much a child should be exposed to. G. K. Chesterton said, “Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”
Children need to know dragons can be beaten. Fairy tales speak to our need to be saved by heroes and heroines. But children also need a strong grounding in goodness and light, so they can encounter what is beautiful and good and understand that they were created for goodness. These stories help form our moral imagination.
I agree with your claim that every woman of any age should read Anne of Green Gables—and most men as well. I recently met an 82-year-old woman who read it for the first time on the advice of her 90-year-old sister. Why do you think people stop reading books like Anne of Green Gables, Heidi, and Little Women when they get older? And what benefit is there in revisiting children’s classics throughout one’s life?
It takes a master writer to do children’s literature well. Good children’s books are not childish—children already have the capacity to think deeply about goodness and badness. In writing to children, they are writing to the souls of all of us. C. S. Lewis said, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest,” and I agree. During my studies at Oxford University, I wrote about Winnie the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows. I was constantly floored by the commentary in Pooh on being wise. The Wind in the Willows is an exploration, on a child’s level, about home, identity, and how we root ourselves.
As adults, we can become very sarcastic. We lose our capacity for innocence. Reading children’s classics is a way to recapture goodness and innocence, refreshing our vision of the world.
There are different ways of looking at what makes a book “Christian.” Is it the absence of sex, coarse language, and violence, or is it the redemption of these things? Is a steady diet of, say, Amish romance novels really a Christian way to read?
The Bible has every kind of human depravity in it; it’s full of sex and violence. A book needs to be evaluated on what it communicates about frailty and fallenness, about choices, grace, and redemption. Is it honest about the consequences of our choices and how life really is? Is humanity reflected truthfully?
Take Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. This novel, essentially about an affair, explores what it means to desire strongly. What happens when we only follow that desire and no others? This book is a far more Christian book than any romance novel. Most of our lives don’t have perfect, tied-up endings, so humanity is not necessarily portrayed accurately in those books.
We should look for books that get into what is true and ultimate in the human heart. Marilynne Robinson’s novels (Gilead or Lila, for instance) convey a lot of deep struggle and loss, and they are some of the most Christian books I’ve read.