The Brothers Karamozov is a 1,000 plus page book. It weighs about a pound. It crams about 500 words per page. And it includes chapter headings like this:
The old buffoon
The torment of a soul. The first torment
A little demon
For a moment a lie becomes the truth.
And it was my book of choice during a very dark camping trip through Colorado and Wyoming.
The Gloomy Camping Trip
This is the same camping trip in which my step-father fell two hundred feet to his death in a rock climbing accident. It is the same camping trip where my girlfriend (now wife) was with us.
When we were not climbing, hiking or eating, I spent my time inside the tent reading The Brothers Karamozov. No matter how warm or humid it was outside, I sat inside the tent and read.
And when I wasn’t reading I was moping around the camp grounds, kicking rocks, running down dirt roads by myself and looking at the mountains in the distance.
Gloom is a good word to explain what I was feeling. Why I was feeling that way is another story for another time.
The Bad Book Binge
There is a tremendous amount of research that suggests what we read influences what we believe. Psychologist Raymond Mar says, “Researchers have repeatedly found that reader attitudes shift to become more congruent with the ideas expressed in a [fictional] narrative.”
This is known as experience taking. In other words, we pretend to be the characters in a book.
I think I was first exposed to an element of this idea in R.C. Sproul’s book The Consequences of Ideas. I never read the book but I understood and was smitten by the premise: what you believe will affect your world.
However, I never took the premise seriously, and so fed my brain bad books. Bad books with bad ideas. Bad books with bad feelings.
For instance, early last year I went on a Phillip K. Dick tear. It would be an understatement to say I felt gloomy afterwards. Prolonged exposure to dystopia fantasies does not the heart make good.
To balance that out I read all of Tim Keller’s books in a three-week period. They are small enough to do that.
But I didn’t learn my lesson.
I switched gears and read all of David Sedaris’ books. Then topped it off by reading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Don Dellilo’s Underworld.
The bright spot in that reading binge was the prologue in Underworld about one of the most famous moments in baseball history: the walk-off homer that won the National League pennant for the New York Giants.
Storytelling at it’s finest.
Oh yeah, and the distraction that was J. Edgar Hoover utterly intrigued by The Triumph of Death, a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, during that baseball game.
But that’s about it.
The Moral Angle of Reading
Guilt is a worthy feeling. It is a warning sign that we have done something wrong. Of course you have the freedom to harden your heart, and that guilt will eventually go away.
Or you can listen to it.
I knew each time I read a bad book that I probably shouldn’t. But I ignored that feeling. There was something I wanted out of those books. Intelligence. Connection with the well read. Literary cultivation.
I don’t know what you call it. But the motivation doesn’t matter.
Reading The Brother’s Karamozov is not a bad thing. It is not a bad book. It is redeemable in its slant. Justified in the way it ends. Reading Catch-22 is not a bad thing. Nor a Phillip K. Dick book.
When and why you read it, and how much of it you read, though, and what you do with it after you read it, are very important questions to answer.
An immature reader like a child should not be exposed to the Underworld or Dick’s the Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. The discernment muscle must be fully formed before you turn those readers onto those books.
And entertainment is not a good reason to work through an Albert Camus or David Foster Wallace in a snowed-in cabin at night. Let alone in a humid tent when despair is your constant companion.
The Disembodied Reader
I re-read The Brother’s Karamozov a couple of years ago when I was in a better state of mind, no doubt fortified by aggressive Bible study habits.
It was quite easy to stay above the book, detached, watching the action below. Naturally my temptation was to identify with the believing Aloysha and the rationalist Ivan.
But neither got the better of me.
However, my predominant reaction to the book was to laugh at the extreme amount of torment the characters endured, notably different from my reaction during that camping trip.
Why would I laugh?
Their suffering was of their own making. They made their beds of misery and were now sleeping in them. Sort of like someone reading a rush of Nietzsche or Hemingway on a Sunday evening–and then becoming hopeless or gloomy because of their “experience taking.”
But that’s not really a laughing matter.
Do you think there is such a thing as a bad book? Do you believe that people can be influenced by the ideas in books?
Do you buy into the “experience taking” theory of book reading?
Can you share a time when a book had a profound negative impact on your mood? What about a positive impact? Nicholas Spark’s books don’t count.
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