On Reading Books Dangerous Books

On of those lines I think about often comes from JRR Tolkien “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”. The same can be said about reading when one reads the right books. It can be very dangerous to open the pages of a book and open yourself to the thoughts of another, you never know where you end. Reading changes and shapes the reader, it allows us to to see the world from a new perspective and reshapes our way of thinking. For this reason there are books which are safe, these books will likely make you think very little or simply shelter you from any difficult ideas while reinforcing what you already understood. There are also books which are dangerous, books that will challenge, damage, or destroy what you currently understand about life and in the end you will be changed. Should we avoid these books because they are dangerous– no; in fact, we should seek out some of these dangerous books but do so in a wise manner. To continue the metaphor from Tolkien, the Baggins’ enjoyed long walks through the Shire, this represents the safe books, little preparation is needed, company is appreciated, and all that is achieved is an appreciation of beauty, peace, and rest. Dangerous books are like the great journeys of the books, take care for preparing, journey with others who can help, keep your wits about you, appreciate the beauty but remember this endeavor will change you, make you stronger, and something great will be achieved.

I recognize there are books that are dangerous and so I am not opposed to “banned books” lists in places like schools, but I also understand that part of the purpose of schools is provide proper companions and preparation for such books. But there are two types of dangerous books, those like Dawkins or Ayn Rand, that pose a threat to individuals who do not read them critically and those like the Bible which are dangerous to those who do approach them critically. Both types of book need great companions but for different reasons. This is a delicate balance but I can illustrate some of what I mean. Some might consider Richard Dawkins The God Delusion a dangerous book, I do not (you can read it here) the reason is that I have sufficient companions and preparation to read that book, take what is valuable from it (very little) and be unphased by the rest. Who are my companions for the journey? Christian scientists who reveal the flaws in Dawkins’ assumptions, Christian theologians and historians who show the errors in his philosophy and historical understandings. The same is true for books like the Bible I need excellent companions on my journey not to help me avoid the flaws of the book but to help me understand where my own flaws are keeping me from understanding the true measure of the book. What are the companions we need for these dangerous books, wise friends who can read and discuss them with you are always great, but so are other great books.

CS Lewis recommended reading old books to counter the new books one reads because the old books have stood the test of time and their ideas have been valuable to people across cultures. This is indeed sage advice and I do try to practice it to some degree, though I have expanded Lewis’ advice in my own life. Reading books from a variety of authors can help to illumine the pitfalls of bad books and the difficult or daunting sections of great books. Once you have identified authors who can help work through the thorns books become dangerous only in the right ways. To go back to the journeying analogy I used at the beginning, there is less danger of the journey ending badly but with such strong companions there is more chance of being changed through hardships.

If you want a dangerous book for the new year start here many of these present the right kind of danger (or at least they did for me).

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