The Best Books

You may already be familiar with the Mormon near-obsession with education. A lifestyle of continuous learning is right up there with laws  of physical health, familial loyalty and sabbath day observance.

From the time we were tiny little people learning to read from the pages of scripture, the expectations were clear: We would grow up and learn languages and science and history and everything else the world offered. Perhaps the most oft quoted admonition I heard, related to education, was this succinct little tidbit: “Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.”

The value of education has never been debated within the church; what constitutes the “best” books has.

When I was a child, my parents subjected media and books to a sort of “three strikes, you’re out” rule. If a movie or text offended their sensibilities with vulgarity or profanity more than three times, it was turned off, closed up, set aside. That was the measuring stick. My friends’ parents had different measuring sticks; some more flexible, some more rigid.

I suppose I followed the same general three strikes rule with my own kids, until last semester when a teacher assigned us to read “Burro Genius”, a memoir written by Victor Villasenor.  This book struck-out within the first few chapters.

And yet…

This man was beaten by his kindergarten teacher for speaking Spanish on the playground. This man was so humiliated and persecuted for being his own essential self that when he was graduating from highschool, he took his guns and his pick-up truck and a long list of abusive teachers and determined to wipe them all out.

He didn’t.  And oh, he has a powerful story to tell about race and education and ignorance in America.

And I’m not going to listen to him because he speaks differently than me?

I’m not going to listen to him, even though he is a man of primal, intrinsic faith and intelligence and compassion because even though he speaks two languages with power, the one we share is peppered with words I feel are profane?

Can I justify that?

I can’t. That book was worth reading. Not by children under a certain age, maybe, but its message is valid and maybe there isn’t another man or woman or another voice that could have expressed that message as well as Mr. Villasenor did in his.

Obviously I am required to adjust my definition of “the best books.” The three-strikes rule certainly isn’t going to cut it, this semester, folks. I’ve seen the list.

I am reminded of this counsel, by one of the very first leaders of our faith, Brigham Young:

It is your duty to study to know everything upon the face of the earth, in addition to reading [scripture]. We should not only study good, and its effects upon our race, but also evil, and its consequences…. If I do not learn what is in the world, from first to last, somebody will be wiser than I am. I intend to know the whole of it, both good and bad. Shall I practise evil? No; neither have I told you to practise it, but to learn by the light of truth every principle there is in existence in the world.”

I assume that includes becoming familiar with the literature that humanity has held up as worthwhile for ages past and which every college reading list contains and which intelligent people are expected to have informed opinions about, even if I have been too queasy to read it in the past.

Perhaps that’s the part of the oft-quoted scripture I’ve always overlooked, “by study and also by faith.” I have to read these things with faith in my own capacity to learn by the light of truth that which is worthwhile, and to slough off the rest and walk away from it. I don’t have to adopt the vocabulary or the cynicism or any laxity of morality I do not choose for myself.

Maybe that’s part of growing up, I don’t know. I’m 34; you’d think I’d have done that by now…


One response to “The Best Books

  • psphoenix

    I see your point. How can we truly call ourselves educated if we don’t see all points of view. But it is such a sharp knife to walk. Keeping the balance of reading material tipped in the way we want ourselves to develop. Faith really is the key.

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