January 27, 2016

On Books with Questionable Content

This is can be a sticky topic, but it’s one that needs addressing early on in this blog. Namely, what is my stance regarding books with mature content: bad language, sexual situations, violence, abuse, and so on?

If you know me well, you probably know that I’m a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I believe that the Holy Spirit can be with each one of us to help guide us, protect us, and comfort us every day. That is, unless we choose to do things (or listen to, watch, or read) things that drive Him away. That would include my whole list of “mature” content there above. 

However, I don’t believe that means we are only supposed to read our scriptures. In fact, in our book of scripture called the Doctrine & Covenants (often abbreviated to “D&C”), there is a verse that applies to this very issue. It says, “And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)  To me this is saying that I’m expected to seek learning and wisdom out of the best books I can find.

I don’t think the verse is only referring to knowledge of a spiritual nature. There are so many cultures, situations, and world views that I know very little about. I want to expand my knowledge of those people, and their lives. I also feel a pull to learn about the hard situations others go through, so that I can relate at least a little bit to their troubles.

photo from morguefile.com
On the other hand, I really want to be right before God. I don’t want my mind filled up with disturbing thoughts and images that will interrupt my sleep and affect my daily life. It’s a balancing act.  

Some people, whom I love and respect very much, will not read any book that has even a little objectionable content in it. If they run across a cussword, for instance, they shut the book and stop reading. I…don’t do that.  When I was a librarian, there were many books that I felt like I had to read—current award winners, and such, just to stay relevant on the job. Now I don’t have that expectation to meet anymore, but I do still enjoy a wide range of books, genres, and authors.
It’s an ongoing challenge, though. Nearly every book I pick up from the adult shelves has something objectionable in it, unless I’m strictly reading LDS* fiction—and even some of those thrillers are quite violent. Since it makes me a bit frustrated to put a book down halfway through, I almost always read several reviews of the book online first, particularly looking for reviews that mention content concerns.  I make a list of what I want and bring it with me to the library. I don’t just browse adult fiction much anymore, but when I do, I’ll do the spot-check test: I open up the book to any random page and skim it. If I come across a sex scene, or bad language, I put it back. Or, I’ll look for an author I know I can trust, content-wise.
Once I’m reading the book, my best avoidance methods are skimming and skipping.
photo from morguefile.com
[Not this kind of skipping!]
If there’s not very much bad language, or it’s mostly from one character, I generally skim right over it. When I can tell a sex scene is coming, I skip ahead a few pages. Nothing is foolproof, unfortunately, but that’s how I do it.  

In regards to themes, or more general concerns, I think a lot of it has to do with how it is presented. Is it glorified or romanticized or treated as a joke? Is it the hero doing the bad stuff? How do the other characters respond to the situations? What can be learned from it? Does it have an agenda, or what is the overall message of the book?

photo from morguefile.com
Then there are the books that have so much junk in them that I can’t wade through it anymore. It’s like a lake of mud that keeps getting deeper with every step. It’s just not worth it to keep slogging through it. There’s too much to skim or skip over. I’m done.

What does that mean for this blog, and for my reviews in particular? First, you need to realize that my book choices are not all going to be squeaky clean. That being said, my goal is to be completely honest when it comes to content in all my reviews. I will usually include notes about the content at the very end of the review, so you will have some idea what to expect if you decide to pick up the book. (I hate being surprised by stuff like that and figure you probably do too.) I will also put age ranges, if appropriate.

So, talk to me!

What are your thoughts on this topic? Have you ever stopped reading a book due its content? At what point do you put down a book?

*LDS is an abbreviation for “Latter-day Saints,” which is another name for us Mormons.


  1. Such a tricky subject. I used to be more selective and was like one of those people you mentioned who would snap the book shut at the first mention of anything questionable. But since you read my blog, you know I've expanded my range. Ive discovered it's far more complicated than just avoiding certain words or scenes. Like you said, it's often about how the information is presented. What is the overall tone and takeaway? I must admit, some of the most inspiring and thought provoking books I've read in the last three years have been ones I would have shut and put away in the past. I feel like I'm still a cautious reader, but I pay attention to the way the book makes me feel and if I'm gaining anything from it. Great post!

    1. I like what you said about paying attention to how the book makes you feel. Yes! That is so important!

  2. This is a subject that came up a lot as an English major at BYU, and still comes up in my personal life all the time. For me it's kind of about the point behind the content. Is the author's intention to shock, entertain, or titillate? Or is the author trying to portray something more authentic about a certain way of life? I've read some pretty disturbing stuff for class assignments, but they don't bother me the way that other books might (the only book I've thrown away out of disgust for content was by Nicholas Sparks) because they were written with a different purpose. Like Amy said, it's about how the book makes you feel and makes you think.

    1. I hear you. I think the author's intention is huge. I grew up in a sheltered, happy home. While we still had our challenges, I fully realize there is a large part of the human experience--suffering--that I have not shared; and I don't want to shy away from that, or from understanding others who have had those experiences. It is a lot about the way it's presented.