“The ‘Best’ Books” by Carol Ann Litster Young

A chance conversation at a family reunion saved me from a life of scrupulosity. I was thirteen or fourteen, an earnest middle school student, when I fell into conversation with my cousin’s girlfriend who was in attendance. 

“I feel guilty reading books that aren’t the scriptures,” I admitted to her. I was figuring out my spiritual identity and navigating how to be “good.” Reading other books that weren’t scripture felt in violation with messages I got from church: pray and read your scriptures. I thought that if I had spare time to read, I should be devoting it to scriptures. Right?

My cousin’s girlfriend challenged me. “No, no, no,” she said. “Even Brigham Young said to seek out the best books.” She confirmed it was okay to spend only a few minutes each day on scriptures, then use the rest of my time exploring and learning through other books.

Thank you, thank you, cousin’s ex-girlfriend. After this conversation, I started to separate scripture time from learning and growing through other books. I’ve expanded what I include in my “gospel study,” and I appreciate the writers and creators out there who share their gifts with the world through their books. Whether they are brilliant novels or memoirs that hold painful truths, there is so much beauty and power in books, the way they are woven and how they invite us into alternative points of view.

This issue contains stories of people who were touched by a book at a poignant time in their life. One transformative reading experience of my own: I had heard about the book The Poisonwood Bible for years, so I finally made time to read it. When I reached the end, I felt mad no one had insisted I read the book sooner. The combination of historical fiction, religion, sibling dynamics, and how each chapter was written in a different style to fit the character spoke to me. I learned pieces of African history and the United States’ involvement with Patrice Lumumba during the Cold War that I hadn’t known anything about. I did not serve a mission, and reading about this missionary family brought up my own at-times-complicated feelings about church and what we are imposing on others. This is what books can do. They invite us into those alternative perspectives, sometimes very different from ours, sometimes more adjacent, so that we might examine our own minds, experiences, and hearts.

This issue contains stories of people who were touched by a book at a poignant time in their life.This issue contains stories of people who were touched by a book at a poignant time in their life.

In this issue, we celebrate features ranging from poetry to book review, from Sylvia Cabus’ Sabbath Pastoral talk on hope to Amelia Anne Sorensen’s reflections on conservation and book making, from Kathryn H. Shirts’ theology essay to highlights from the Heavenly Mother series on the blog. I appreciate the intimate perspectives shared about how books have shaped us. Personal essays by Amanda Pullan Frost and Katherine Nelson explore reading while parenting during the pandemic; Emma Tueller Stone and Julie Theriault highlight young adult novels and how they changed their thinking and questioning; Brinley Brown Bushman and Sarah Lindsey found greater strength through powerful female protagonists; Cheyenne Gavin and Cybèle Marie D’Ambrosio find parallels with church teachings in their beloved novels; and Tille Clark and Susan share how books intersected with their journey through trauma. The theme of books changing perspectives weaves throughout these pieces and the other features, implicitly and explicitly.

In closing, I want to acknowledge our current moment. We are seeing a rise in book burnings, book bannings, and the way Amazon, a corporation, controls the book industry. As you read and reflect on these pieces, consider how you might support small and independent bookstores and, if your budget won’t allow it, consider libraries and used bookstores. You might also think about how you can support writers through pre-orders (or asking the library to pre-order), book reviews (even a sentence or two on Goodreads does wonders), fan letters, and sharing what you love — either by social media, in book groups, or by word of mouth. Writing is difficult. If a book touched your heart, reach out. Use this opportunity to forge a connection, whether with a family member, a friend, or the person who penned the words.

Thank you for being here, helping us build and support our story-telling community. ⋑

(Photo by nadi borodina on Unsplash)

Rachel Rueckert is the current editor in chief of the Exponent II Magazine. She is the author of EAST WINDS.

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