The first counselor of my ward RS presidency is an avid reader and demonstrates a missionary zeal in trying to convert the uninitiated. I show up at her Book Group occasionally to offer support, but seldom read the choice of the month. The criteria for their book selections are: short, no sex, no violence, and no non-LDS ideas. Deseret Book is the preferred source. It’s the taking-a-dose-of-medicine method—choose a book that is good for you and force yourself to take a certain number of pages a day until finished.
I’m not sure if it is actually possible to transform reluctant readers, but I’m pretty sure the offerings at Des Book won’t do it. Not that I have anything against DB. Occasionally they or a subsidiary offer a splendid title like Mormon Women: Portraits and Conversations by James Kimball and Kent Miles. But most of their offerings reflect the sameness of my suburban Utah neighborhood.
I don’t read to meet someone just like me, only devout enough to get her prayers answered in 250 pages. I read to expand my horizons, to meet someone I think is not like me until I realize with a start that given the same set of circumstances I might behave in the same way. In fiction and memoir, I want to meet real or imaginary people in places I’ll probably never visit. I relish living vicariously in other worlds—Frank McCourt’s wretched Irish childhood in Angela’s Ashes, Rae Vang’s nightmarish adolescence during Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution (Spider Eaters), Fatima Mernissi’s Muslim childhood (Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood), and the Jewish neighborhoods of Chaim Potok’s novels. Nonfiction works for me too. I race through Malcolm Gladwell’s books (Tipping Point, Blink, The Outliers) lapping up each insight he reveals about how contemporary society works.
When I do read about Mormons, I want to meet complex people—the kind who might even exist in my ward beneath the surface of conformity—fictional women like Aspen Marooney, the respectable matron in Levi Peterson’s novel of the same name, who lives a lie born of a youthful transgression. And living women like Catherine Stokes, an African-American convert, who managed a demanding career in nursing while raising a daughter alone, and Cecile Pelous, a French, single woman who has founded an orphanage in Nepal (both in Mormon Women: Portraits and Conversations).
Via the ward grapevine, I know the Twilight series is a popular clandestine read in my neighborhood. I guess there’s a discrepancy between what LDS women think is appropriate reading material and what they actually enjoy reading. Sexual tension piques the interest of most women and many great novels have used that theme. Maybe I can interest my RS sisters in a Jane Austen though I fear Mr. Darcy, even when portrayed by a younger, thinner Colin Firth, emits less sex appeal than a reformed vampire ogling a juicy neck.
Periodically, I try our ward book group. Someday I’ll find the book that will cause the good sisters of our ward to play sick on Sunday morning so they can stay home alone and finish the next chapter. The Bloggernacle gives me hope. Maybe their example will convince my ward that true believers can venture beyond LDS authors and publishers and still maintain their testimonies.