When Does a Book Look Like a Dental Exam?
Felicia Nimue Ackerman, monthly contributor, is professor of philosophy at Brown University.
Have you started to think about what to get your kids next Christmas / Hanukkah / Kwanzaa… whatever? Amy Dickinson wants you to give them books.
Who is Amy Dickinson and why is she giving unique advice to strangers?
Amy Dickinson is a unionized advice columnist. Like most of these columnists, she usually gives advice to people who ask for it. In this case, however, she doesn’t wait to be asked. She supports “Children’s Reading Connection”, an organization whose “goal – and our dream – is for families to experience the intimate and personal connection of diving and sharing stories”.
“All of us – not just children – need a good book on our beds,” she proclaims. Plus, she thinks we need books that will improve our characters. She touts children’s fiction that “teaches our little ones hope, tolerance and kindness,” which “proves that opposites can see the good of one another” or who “is environmentally conscious and calls readers to action ”. Even adult books are recommended to offer moral instruction, as in a memoir that “reminds us of how important it is to listen carefully to others, because in active listening we are rewarded with a deeper understanding” .
What’s wrong with this image?
On the one hand, not everyone likes books, let alone books with tidy little lessons. As a former child, I appreciate the late Beverly Cleary, a very popular children’s book author who has said that she “writes books for entertainment” and that she “does not try to teach anything. that is!” Maybe books in general and moralizing books in particular are good for kids, but so are dental checkups. Would you like to give your child a dental exam as a holiday gift? And giving an adult a self-help book sends the same message as an unsolicited gift certificate at a beauty salon: you need a makeover.
Amy Dickinson is not the only one to have a moralistic view of literature. The New York Times Book Review Children’s Books page praises one novel for offering “the lesson that every kindness counts – and that we always have a choice to be kind” and praises another for giving “A lesson” on “the greatness of the natural world.”
The New York Times Book Review does not limit moralizing concerns to children’s books. His recent review of a novel narrated by a man from Mauritius whose “ambition finally brings him to America” castigates the author for failing to recognize that the “American pursuit – the glorification, even – of excess has resulted in one of the most pernicious societies in modern history. “
A 2016 article in The American Scholar goes even further. Affirming that “the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and therefore of the imagination”, he insists that “climate change… should be the main concern of fiction writers around the world”. This would undoubtedly create “a crisis of culture, and therefore of the imagination”, because it would put the two chains together. What happened to Emily Dickinson’s insight, “There’s No Frigate Like a Book / To Take Us Land”?
If you’re looking for one-size-fits-all advice, here’s mine. If you’re a writer, write what you can write well – and keep in mind that you may need to be as talented as James Baldwin or George Orwell to write politicized fiction without being overused or clumsy. If you are giving gifts, aim to delight recipients, not improve them. Isn’t that the way you want to be treated?