Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Fascinating Experiment

So I'm accumulating a list of books about religion for teens for a class project, and the process is fascinating. For the books I choose, I'll be able to annotate them with the fascinating Amazon reader review quotes and tidbits of oddness that I've run across, but for the ones I'm discarding, some of this stuff is falling by the wayside, so I want to wrap some of it up in here.

First of all, I think I picked a pretty difficult subject, if only because I don't think your average teen reader is going to pick up a lot of religion books for fun. (I myself didn't discover nun books until a bad flu in college had me watching The Nun's Story with Audrey Hepburn on A&E. When I learned it was a book, I was thrilled, and after reading it, when I learned that there were all kinds of books about nuns out there. I never looked back.) I'm trying to balance the assumption that some of this info is going to be needed for school projects with the idea that there are teens of faith who want information, and teens with no faith who want to understand it. I'm trying to balance eye-appeal with real issues, and interesting topics (religion through various pop-culture lenses) with meaty information (basic outlines of belief for things like Buddhism and paganism).

The topic of religion appears to bring out the worst in a certain strain of Amazon reviewer. You'll find a book with good editorial reviews and a bunch of five-star customer reviews, followed by two little one star reviews. You scroll down to those, wondering which you're going to find: someone who doesn't understand how someone could get God so wrong, or someone who's chosen this book to vent his spleen that anyone is still bothering to write about God nowadays.

The other interesting thing is these booklists I'm working from. Voya (Voice of Youth Advocates) publishes lists of good books for young adults on different topics, including a bunch on different religions, and they're proving to be a great starting point. Some of them are great, some of them still look kind of dry to me when I look at them more closely, but I'm picking and choosing, and it's been incredibly helpful (looking for books on religion is easy--looking for ones that will specifically appeal to young adults is kind of hard). The lists are written by individuals, though, not compiled by the organization in general, and you can sometimes see that in the entries. For example, the Evangelical Christianity list contained a book that it listed as a "must-read" for teens, giving overviews of world religions. I have been really torn about this one, though, because Publisher's Weekly and some of Amazon's readers point out that the book's author, an Episcopalian minister, is actually not much of an expert of world faiths--he refers to Jehovah's Witnesses as a cult, gets a lot of his facts wrong about the Mormons (confusing the tabernacle with the Salt Lake City temple, for example), and flat out says that most Muslim countries treat women "like slaves." So he appears to be doing some gross oversimplifying. But on the other hand, he gets better reviews than most other "all world religions summarized under one cover" books that I've found.

I'm also having a hard time not passing on my biases when I'm making decision. I'm trying to think of teens, but it's hard not to think about a teenaged me. So a teenager who wants to learn more about these faiths in a theoretical way is easy to imagine, but I'm finding that I'm nervous about buying anything that appears to support any specific religion. I'm looking through the Mormon list, and I'm really hesitant to get any of the books published by the Church itself. It seems like that would be supporting it, which is silly--I've got the Bible in there, right? So why not the Book of Mormon? I mean, statistically, there are fewer Mormons than Christians in my town, but that's not what bothers me. It's that stocking Mormon literature feels like advocating for it--unlike, say, stocking books about Hinduism. It's funny, not having worked in a library, I'm one of the people in my class who isn't worried about community or administrative blowback--I err in the other direction, I guess. Gotta get past that.

This is a really tough decision-making process. I'm trying not to err on the side of too "fun" and "teen friendly," but how can I not include The Dharma of Star Wars. Honey, I don't think that's an option.

PS. I had to add this footnote. VOYA's listing for The Book of Mormon lists Joseph Smith as the translator. That is not how I would have put it. I'll have to look and see if the Koran is listed under Muhammad's name, and whether he's author or translator. Or maybe co-author.

I'm sorry. I can't help the irreverence. I'm trying, really.

No comments: