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When A Friend Recommends A Dumb Book

Tom: So, what did you think of The Art of Reimagining Community by Carlos Carson?

Harry: I’ll be honest with you. I didn’t like it.

Tom: That’s interesting. Do you think it’s possible that you just didn’t understand it?

Harry: No, I understood it just fine. I didn’t like it.

Tom: Well, perhaps it’s not the kind of book you’re meant to like.

Harry: What do you mean?

Tom: The Art of Reimagining Community brings up a lot of really important issues—the sort of issues that most people shy away from. It’s a pretty confrontational book.

Harry: I never felt confronted while reading this book. In fact, there was a lack of confrontational material in this book.

Tom: Well, I would say it’s a very intellectual book, as well. Perhaps you just like books with more action.

Harry: No, I’ve enjoyed a great many books that didn’t contain any action.

Tom: Perhaps you didn’t realize all the ways you were being confronted.

Harry: No, I could tell when the author thought he was confronting me as a modern day American—and I don’t mind being confronted, but this book never truly confronted me. I didn’t think the book was very good and so I didn’t like it.

Tom: Wow. So, I’d love to hear about the passages of the book that you took issue with, but before we get into that, I have to ask about your claim that you “didn’t like” the book. That strikes me as a very reductive sort of judgement.

Harry: What?

Tom: So, if you said there were certain passages of the book you didn’t like, I think I could understand that. Or if you said that some chapters in the book were more compelling than others, I would get that. But “I didn’t like it” seems very reductive to me. It doesn’t seem generous or redemptive. “I didn’t like it” just sort of crumples the entire book up into a ball and shoots it into an open trash can.

Harry: I didn’t like Reimagining Community because I didn’t think it was good. I thought it was boring and cliché.

Tom: I don’t understand. You didn’t think any of the book was any good?

Harry: Carson says a few true things, but the true things he says have been said many times in many books, podcasts, and essays in the last ten years, which is why I said the book was cliché. And the few true claims he makes have often been offered with more wit, elegance, and verve by others, which is why I said Carson’s book was boring.

Tom: You wouldn’t claim that everything in the book has already been said by someone else, though?

Harry: No, but even the “original” parts of the book seemed really derivative and predictable to me.

Tom: Again, that strikes me as a very reductive sort of judgment. What do you mean by “derivative”?

Harry: Fashionable. Trendy. This book doesn’t really “reimagine” community. Carson steals a few ideas from Bonhoeffer’s Life Together and mixes them up in a porridge of autobiography, data about social media usage, platitudes about how “society has changed,” and a slew of underdeveloped assertions about how the church needs to “adapt.” This sort of book is a dime a dozen.

Tom: So, I get the feeling you wanted to dislike the book before you even read it.

Harry: You’re not wrong. Based on the title, the cover, and the sort of people that were tapped to write blurbs for the back, I had a pretty good idea of what the book was going to be, and I wasn’t excited to read it.

Tom: Well, if you were determined to dislike the book before you started reading it, there was no way the book could possibly please you.

Harry: I disagree. I’ve been surprised by books before. I’ve been excited to read books that I thought would be good but weren’t. And I’ve been reticent to read books that ended up being quite profound. If Reimagining Community had been something other than it appeared to be, I might have enjoyed it. Instead, it was the same series of assertions about community and “adaptability” that Christians have been making for the last ten years.

Tom: But Carson has a unique perspective on these matters because he—

Harry: Because he grew up in a little town in Venezuela, yes. He brings that fact up constantly. It’s the primary line of evidence he offers in proving all of his claims. People in America need to take better care of each other because everyone took care of each other in Isla Ratón. We need to be willing to suffer for each other because we suffered for each other in Isla Ratón. If you ask a stranger for an egg, he gives you an omelet in Isla Ratón. But this guy left Isla Ratón when he was seven years old and then became very, very American for the next twenty-eight years of his life. He references Terrence Mallick movies and quotes Wilco songs just like every other hip, young podcasting gringo who was born and raised in the USA. It’s really not “a unique perspective” that he’s got.

Tom: What about the chapter where he goes back to Isla Ratón for his brother’s wedding? I found that quite moving.

Harry: From the moment he mentioned leaving Isla Ratón in the first chapter, I knew there was going to be a chapter where he went back. I knew it was going to be a “deeply spiritual experience.” I knew he was going to forget his anxiety medication before getting on the plane and then not need it because his hometown was a place of peace and serenity. Did you not see any of that coming?

Tom: So, I wouldn’t say I try to “see what’s coming.” But I wanted to like this book. I wanted to learn something from it. If you don’t want to learn something from a book, you won’t.

Harry: There’s very little about Carson that makes me want to learn from him. He doesn’t seem like a trustworthy person who writes for noble reasons. I think he wrote this book to win acclaim and validation from the more famous contemporary writers whose arguments and ethos he flatters and plagiarizes—the same writers he mercilessly mugs for approval on his Twitter account.

Tom: That’s incredibly judgmental.

Harry: Is what I just said impossible to believe?

Tom: It’s not something I want to believe. I wanted to learn from Carson and I did.

Harry: Do you think I was morally obligated to like this book, regardless of whether it was any good?

Tom: I simply believe that people who want to learn something from other people will.

Harry: What if the book is bad?

Tom: If you want a book to be bad, you won’t like it—it doesn’t matter how good it is.

Harry: Again, I disagree. I think it’s possible to be won over by a book on account of it’s wisdom or creativity or boldness. Reimagining Community could have been better than its bad title, bad cover, and the buzz word reviews on the back cover. But it wasn’t. It was full of generic, amorphous claims about “community” and “our identity in Christ.” There was very little prescriptive advice given in this book, which suggests the author either doesn’t know what to do about the problems of loneliness and alienation or he doesn’t have the guts to say what he thinks ought to be done about those problems. There was no moment in this book where I was surprised, taken back, or intrigued by something the author said.

Tom: There was nothing shocking in this book?

Harry: No.

Tom: Nothing which gave you pause?

Harry: Why don’t you read me a line from the book you think genuinely wise?

Tom: Sure. Page 17… “Our God is a personal God, and we are made in His image. It is our status as image bearers that grants us personhood. There ought to be nothing more intriguing to us than other persons, for they are revelations of God Himself, and yet we prefer the impersonal entertainments of our digital age.”

Harry: That is the sort of thing that “Christian thought leaders” have been saying for the last twenty years. You do know that for all this guy’s claims about amusing ourselves to death, he has an Instagram account, a Facebook account, and a Twitter account that he posts on three or four times a day, right?

Tom: But he’s posting a lot of meaningful content on Twitter.

Harry: He’s posting a lot of self-promotion on Twitter. He talks about how good the numbers are on his latest book, he begs his followers to promote his stuff and leave nice reviews, and he quotes his own fan mail.

Tom: Are we talking about Carson’s Twitter account or are we talking about Reimagining Community?

Harry: There’s really not much of a difference. His book is no less desperate for approval and validation than the rest of his public persona. It’s all calculated to win the approval of center-left university types and drum up controversy on the right, especially among the people who supported him in his early career.

Tom: That’s really harsh.

Harry: It’s not. It’s just criticism. Be honest, though. You haven’t heard sermons and podcasts about community that sound exactly like the passage you just read me many times in the last two decades?

Tom: I haven’t heard that exact claim before, no. But I wanted this book to be worthwhile, so I heard everything in the book quite differently than you did.

Harry: Have you never read a bad book before?

Tom: What do you mean? I’m not sure I believe in “bad books.”

Harry: Do you believe in bad people?

Tom: To say a person is “bad” just seems really reductive to me.

Harry: Have you never read a boring, banal, self-important, cliché book before?

Tom: I’m a generous reader and I try to look for ways of redeeming whatever I’m reading.

Harry: How about a boring, banal, self-important blog post?

Tom: No. That’s not how I view the world. I view everything as an opportunity to learn.

Harry: What do you think it means to be a “generous reader”?

Tom: I think it means you try to find truth in whatever you’re reading—or whatever you’re watching or listening to, for that matter.

Harry: And how do you decide what to read?

Tom: I read whatever I hear people praising. I read the books people say are important. I heard people say that Reimagining Community was amazing, so I read it, and I thought it was amazing, too. I wanted to like it. I wanted it to do me good, and it did.

Harry: What good did it do you?

Tom: Well, I agreed with the argument of the book, which made me feel like I was part of a group of people who understood the world and cared about things that mattered. Carson’s book made me feel like I could make a positive difference in the world.

Harry: How could you make that difference?

Tom: By telling other people to read the book, which is why I suggested you read it. I wanted you to feel like you were a part of people who understood the world, too. It’s important for people to know what the real problems of the world are, and to care about them, and to be willing to do something about those problems.

Harry: Like what?

Tom: Like speak the truth.

Harry: I think you’ve aptly described the appeal of this book and every other fashionable intellectual book published in the last hundred years. They’re written to make you feel good about reading them. They make you feel like you’re a part of something that only enlightened people understand, and that you see things more clearly than other people. All the while, they point out very obvious problems, offer very general reflections on those problems, and then present painless solutions to those problems which are couched in fashionable jargon.

Tom: Again, you didn’t want to like it. I did.

Harry: I don’t think that’s the problem. I think you were impressed by a shallow book. I think you are too easily pleased and that your standards for reading are not high enough. I am willing to be a generous reader, but that generosity has a limit.

Tom: What does that mean?

Harry: If a book is recommended to me by a friend, I am willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, which is why I read this one. Reading this book was a seven-hour commitment, though, and it didn’t give much back in return for my time. In order for a book to be worth my time, the author needs to say quite a lot that I didn’t know or haven’t considered before, and he needs to write in a clear, elegant, and daring style. When I come to suspect an author doesn’t have the guts to say anything which isn’t fashionable and is mainly concerned with flattering and validating more popular authors so they will validate him in return, my generosity ends. That’s when I stop looking for points to agree with.

Tom: I never stop looking for points to agree with.

Harry: I disagree. You haven’t looked for points to agree with in what I’ve argued.

Tom: That’s because you’re being very close minded.

Harry: So you never stop looking for points to agree with, provided you’re talking with someone that already agrees with you?

Tom: Well, yes.

Harry: Then you’re not really up for literature which is genuinely confrontational.

Tom: I mean, I like literature that other people find confrontational.

Harry: I didn’t find Reimagining Community confrontational, though.

Tom: We obviously have different definitions of “confrontational,” Harry.

6 thoughts on “When A Friend Recommends A Dumb Book”

  1. Again, you have put into words what were my vague thoughts about those kinds of books. So far I have not had to verbalize them to someone else yet, but now I’m ready.

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