There is, in today’s world, a sector of culture which profits from manufacturing your emotions for you. It is a grossly prevalent and unsubtle culture; notice it in the modern movie trailers that consist of nothing but smash-cut action scenes, notice it in shorts and reels that feed you shot after shot of hyper-exaggerated drama, like dose after dose of cocaine. It is a culture which is actively turning us passive, hammering in the dull habit of consume and react, consume and react. This cycle cannot be dismissed as harmless entertainment: this is the sort of thing that seeps like poison into every aspect of our lives.
This poison, this mindless manipulation and consumption, is difficult to avoid for two reasons: first, it is everywhere in our culture, and second, it is horribly alluring. If Tolkien is correct in saying that evil is merely a twisted replication of good, then the allure of this culture might make more sense: we are attracted to this culture because it imitates something that we know to be good. To make this point clearer, let us zoom in on one part of this culture that is particularly damaging: modern consumer literature.
First off, what defines good literature? Literature is an art form, and philosophy, by its broadest definition, is its corresponding science. That is, philosophy is to literature what geometry is to drawing. Certainly, there is more to the art of drawing than geometry, but the fact remains that the art of drawing is nothing without geometry; and I would say that the relationship between literature and philosophy is even stronger. Another analogy: if the art of literature is a human body, then philosophy is its bones. There is much to be learned from studying skeletons, but just as skeletons are usually only interesting to archaeologists, doctors, and similar, in-depth study of philosophy is often only attractive to specialists of that field. A human body, however, is of great interest to everyone because we all have bodies. Literature is undeniably more accessible than philosophy: most people are naturally inclined to prefer stories to philosophical treatises. Yet you can take the body away from the skeleton and still be left with a general idea of the human body, whereas if you take the skeleton away from the body, what is left is a repulsive, formless pile of flesh, blood, and sinew. Empty. Structureless. Purposeless. Vomit-inducing. And that is what the modern consumer novel feels like.
Undoubtedly, you could name a few books like this: we might call them “empty books.” They are the sort of books often found filling and overflowing the majority of YA sections in bookstores. They are works of all plot and no theme, all worldbuilding without depth, action for the sake of action and gore for the sake of gore; they are random splashes of paint someone has flung on a canvas and hung in an art museum, so that art critics can stand around them and pretend to be moved. These are the kind of works that can be spoiled for you – another feature of bad books. Notice that to “spoil” such a work is to utterly ruin it for the consumer. Yet if someone spoiled for me the entire plot of Hamlet in bullet point form, there would still be tremendous worth in my reading it. I am not condoning spoiling classic literature, but it is worth noting how little spoilers subtract from the experience of reading a truly good book, especially compared to the bad ones. Empty books are ones you can get just as much out of watching the movie adaptation as you would from reading the story. Good books are ones you can read a thousand times and find newer and deeper appreciation with each read. Real art is immortal.
The purpose of a good book is to move you to the appreciation of some immortal truth or universal human experience. Not all books have to be Dante’s Divine Comedy, but even recreational books should have a good, ethical backbone. Good books don’t necessarily teach us something new every time, but they do always move us to a greater appreciation of their truths, for it is possible to reasonably understand something without having an appreciation for it. I may understand the definition of courage in the face of death, but never having been faced with death, my understanding is only analytical, no matter how many psychological textbooks I read. Then I read Homer, and suddenly, even though I have not necessarily obtained any new information on courage, I have a deeper appreciation for courage in the face of death, and I didn’t even have to face death myself to do it. I know what selflessness is, and I can explain, analytically, the ways in which one ought to be selfless, but when I watch Forrest Gump, I am moved to a far greater appreciation of what it means to be selfless. There is nothing wrong with being moved by art. Art is supposed to move you. The difference is that the goal of good art is to use this movement to reach an appreciative understanding of the transcendent, whereas the only goal of bad art is to move people just for the sake of moving them.
This aimless movement comes from the same poison as the rest of the culture I have mentioned: it is more harmful than it seems. A good book uses complex characters, beautiful themes, and a compelling plot to prompt me to feel deeply as I read, to become invested and appreciative of the story. An empty book uses pointless plot twists, exotic worldbuilding, intrusive sex scenes, and too much shock effect to force me to feel. It manufactures my emotions for me. A good book starts a conversation, but an empty book screams at me, and it is a soundless noise, just like every Instagram reel that I load out of my brain the minute I scroll away.
Because empty books imitate the movement of good ones, it is not always easy to identify them. Socrates was accused of Sophistry, after all, and we sometimes have a tendency to dig for substance when there is nothing there. Besides, it takes consistent awareness and effort to escape this addictive, intrusive poison. Still, we ought not to walk away from this believing, like Sertillanges, that one should never descend to reading novels. Instead, we can walk away from this remembering, also like Sertillanges, that we must choose our reading wisely, and recognize that even books written for recreation ought to have ethical bones. Books without their bones, books that are just gobs of flesh, of heat and excitement and noise and drugs to make you feel something – anything, anything at all… these are poison.
Kierkegaard says, “The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss—an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc.—is sure to be missed.” Therefore, beware of the books you allow into your psyche: the good of the soul comes before any other good of body or possession, so to lose it unawares is the most appalling tragedy of all.