I won’t read The Handmaid’s Tale. And it isn’t because I am a Christian who is afraid of being confronted by ideas that are unsettling.

I graduated from Hillsdale College in the very late 1990s with a BA in Philosophy and Religion. I spent two semesters at the University of Oxford studying theology. I own more than one set of the Great Books of the Western World, I am working my way through Roman Roads Media’s Old Western Culture, and I have dozens of courses from the Great Courses Company. I am not bragging, I am giving context. I am attempting to explain that I value reading widely and deeply through the Western Canon. Inherently this means that I have read and continue to read a lot of thinkers and writers whom I do not like, but whom I respect as being contributors to “The Great Conversation.”

I won’t read The Handmaid’s Tale because I am not convinced that I must “eat trash in order to know that it is trash.” One of my most engaging professors at Hillsdale used that phrase constantly to help us put our thoughts into proper order. We do not have to consume every idea in order to form “good enough” judgements about them. Simply put: not everything is worthy of our attention no matter how much social pressure there is to consider it so.

The most common argument I hear in defense of The Handmaid’s Tale is that it is a cautionary tale. Okay. Fair enough. But… there are dozens of cautionary tales which are worthy reads. Must we read all of them? Who decides which ones are must-reads? Why is this one so special? I have read plenty of other cautionary tales. More importantly, any regular study of Scripture and church history would provide ample caution about the abuses that men are capable of inflicting on one another.

The next most common argument I hear in defense of The Handmaid’s Tale is that it is beautifully written. Well, I have hundreds of “beautifully written” books which are more pressing, more interesting, and far less violent and sexual.

Many have said that the ending is interesting, unexpected, and inspiring. Again, I easily have a dozen classics within arms reach which would offer a similar experience.

Tragically, I hear that we have to read this story so that we can feel the brokenness and darkness that others go through. While I will not agree that this is in fact necessary, I will counter it with far more redeeming options. The Hiding Place, for example, is full of pain, torture, and abuse. But it is also full of true hope and authentic faith. Again, the lives of the great holy men and women of our faith can provide me with countless comparable examples.

Finally, I hear a moral admonition to read this book because otherwise I won’t be culturally literate. I guess that might matter if I cared about being culturally literate. Since our culture is relatively illiterate compared to many other generations, I am not sure why it matters whether or not I am up to speed on the bestsellers of this age.

We hear constantly that we need to have an open mind. In his autobiography, G.K. Chesterton wrote about his conversion and said, this:

“Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

I am with Chesterton. And, I think that he was with Saint Paul.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Philippians 4:8

 

14 thoughts on “Why I Won’t Read “The Handmaid’s Tale”

  1. Thank you for your reviews, I am so enjoying following your blog.
    Might I suggest two books for you as you wade through the chaff of children’s books for us? I highly recommend them as learning tools to warn where trouble spots might be as you choose. I refer to my notes often.
    Learning from the Left by Julia Mickenberg
    Tales for Little Rebels by Philip Nel and Mickenberg

    1. Thank you Cherie! I am looking into those! As I read, I am using a little stack of similar books. (Which, actually, I intend to review when I have time – just to help others find excellent resources for their shelves.)

  2. Thanks you for writing this. I have looked at this book many times and every time I put it back and walk away from it. I have not been able to put my finger on why I don’t want to read it. Your post justifies my hesitation and explains it much better than I ever could! Thanks.

    1. I am glad that this is blessing to you. I won’t say that I have said better than you ever could. 🙂 I have the benefit of being in a book club where we have hashed this out so many times that I have an opportunity to really work out my rationale. Iron sharpening iron. 🙂 We really don’t have to read every little thing. We really can avoid books which our spirit cautions us against without being less worthy people.

      1. “We really don’t have to read every little thing.” Thank you! I have gone back and forth on this. I am in a local book club, which I enjoy for the community aspect and the opportunity to discuss books. However, each person gets a turn to choose a book, and there is certainly variety. I usually try to give the books a chance, but sometimes I just don’t want to spend time on what I think is of inferior quality when there are so many good things for me to read. And reread. When I started listening to the Bibliofiles podcast, I began to question whether I should give more books a chance. I wonder how I can know if I am judging correctly. What you wrote in this post, though, is something strong and clear that I can fall back on when I start to feel guilty for passing up the bestsellers. I only have so much time and will never exhaust all of the great literature. Last night I finished Kristin Lavransdatter and would love to reread it. But there are so many others to get to! Dilemmas….:) Thank you again!

        1. Thank you Emily for this really thoughtful comment! I too love Bibliofiles. In fact, they are one of few podcasts that I really trust and really love. I think that they are right, that we should sometimes read books that we don’t “love”. That said, I think that a lot of the books they are referring to are well established classics. Books which have persisted because there is something intrinsically true in them or about them. I am far more willing to push through Anna Karenina than Handmaid’s Tale because AK has earned its title of “classic”. This is not to say that we shouldn’t read modern books. Or that we should push through classics which our conscience is begging us to put down. I think that it is about prayerful discernment. And, when all else fails and you just don’t know what you should do, go or the whole and healing classic instead. If the challenging classic keeps showing up on your radar, you can try it again later when you are better prepared to meet it (spiritually, emotionally, seasonally, etc.).

          Regarding KL, that was how I felt when I finished Brideshead Revisited the first time as well as Anna Karenina. What I did was delay it for one year. I promised myself that if it were still calling to me, I would come back to it when I had a little more life in me. See how I changed. 😉

          Book clubs are great fun. And if you really love the ladies and generally love the selections, they can be a great place to step outside of your comfort zone. But, you should also feel free to trust your instincts. 🙂 Happy reading! -Sara

          1. Thank you for the prompt reply! I appreciate your suggestion that I give myself a year and then see if the book is “calling to me” yet. That is a good point, too, about wanting to experience it at a different time in my life. Did you find you were able to get to them the next year? There are just so many good ones to choose from! Regarding Bibliofiles, what sticks in my mind is when they talk about Cormac McCarthy’s books. I have not read them but somehow got it in my head (based on comments there and elsewhere) that I would not benefit from reading them or that I wouldn’t like them, yet they are considered worthy reads by the podcasters, making me wonder if some “great” books are just not for everyone. Why do I think that if a book is truly great, then anyone would benefit from it?? Sorry to go on about this a bit….

          2. Such a fun conversation! Regarding the one year later books, it was pretty funny. I write inside my books the month which I start reading. I chuckled to myself quite a bit in the last couple of years. Half a dozen books I naturally returned to in the very same month, twelve months later, without even thinking about. For some reason, “Brideshead Revisited” just feels like a fall book to me. “Keeper of the Bees” feels like an early summer. It was pretty delightful to see how many books I naturally picked up exactly 12 or 24 months later without specifically scheduling myself to do so.

            Ultimately, no one is going to have perfect advice about classics. Not every classic is for every person, I really do believe that. As an example, I just can’t find anything in Walker Percy that I care about, but, Flannery O’Connor has been very valuable to me. With FOC, it took reading “The Terrible Speed of Mercy” to understand her, and then I realized that there was a path into her for me. Similarly, Charles Williams does nothing for me and yet he was one of CS Lewis’s closest friends. I read George Bernard Shaw and HG Wells, because Chesterton loved them, not because I particularly care for them. Just a messy way of saying that I do agree that not every classic author or classic book is for every person. Just that if we read widely in the classics, we are likely to grow as a reader and find that most classics have something valuable to offer us.

  3. Since our culture is relatively illiterate compared to many other generations, I am not sure why it matters whether or not I am up to speed on the bestsellers of this a

    Yes!!!

  4. I absolutely agree with your point, however my daughters high school has assigned this book as a mandatory read for ALL 11th graders. After reading your blog regarding the book I had to take it upon myself to see what my daughter was going to be exposed to. It is horrific that this is considered a good read. Its being assigned to our minor children and parents have no control over that. Unless you are ok with allowing your child to receive a zero, which I am. Its full of adult sexual content, sadistic pornographic references, masturbation, list goes on and on. It should be considered child abuse introducing these topics to minors.

    1. I am so sorry that I have to agree with you. Sorry because you are absolutely right and this is tragic and my heart aches for anyone in your position. I love what you say about how this should be considered child abuse. It is. It absolutely is. Bravo for defending your child’s innocence and purity! I am so sorry that she is going to have to fail the assignment. What a crazy world we live in…

Comments are closed.