Do you have an OFF switch?

I like to read across many genres and many topics, even if I end up coming back to certain tried-and-true favorites. Over the course of my reading I have found that the one thing that is certain to pull me out of any book is when a religious theme is introduced.

I admit it's a personal bias, I'm agnostic and I cannot understand character's motivations when colored by religion. I am uncomfortable with extreme piety. The moment I come across any theological themes, it's like a switch flips in my brain and I cannot get interested in the book anymore.

It's happened to me way too many times recently. I just discovered Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Legacy Series. The first book is one of those brilliant starts to any series - with dark fantasy elements, fascinating characters, political intrigue, intriguing world-building- I blazed through the Kushiel's Dart and couldnt wait to get my hands on the next one in the series.

The remaining books made for weary reading, the author is obviously fascinated with Christianity and the mythology and delves deep into ancient Jewish and Christian myths. The Kushiel series has so many sub-plots that I was able to complete reading it, but only because in my initial euphoria I got all 6 books in the two series and they kept taunting me on my bookshelf. I did like it, but if I have to remember what displeased me or bored me about the books then it would have to be the religious discussions.

The next book I read is Laura Kinsale's breathtaking Flowers from the Storm. In Flowers, the Duke of Jerveaulx is a womaniser and prominent mathematician, until a cerebral haemorrhage leaves him with damaged motor skills, unable to speak and with damaged long term memory. Maddy Timms, daughter of a prominent Quaker mathematician, has worked with Jervealux for some mathematical papers and been repulsed by Jerveaulx's lifestyle.

But, when she comes upon Jerveaulx in an insane asylum, she is the only person to recognise that Jerveaulx is not insane, he can recite mathematical formulae and proofs just fine, he's just forgotten how to communicate. And Maddie and Jerveaulx begin a long and arduous journey to recovery and love, lined with legal pitfalls, greedy family members, Jerveaulx's deviousness and Maddy's Quaker beliefs.

The word I used to describe Flowers From the Storm before was breathtaking and I really cannot think of a better one. I think Ms. Kinsale is the best romance novelist there is. Her prose is elegant, the characters are well realized and have Issues (and you guys know how much I love angst) and this book covered such a range of emotions for me that it was impossible to put down.

However, even as engrossed as I was in the story, my biggest problem was with the heroine who is rigidly religious and the choices she makes because of her beliefs. Basically, she puts herself and Jerveaulx through the double-wringer (yesyesyes I needed a box of tissues the whole time I was reading). Jerveaulx isn't a saint either, he manipulates Maddy through the entire book but because her choices are due to her religion I felt that I had less patience with them. If another heroine had made the same choices, just through common sense or even self-preservation, I think I would have understood and tolerated her better.

And I find it's not only established religion either. I think Ms. Carey reinterpreted a lot of the stuff in her books, they are fantasy after all but they are based on existing religions. In Lois McMaster Bujold's Chalion fantasy series, Ms. Bujold invented a new religion for her world of Chalion. And much as I love Ms. Bujold's books, I couldnt get through these. I loved the world-building, it was the issues which put me off.

I just discovered the pattern because I picked up so many similar themed books recently, but I find it troubling. That I should dismiss any topic or even any character because I cannot understand their beliefs or am not interested in the themes being discussed. I should be more tolerant I think. I will probably try and find some more books to read, just to rid myself of my bias ... after a little while. Suggestions would be welcome!

And how about you? Is there any subject which you just cannot bring yourself to read or when introduced kills your appreciation for a book you were enjoying before? Do you feel guilty, or are fine with it?


avdi said...

CP : I cant read books that give out too many religious signals either. Which is why I liked LOTR, there was no mention of religion there. If there were any undercurrents, they were too subtle and escaped me. Lately I read a lot about the religious signals sent out in Narnia books. Aslan=Christ. Luckily, when I read them, I missed that also, seeing these books more like adventure series.

It is the extreme piousness in the story that pisses me off in the Little Women series. But the story and the characters are so lively, that I cant help re-reading these books again and again. I tried reading An Old Fashioned Girl by Louisa, and could not get through the first chapter because it was sooo Pi.

samir said...

I share your view, although instead of calling it a "bias"; I would label it "good taste". Nevertheless, it is commendable that you would try to rectify it; I do not have any suggestions.
My other biases would include pessimistic outlooks and portrayals, bashing the West on grounds of "low morality" and materialism, bashing India on grounds of "snakes, tigers & elephants" & poverty.

numerounity said...

I Love mystery, intrigue and well-spun story. I read marry clark higgins in my college and liked it.

Have no preferences as such unless the book is not too huge hahaha[fountainhead was an exception], loved alchemist-liar's poker and read chetan bhagat' recent one and felt head on heels love with the author again:)

I blog at

couchpapaya said...

Avdi - Yes, I dont think LOTR has an religious signals, though I'm pretty sure if it's subtle as in the Narnia books I wouldnt catch it. Maybe I should try the Narnia ones next ... I've always been put off because of the allegory. Did I tell you I tried to read Pilgrim's Progress way back when!!! I couldnt get through it, but I do love the LW series too! I think it's because I'm able to ignore all the goody-goody hints.

Samir - I think I was troubled because these books are very well written, so I wouldnt really call my not being able to read them any indication of good taste :( I share that last one too, especially the poverty one ... BBC's South Asia page comes to mind!

Numerounity - Welcome to the blog! I share the opposite bias I guess, a fat book has a better chance of being read by me than a slim one :)

Smita said...

I can't read

- Spiritual books
- Self Help books
- Books telling me what not to do in life
- Books on religion

The list can go on & on ;-)

Yword said...

that is a nice subject you have touched upon. I actually love books with religious themes - but I like them to be exploratory. I detest any books where the character's behaviour is justified because her religious beliefs lead her to act a certain way. Like you said, I would find common sense far more appealing. I love Bertrand Russell and there is this brilliant book of his called "Why I am not a Christian" - a justificat6ion of his atheism. a great book but that did not convert me into an atheist. :)

couchpapaya said...

Smita - I agree with the self-help. Though to be honest I dont even pick them up, so the question of switching off doesnt even arise.

Yword - Any interesting book on the subject you can recommend? As for the Russell book, I always feel that such topics are for preaching to the choir. People who pick them up generally know their own minds and rarely does a single book change it for them!!

WhatsInAName said...

Frankly, I don't even notice the religious signals if the story is good and interesting. So, obviously its only fictions for me. And my list could be similar to Smita's
And yes, I do hate to read the biased view of westerners about india being land of snake charmers like samir has said.

couchpapaya said...

WIAN - Yeah, Smita's list is pretty accurate for me too. I guess the difference is that I dont feel guilty about not reading those topics.

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