The Adult Shelf

I’ve been having a lot of fun getting myself set up on Good Reads this last week. There’s something fun about going through and finding a lot of the books that I’ve read in my life, rating them, categorizing them, writing the occasional review, and knowing that I can use this for a fun stroll down memory lane or as a way of letting other people see my thoughts and reccomendations. There’s something interesting about my list thought. Part of my categorizing includes an “Adult Shelf”.

That realization shocked me. I never thought of myself as the kind of person who has an “Adult Shelf” in his library. I’m a Christian. I care about purity. My thought life is important to me and I strive to focus on and be entertained by things that are glorifying to God. Besides all of that, I’m a teacher. The example I set to my students and the life I live in front of them is incredibly important to me.  So why do I have a list of books that I feel necessary to categorize as “Adult”? Should I have such a shelf?

Before I answer these questions, let me give a disclaimer. Just because I read or enjoyed a book doesn’t mean I should have or would read it again. You’ll notice as you read down the list that there are several books that I list as “Adult” that are the first in a series and none of the rest of the series are on my list of books I’ve read or plan on reading in the future. There’s a reason for that. I don’t often quit reading a book in the middle, but if there’s a reason I shouldn’t be reading a series, I’ll stop.

So here’s the real disclaimer: Just because I have read something does not mean I reccommend it. I’m not ashamed of the books I’ve read, so the list on my Good Reads account is rather extensive and uncensored. I’d rather be honest and be able to share what I’ve learned with you than pretend I’ve never read something I shouldn’t have.

If that were the only reason I had an Adult Shelf, this post would be over right about now. I’d give you a link to my profile on and tell you to enjoy browsing now that you’ve been warned. This post isn’t over, though. No, we’re just getting to the purpose of this post, actually.

You see, there are several books on my Adult Shelf that I am glad I read, that I would read again, and that I would reccomend others read. Therein lies my quandry.

Let’s begin by defining what exactly is on my Adult Shelf.

On my Good Reads account, I have a system. If I have categorized a book as “Adult”, I don’t just leave it there for the rest of the world to wonder why. At the bottom of the review (or alone in the review box if I haven’t reviewed the book yet) I list out what items in the book caused me to put it on the Adult Shelf. I tried to be as specific as possible without being graphic, but in reading through all of my warning notes, I’ve narrowed the cautions down to the following three categories:

– Language

– Sex

– Violence

It may seem stereotypical that those are my three categories, but there’s a reason things are stereotyped. 

So here’s the basics: These three things will put a book on the Adult Shelf because they are mature topics or expression – not because they are inherently evil. The top shelf exists expressly because children are not capable of processing information and ideas in the same way that adults do. These topics are simply examples of things that I do not believe should be handed to a child with the expectation that they will process information, deal with ideas, and form mature opinions about them.

Also, a minor infraction into any of these topics is not enough to condemn a book to the top shelf.  For examples:

An infuriated or rough edged character damning a fellow character to  hell in a manner reminiscent of Charlton Heston doesn’t bother me. Such a book won’t earn a kid-friendly label, but it takes repetative or truly vulgar language to remove a book from public reach.

An implication that a couple is intimate, or even a “fade to black” style scene eluding to a less than restful night is not offensive or even usually beyond the comprehension of a young teen. It is only when the content of the book is truly sexual in nature or sexual things are used as plot devices that I feel it becomes too much for a child to take in and manage in a healthy manner.

Violence is probably the most variable of the categories. War stories are not only common place and easily written tastefully, but part of history and often personal or family experience. The fact that violence exists in the world is no secret and crucial to a great many good stories. Only when you go beyond it’s existance and use into graphic or gratuitous depictions do I cringe and transfer the book to a more out of reach place.

So those are the types of things on my Adult Shelf. That’s also the simplest definition of why I have such a shelf. Should I, though? Should I hang onto or reccommend a book if I can not with confidence hand it to a child, or even one of my high school students?

I think that again, this comes down to a category thing. There are two different reasons that books have these topics in them, each of them bearing weight into whether or not a book is wholesome.

The first is probably the most important. These things are part of life. Honest, mature perspectives on the lives we live and the world around us will include vulgar people, violent scenarios, and sexual drives. This can’t be avoided and maintain a pretence at honesty, or even reality. To be blunt, every adult has, or should have, dealt will all of these topics, at least on an intellectual level. It’s part of the definition of being an adult. Once these topics are dealt with (preferably in a wholesome, moral context), they don’t have the same stigma that they do for readers who are still forming their opinions on how the world works. These things exist in life. These things have to be dealt with, addressed, and understood if you expect to succeed as an adult in this world. All rose-tinted perspectives of the world aside, a book that hopes to teach, educate, or inform a mature reader by example or allegory will by necessity be a more mature read.

This thought process has a flip side. The inverse is the thinking that because we are adults and we have dealt with mature topics philosophically, or at least anecdotally, that we can now enjoy them for what they are as an end unto themselves. This is the very definition of the word gratuitous. These topics are mature because they require context and purpose, or else should not be present in our lives. Why should our fiction be any different?

There’s an incredible difference between Orwell’s use of sexual drives and desires as a focal point for expressing humanity’s longing for indiviualism (1984) and Stackpole’s provocative descriptions of his main character’s un-resisted temptations. (Fortress Draconis) It’s not hard to see the difference either. If we can’t find it in the author’s writings, we should at least be able to identify it in our attitude regarding and reactions to the content of a story. We tend to know what we’re thinking and why.

Another distinction is the perspective that a book is written from. It’s often harder to spot this at a glance, but becomes more clear as we read the context of the story and ponder the thesis of the book. Why does the author use this particular topic to make his point and what point is he trying to make with it? Is the perspective on violence intentionally negative, and that the reason such graphic depictions are used? Or is the violence more wanton in nature and the philosophy of the book idolizing those who are the most powerful by force? While these are stronger considerations when giving a book to a child, we can not count ourselves exempt from the influence of the philosophies we read.

When I’m reading a book, or enjoying any form of entertainment for that matter, this is one of my primary decision points. At the end of the book, is the thought process presented as positive wholesome or does the overarching philosophy encourage an unhealthy or immature perspective on adult topics? This one question is often more important to me than what is actually included in the story.

So here’s the take home. I’m glad I have an adult shelf. I don’t feel that it’s wrong to have enjoyed, learned from, or see value in something that is simply too mature for a young reader who is still learning how the world should function and setting his worldview in place.

I think there needs to be some serious caution. God cares about purity of thought. If we need to be reminded of what that looks like, let’s take a quick trip to Phillipians 4:8.

“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

Bottom line: if the books we’re reading are impeding that kind of a thought life, we shouldn’t be reading them. I know that everyone is different. I know that what’s a temptation for me simply isn’t for you. I know that things you see has brick walls in the way of pure thought I don’t even see as a speed bump. Welcome to being an adult. People are funny things.

I’m confident though that what God cares about is truly striving after Him and genuinely caring about what we are putting in front of ourselves as entertainment – not that we all agree on what that means or that everything we ingest is suitable for our children or students. We serve a real God who works in a real world. Pretending otherwise will never help us, but neither will choosing impurity in our lives.

Choose wisely…and enjoy reading.

(My Good Reads profile can be found here. If you stop by, grab a free account and let me know. I’m really hoping that this will be a great resource for hearing about books, both good and bad.)


2 responses to “The Adult Shelf

  • Aaron

    Good topic. For myself, I differentiate between books where adult elements are merely incidental to the story and books where adult elements are used as a cheap way to catch the reader’s attention. Good writers do not shy away from these subjects, but neither do they rely on them.

    And for the record, the Bible is on the adult shelf.

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