Books and Reading

IT IS almost indispensable that the modern girl, in whatever position she finds herself, whether one of the world’s workers or the girl of leisure, should give a portion of her time to reading. In this way only can she keep abreast of the time, sharing its best thoughts, understanding its important movements, and learning her own attitude toward the world and her duty toward it. She must read her daily paper, selecting with the utmost care the one that she should read regularly, and choosing only the one of clean, pure tone, that makes little of the social sensations, gives small space to the chronicling of crime, but that deals with the living questions of the day, honestly and fearlessly, and stands for what is sweet and good and strong in life. She must not omit her own weekly religious paper. These, with a good standard magazine that will be both entertaining and helpful and give her the best literary thought of the present time, and a few well-chosen books, should constitute her mental bill of fare She must remember that being a “great reader” is not, by any means, the same as being a “good reader.”

The greater part of books that flood the market at the present time is trash of the trashiest sort; and because one can devour such a vast amount of the stuff in an incredibly short space of time, she fancies that she is doing extraordinary things in the way of self-culture and mental discipline. Quantity, not quality, seems to be the standard by which intellectual abilities are measured; as somebody whom I have seen counts every page that he reads, makes a record of it, then exhibits this record to his friends to show what a great reader he is.

Thank goodness, girls, he isn’t one of you, but after all, I fear he is not so very unlike some of you in certain points, either as you are now or as you have been at some period of your existence. For, though you don’t count pages, many of you get through with almost as great an amount of nonsense, and then make an ostentatious parade over your extensive acquaintance with books and their authors; oftener than not, just the kind that it might be quite as well to refrain from acknowledging.

[ …]

But do not for a moment imagine, girls, that I advise you to give up all your light reading and devote yourselves expressly to solids. You must have a certain amount of literary recreation. I do not want you to steer from the Scylla of extreme silliness straight into the Charybdis of disagreeable pedantry. There must be a happy medium somewhere, and there is no reason why you should not find it.

Throw aside novels? No, indeed! Not while there is an edition of “The Waverlys” extant, giving you such insight into Scotch and English history as these wonderful books give. Not while Thackeray, sharp and clear as a keen north wind, shows you his views of life from his ever fresh pages; nor while Dickens, the inimitable, brings before you in their quaint reality the people who make up his world; nor while MacDonald, the man with the deepest sympathies and broadest humanities, reaching down deep into the hearts of men and setting them face to face with nature and nature’s God, makes us better for his writing. Not while you have Jane Austen’s sweet and simple stories, nor Mrs. Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and Helen Hunt’s ” Ramona “—the gospels of two downtrodden races.

While you have these and others like them, which cannot be mentioned here for lack of space, you need fear no harm from novel reading. But when you get beyond, into the field of sensational literature, the harm begins. You can go on as you are, growing lower in the mental scale; or you can elevate your taste, and come out upon higher planes of living than you ever have known before, and it is your books that will help you; they are to be your educators. Look at what lies before you—poetry, essay, history, biography, science. Will you call history stupid when Motley and Prescott invest every word they write with a new interest and enchain you to their pages by their exquisite imagery and elegant diction? When John Fiske writes American history so that you feel glad and proud of the achievement of your forefathers, and are made to realize how the story of America, its achievement and development, is but a carrying on of the story of the world, the Christian world, which was begun almost twenty centuries ago?

Will you vote essay dull when you have Charles Lamb—dear, gentle, quizzical Charles Lamb—to take into your heart of hearts? Where no one else penetrates, he enters with his queer drollery that overlies the deepest pathos, drawing smiles and tears simultaneously from lips and eyes, just as sunshine and shower struggle for mastery on an April day.

There, too, is Macaulay, with his somewhat confident self-assertion, but no less fascinating style and keen discrimination now and then blunted by prejudice; our own American Whipple, Curtis and Higginson, names well known in the pages of literature.

You never liked biography? Then you know nothing about it. Take the lives of some of the men and women who have lived and labored for humanity, who have struggled and won, who have left names behind them that are beacon lights on the path of endeavor and achievement, and who have made the world better because they lived and worked and attained. See then, after you have finished reading of these rare souls, that you can say any longer, that you don’t like biography.

Do you say you can’t endure poetry? What! not while you have the grand, heroic songs of Homer, the deep grandeur of Dante, the sublime majesty of Milton, the subtle, sympathetic humanity of Shakespeare, together with the sweet singing of America’s Longfellow, Whittier and Bryant?

I have left until the last the one book which comprehends for you the whole world of literature; in it you find history, essay, biography and poetry, all the highest and the best. I mean, the book that you must make your daily guide, your closest companion, your best beloved teacher; the book which must be “the guide to your feet and the lamp to your path”—your Bible. Following its guidance and its light, you can never go far astray; it will be your helper and comforter through every stress of circumstance, pointing you the way to the broader life beyond. It gives you mental and spiritual strength. It feeds brain and heart, so if it chances that this book combines your entire library you will, if you peruse it properly and study it diligently, be both a great and a good reader.

From Occupations for women: A book of practical suggestions, for the material advancement, the mental and physical development, and the moral and spiritual uplift of women, published in 1897

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  1. Mama Squirrel
    Posted January 22, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    I like this very much…but isn't it a bit sad that, though it was written a hundred plus years ago, there hasn't been a whole lot more to add to the list? Or what would you add if you were writing it now?

  2. Headmistress, zookeeper
    Posted January 23, 2011 at 12:50 am | Permalink

    Wendell Berry, Soltzenitzen (SP), Chaim Potok, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Barbara Kingsolver…

    That's an interesting question, Mama Squirrel.

  3. Frances
    Posted January 23, 2011 at 3:46 am | Permalink

    I've just been listening to audiobook versions of longtime favorites The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven – um, actually CD recordings I borrowed from the library and transferred.

    When I first encoountered the address "Indian School Road" I thought it was quaint and romantic. Now it makes me shudder!

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