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Good gracious,' he exclaims, 'I'm not going to read stuff like that; I should get the hump for a week ; give me something cheerful.' And he picks up ‘The Bauble,' by Mrs. Risquet Trashe.
And he is quite right. To anyone whose literature has consisted for years of nothing but novels of the circulating library type, a sudden application to the great writers would indeed be depressing. Is it necessary, however, or indeed wise, that any man's mental pabulum should consist entirely of novels ? Nothing is further from our mind than to decry the taste for novelreading; for, wisely employed, novels can become one of the joys of life. We can but agree with Miss Austen when she inveighs, in ‘Northanger Abbey,' against those who belittle the productions of the novelist. But would she have been so emphatic had she lived to witness the printingpresses spouting forth that frothy flood which effervesces round the more serious writings of today? Would that every novel we take up had the delightful 'genius, wit, and taste' of Jane Austen to recommend it. How few and far between are the really good novels that we read !
There can be no finer recreation for a tired mind than a good novel. There is, however, one habit of reading which has become almost a social evil; and that is the habit of reading newspapers which many indulge in, morning, noon, and night.
It is difficult to imagine anything more calculated to destroy consecutive and considered thought than the enormous variety of inconsequential topics that assails one every time one opens a newspaper. The mind becomes completely fuddled with the heterogeneous patchwork of entirely useless information. The only method we have discovered by which one can acquire the important news and yet retain the serenity of one's mind is that of having such news only as she knows will be of use read out by one's wife at breakfast. And this does not mean that the mental discomforts of the newspaper are relegated to one's better-half, for women are usually interested in the smaller details of everyday life.
No wonder that a large number of city men' live out their lives without ever opening a book that is worth reading meditatively; for newspaperreading in course of time must completely undermine one's mental stability. After a few years, a book that is not composed of headlines, short chapters, small paragraphs and ejaculatory sentences, is unreadable without mental effort. So that long before he is middle-aged the city man has acquired the habit of 'giancing at'a news. sheet or magazine whenever he has nothing to do for a few minutes : a kind of reading that is about as advantageous to the mind as that which we indulge in when fingering the antique periodicals in the dentist's waiting-room. In later years he may or he may not overcome the repugnance he has acquired to anything deep or ‘solid' (by which he generally means 'unparagraphed') : but we venture to think that, having once taken the plunge, there must be moments when he marvels at his foolishness in not having entered, years before, the City of the golden streets.
Perhaps it is unwise to use the word 'education’in speaking of the benefits to be derived from reading the great books, for to many people the term is synonymous with 'school,' where one is obliged frequently to do things against one's will. Good books, that is, the books that live,' are no mere education, they are steps up the path of civilisation itself. They are just as necessary for the advancement of knowledge as are the letters and numerals which we learnt at school. The greatest books of the world do not teach us; they help us to teach ourselves, a very different matter. 'They are masters who instruct us without rod or ferule,' wrote an early book-lover 1 ; if you approach them they are not asleep; if you inquire of them they do not withdraw themselves; they never chide when you make mistakes; they never laugh if you are ignorant.' And the books which would be available to him would be chiefly the works of the Early Fathers, professedly books of moral instruction. But the books of our library ‘are so many faithful and serviceable friends, gently teaching us everything through their persuasive and wise experience.'1
1 Richard of Bury (lived 1281-1345).
And that is precisely the point. Good books do not instruct us so much as they persuade us; so that we come to be of the same mind as the great man who had deliberated and debated the matter so thoroughly for us. Perchance we disagree and take a different standpoint. Then can one almost see the spirit of the sage chuckling with delight at having found someone with whom to cross swords. “I have made him think, I have made him think,' he repeats gleefully; and, sure of his point, he delights in having held our attention so intently as to cause us to debate the issue with ourselves.
It were foolish, however, to suppose that all the great books of the world are at once suitable to every reader. Time, above all other considerations, decides what we shall read; and the book which makes its greatest impression upon one man at thirty will fail to appeal to his neighbour till he be fifty or more. “A man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age,' says Benedick, and the converse is equally true. What a mistaken notion it is that puts into the hands of boys such classics as “The Pilgrim's Progress' and 'Don Quixote'; for they are books which a knowledge of the world and of human nature alone can enable us to appreciate to the full. Their very foundations are built upon the rock of experience, every page exhibits the thoughts and deeds of men. No wonder that nine boys out of ten grow up with a dislike of Bunyan and all his works, and a contempt for the adventures of the immortal Don. Generally, however, all recollection of Quixote, except that he had a rotten old horse and charged some windmills, has (mercifully) disappeared long before the reader has attained his eighteenth year.
1 M. Octave Uzanne.
In later life, perhaps, we take up these books again, and are surprised to find that they have completely changed. There is hardly an incident in them that we remember, and we marvel how such and such a glorious passage could possibly have escaped us before. Our own experience must have been that of many others. Long after our school-days were ended we took up, for the first time, ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.' How wistfully we thought of the enjoyment that would have been ours when at school, had but some kind chance put into our hands this and similar books in which boys, and real human boys, played the principal parts, not strange outlandish men, the like of whom we had never
This unwise reading, this plunging, as it were, in medias res, is, we are inclined to think, the reason why to so many men the library of great authors is for ever locked. After a lengthy course