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By Rev. EZEKIEL W. MUNDY, Librarian, City Library, Syracuse.
Any person whose work calls him to sit at the desk of a public library and distribute books to all comers, must frequently find the question in his mind: Is this free distribution of books a good ? Unlimited freedom of access to books for young people who have little knowledge, judgment, discipline or taste, seems perilous to the intellectual and moral life. While character is forming and the direction and temper of the life are being determined, it is of great import that the proper circumstances and food be furnished to the young. The human being is, like the bee, largely dependent for his qualities upon the place in which he grows and the food which he appropriates. And in the present condition of civilization, a large proportion of the mental food of mankind comes through reading.
As people advance in life the dangers are diminished. The taste becomes formed, the possibilities of change for better or worse decrease, and life moves on in the way in which it was started. As a matter of the wasting or the saving of time, or of helping or hindering in the work of life, the question of reading is important to all. But to young people who are not in school-life, reading is not merely a means of gratification or help in life, it is a means of forming mental habits and developing spiritual perceptions and tastes.
The most noticeable danger which besets young readers, is the danger of reading too much. This is perhaps the greatest intellectual danger of the present day.
Books read for amusement, for instruction, or for their effects upon the intellectual and moral tone can be of use only as they are digested and converted into living fibre. If too much is undertaken, this is impossible. The tenseness and vigor of the mind is destroyed by overwork. Work imperfectly done establishes bad habits, and fails of the delight which accompanies thorough work.
It requires little observation to learn that young people read too much. Newspapers have increased in size until it would be impossible for a young person to properly read one of the leading dailies. And there are newspapers, scientific, literary, artistic, professional and religious; there are weeklies, monthlies, quarterlies and annuals; there are innumerable cheap publications in the Franklin Square Library, the Sea-side Library, Lovell’s cheap books and like series ; there are private libraries, reading clubs, common school libraries, Sundayschool libraries and public libraries; there are the social means of borrowing and lending; there are cheap books exposed for sale on the streets, and books thrust with tiresome persistence upon travelers from the beginning to the end of every journey.
All these means are enforced by the imperious fashion for reading which dominates our time. Knowledge has become so free and common that the young are made to feel that it is a disgrace not to know something about everything. The result is that young people attempt so much that they know nothing accurately and in a thoughtful way. They have little clear and complete acquaintance with thoughts or things. They make their reading a dissipation rather than a discipline. Mr. Matthews says: “The Turk eats opium, the Hindoo chews tobacco and betel-nut, the civilized Christian reads; and opium, tobacco and book, all alike, tend to produce that dizzy, dreamy, drowsy state of mind which unfits a man for all the active duties of life.”
Strength comes to the reader by mastery and appropriation. The consciousness of having conquered is a great stimulus to the intellectual and moral life. And the clear holding of facts and thoughts with a perception of their place and relations enriches as well as strengthens. “ Non multa sed multum" was the old Latin motto which should not be forgotten. Hobbes (of Malmesbury) said, that had he read as many books as others, he would have known as little. The remark showed more intellectual acumen than modesty.
A good book thoroughly read forms an era in the growth of the human mind. To read thoroughly Shakespeare, or Browning, or Emerson, is an education. Proper reading of any one of these authors would give a young man or woman better mental discipline and outfit than is possible in the methods of reading popular in our time. Books should be read again and again. There is nothing of more importance for the young than repetition. Good reading is action. By it facts are won and power developed. A poor book well read, digested and judged, will be of more value than a good book read carelessly and judged feebly. Mr. Ruskin says that in his ideal society no book shall be sold for less than a pound sterling. And this law is to be a guard against what he considers the great evil of so many books. Mr. G. Stanley Hall says on this subject : “Widely read young people are always feebly educated. A single great work, read till its flavor is really caught raises the level of the whole mental and moral character.” The first law of private reading for the young should be, read few books.
Another danger which besets private reading among the young is that the quality of the reading be poor. This danger follows closely in the track of the preceding. Where many books are read there is a strong tendency to lower the quality, because good books cannot be read rapidly by growing minds. When few books are read, good books are naturally selected, since they will bear reading again. In our public libraries those books are most sought which require little thought and furnish most excitement to the feelings. The most popular writers are Mrs. Southworth, Mrs. Holmes, Caroline Lee Hentz, and others of that class. No public library undertakes to supply the full demand for these books. Conversations like the following are not infrequent at the desk of the public library:
Reader.—Any of Mrs. Southworth's books in ?
Fiction in itself is not bad. Some of the best books are works of fiction. And yet it is unquestionable that the reading of fiction has dangers which are not incident to other forms of literature. The interest of the story carries the reader along so that he is likely to forget all else. The feelings are powerfully excited, and having no object upon which to act, they are weakened. If such reading is steadily pursued by young women at the rate of two volumes a week, it is easy to understand why they should be mawkish, sentimental and without sympathy with the common working life about them. Literature and daily activity to such people are two wholly separate worlds, and reading, instead of helping them in solving the problem of living, is a hindrance to that solution. It makes them discontented and disheartened by setting up false and unattainable ideals.
Books of fiction have their use in stimulating the imagination, in helping readers to realize times and scenes and persons with whom contact is impossible. They aid the students of science, of history, of poetry, of art and of practical life, by increasing the domain of things which are living. And they also help people by the relaxation and amusement which they afford.
The reading of fiction, however, should be secondary to reading of a higher type. The working fibre of the human mind must be made chiefly of more solid food. For young people the quality of the books read should be beyond question. Fiction may be like condiments to the meat, or like dessert to the dinner; but the books on which life feeds should be of a higher sort. The fire of life will furnish most heat and light if the fuel is of the best. And in the case of access which young people have to the best, there is no reason for failure in respect of quality. The frequent reading of the Bible, with very little other literature, has made men powerful in mind and upright in spiritual life. The neglect of the Bible is one of the intellectual and spiritual misfortunes of our age. Men rise to the quality of the books which are taken into their lives. When a man has thoroughly digested Emerson's books he will be on the same level of perception on which Emerson stood. When a reader has appropriated the Gospels to his life he will be the moral and religious peer of the writers of the Gospels.
The quality of a book should not only be good in itself, but it should also have relation to the quality and purpose of the reader. Here as elsewhere “what is one man's meat is another's poison.” Reading at best can only develop and furnish the powers which are born in people. Reading should therefore develop strength and sensibility on the one hand, and should also on the other hand bring knowledge to the reader. It is greatly more important however that strength and sensibility should be reached than that knowledge should be won. Power and sympathy are the supreme human possessions. Power enables men to do, and sympathy guides them in their doing. Knowledge is important in life, but a well-trained mind will easily acquire the special knowledge necessary in work. It is of vastly more importance what young people like, than what they know. Establish a right direction and attainment is only a matter of time. Make young people think clearly and feel rightly and you have educated them and secured their future. Books for the young should have special regard to the development of manly and womanly character, to the culture of self-control, of energy, of integrity, of regard for truth and good in living. Their sympathies should be directed into worthy channels, and life, whatever its form, should be lifted above the mean and narrow, to generous and heroic levels. This culture of right sympathies makes history and biography most important in the reading of the young. Scientific reading develops the power of observation, strengthens the judgment and furnishes knowledge, while the moral and spiritual qualities, the sympathies and tastes are directed by the study of human life and the contemplation of its actions and ideals.
As the school days go by and the young come into active life wise reading must include more of books for special information. It is a disgrace for people not to know the facts, traditions and theories connected with their labor and with the materials upon which they work. There is no vocation, however lofty, which is not helped by accurate and minute knowledge of its details, and there is no pursuit, however humble, which does not furnish opportunity for the development of intellectual activity and practical skill. The intellectual life does not consist in dealing with books and schools; it consists in doing any work thoughtfully. A tradesman, a mason, a farmer who has carefully studied the things upon which he works, may become as wellinformed, as interesting, as useful and as noble as men engaged in science or polite letters. It is a great mistake of young people to think that the intellectual life consists in the class of things done. It consists in the mental state of the person doing.
In an age in which reading is so abundant and the human life is so largely dependent upon it, there can be no more important work in education than that of teaching the young how to read. Our school education is chiefly by means of books. It is, therefore, most natural as well as most important that young people be taught how to use books. Instruction in reading is instruction in the use of the tools of the school-room. Books are also the tools of the broader and higher life, of the educated life. A man cannot well become educated until he has learned how to use books.
It would seem, therefore, that when carefully analyzed, the chief functions of the school of a lower grade than the professional school should be to teach students to use books. Other knowledge which students get could be quite as easily won in subordination to this as a leading purpose. And to state distinctly that one of the primary objects of education is to give the young knowledge, judgment, selfcontrol and taste in reading, would have the great advantage of bringing purpose, definiteness, unity and power into a considerable group of studies. It is a great defect in a teacher to have no point to make except to teach the facts put down in the curriculum. All teaching is dead which has not a life-giving purpose, definitely conceived, clearly stated and earnestly acted upon.
. It is often said that education is too much a matter of books, and should concern itself more with things. To this, every thoughtful person would assent. It is a narrowness in our educational system that it does not embrace equally the domains of thought and of things. There would be the two co-ordinate purposes in the ideal system of education. Education in things, however, is sure to come in practical