Reading That Recreates
( Originally Published 1906 )
QUITE a lot of murders, eh, yesterday ? " It was a man in the car who glanced up from his newspaper to address the casual remark to his comrade ; and that comrade took his eyes away from his own blanket sheet long enough to grunt a careless assent.
"Quite a lot of murders!" mused the listener, as the train sped on. "What a fearful thing that is to say so glibly ! The awful, growing madness ; the horror of passions, hid-den yet gnawing ; the dark broodings, the lightning flash of the deed, the sudden terror of flight ; the utter misery of homes, the agony of sorrow and shame, the stern courtroom and cold cell, the plunge into a black future,—' Quite a lot of murders, eh, yesterday ?' "
Are the newspapers hardening people's hearts ? Is it good for us that telegraph wires should groan over land and under sea with such sad burdens of human crime only that we may glance lightly at the shocking record?
These things are startling. They readily catch the reporter's eye and the public pennies. They present their claim as news with an assurance that seems irresistible. Good deeds hide modestly in corners, and only the wise and skilful can unearth them ; but any bungler of the pen and jerker of the telegraph key can give a murder currency.
What does it mean to give murders currency, to make them run ? It means just what it would mean if excursions were organized to scenes of murders, and the whole world set down to hobnob with the murderer. Only, it is easier to make the murder run about the world, than to get the world to run to the murder. With modern arts of picture and of pen one -way is just as vivid as the other.
The newspapers claim that the photographic methods of the press really tend to discourage crime and make it abhorrent. " Why should not a faithful picture of a horrible deed horrify men ? " they ask. They forget the influence of familiarity. If the newspapers should agree among themselves to report but one murder a year, the fearful exhibition might fill men with horror ; but when murders are part of our daily reading, it comes to " Quite a lot of murders, eh, yesterday ? "
If a young man or a young woman cares anything for the possession of emotions rightly delicate and fitly sensitive, he will not permit the newspapers to put him in the position of a police judge or of the inspecting officer of a prison. f the natural shrinking from sin is a feeling to be preserved, many a newspaper must be shunned as a plague. This is not saying that we must withhold ourselves from contact with sinners when we have opportunity of helping them. Newspaper accounts of crime are not read with such motives, and do not inspire such desires.
Let every young Christian exercise great care in the selection of his newspaper. No papers are free from fault in this direction, but some are much worse than others. Let him, quite regardless of politics or secular interests, read only those papers that reduce their mention of crime to a minimum ; and many young men and women of quick imagination and ready emotion would do a wise thing if they got their news entirely from the admirable summaries of the great, clean week-lies.
In fine, as there is a reading that recreates, certainly there is also a reading that discreates, and the average newspaper furnishes that reading in abundance. Therefore I assuredly would not read newspapers for sport.
But you do not, you declare ; you read them for study and for information. Study of what ? Those long rows of men, tipped back against the wall in the offices of all hotels, those hundreds who daily pass through your town on the cars, their weary eyes glued to the papers held in their shaking hands, those crowds in the drug-stores, the markets, the cobblers' shops, on the street corners, gathered about the fortunate possessors of the wondrous sheet,—upon what are all these mature minds feeding ? What information are they seeking ? What science are they studying ?
For an answer do not go to the men, do not note their respectability or their virtue or their intelligence, do not ask them their purposes, because all these matters are not to the point ; but go to the paper itself, and analyze the columns of any daily that you please in this fair land, this Christian land ; and by the statistics of the yardstick, if by nothing higher, by the topics discussed on these mystic leaves, and by the proportionate space given them., judge what science these men are studying so absorbingly. It is the science of murder, or of horrible executions therefor. It is the science of the ward politician and his various tricks. It is the science of unsavory tales of scandal, of social impurity, of wrecked lives.
It is the science of theft, embezzlement, burglary ; the science of accident, of crushed limbs and mangled bodies ; the science of tornado, of fire, of earthquake; the science of assassination, of war and rumors of war ; the science of Bill Bruiser and of bloody noses ; of horse-flesh debasing human flesh ; of quarrels and gambling and liquor dens ; of unfounded political rumors ; of stocks and deals and combines and gambling, most infernal because most cruel and disastrous ; the science of criminality and horror and small talk. That is what they are studying. Nor are they studying all this with any purpose to make it better, which would be some palliation. The newspaper does not teach scorn of Bill Bruiser ; does not devote itself to the suppression of stock-gambling ; does not spend its energies in inquiring how Johnny Malone, whose criminal deed it gloates over, may be made a better boy ; in short, in chronicling so persistently the vicious and depraved and deplorable side of human existence, it is not engaged with all its heart, nor with a fraction of its heart, in bettering the evil. In the meantime, these men are not studying 'he science of good government, the needs of our brothers and sisters down in the filth, the gospel of our Lord and the coming of His kingdom. Away with the flimsy pretence that this enormous amount of newspaper-reading is done in pursuit of information or of knowledge. It is for amusement, amusement low, vicious, sensual.
There is but one rational way in which to read a newspaper, and that, as Dr. Clark suggests, is after the fashion of reading bills in Congress, which are often read by title only. Reading a newspaper by title takes a Christian never more than fifteen minutes. The mere headings of most of the columns should be to him great danger signs. No. Let us be honest if to us, as to so many millions, newspaper-reading is an amusement; and let us own up that we do it because we like it. Is it not a cruel sport to get our pleasure out of the woe and wickedness of the world, out of its sneers and petty scandals, out of its horrors and follies ? In advising you how to play, can I do otherwise than warn you away from such devil's play as this ?
Now in spite of the fact that one is true (or supposed to be) and the other acknowledged to be false, everything I have said in warning against reading newspapers for sport applies to the indiscriminate reading of fiction. Novels, the whipped cream of literature, have become our mental bread and meat. We must have our history dressed up in the historical romance, our very sermons and philosophy must be disguised in the "story with a purpose." The effect upon our minds is the same as the effect of too much mince pie upon the small boy's stomach. For reading, to be permanently recreative, must be reading with a purpose,—reading with a purpose above recreation.
Who gets more enjoyment out of eating, the pampered millionaire, whose tongue is the wearied host for myriads of sugary, creamy, spicy guests, or the little daughter of the laborer, trotting about all the morning with helpful steps, who has come a long two miles with her father's dinner to eat it with him from a tin pail ? And who gets the more pleasure out of reading, the satiated fiction-glutton, her brain crammed with disordered fragments of countless scenes of adventure, love, and tragedy, impatient of the same old situations,- the familiar characters, the stale plots,—she, or the girl who is fired with a love for history, say, who wants to know all about the grand old, queer old Socrates, and then about his friends, and then about the times in which he lived, and then about the way in which they all lived, and then about the Socratic legacy to the ages ? Why, will that girl ever be done with the feast? Can you not see, looking down on her joy with a blessing, the very Lord of the banquet, who has ordered all history and ordained that the truth He fashions shall be stranger always than the fictions man contrives ?
Take the word of a man who has made full trial of both. Solid reading is as much more interesting and attractive than frivolous reading as solid living is more recreative than frivolous living. A full mind is never bored. It is only the frothy brain, honey-combed with fiction, tunneled mischievously with hollow unrealities, that is really bored. The great books of science,—what poetry is so poetic, what romance so romantic as these to the mind unvitiated by artificial tastes ? To enter into the treasuries of the snow, the armories of the clouds, to gain admission to the council chambers of the elements, on the magic carpet of astronomy to travel to distant stars and more distant aeons, to know the earth in its morning days, and see the flower hidden in the seed !
Or, if your reading must have more human interest, did ever hero of a novel live so wild a romance as Napoleon's? Was Henry Esmond or Colonel Newcome so lovable as Thackeray himself ? Have Miss Alcott, Miss Larcom, Mrs. Stowe, written anything as entertaining as their own biographies ? Was ever a story of adventure so marvelous as the real experience of Stanley ? In all fiction is there a heroine to compare with Joan of Arc ?
Why, when I would rest from joys of the mind too intense, when I become even satiated with mental exhilaration and want mental commonplace, I flee from the fairy-land of the real to the sober country of fiction, and find in the dull imaginings of Scott or Dickens or Thackeray or Shakespeare or Milton a relief from the too brilliant thoughts of the Creator, only swiftly to return again from their weak platitudes to the exuberant marvels of God's creation.
Thus reading—reading methodical and Seri-' ou ous and solid—I earnestly recommend as an unparalleled mental recreation. A few pennies nowadays will buy the books, or, in these times of free libraries, they may be had for the taking, simply and cheaply, as all great gifts should be. What to read and how to read wisely—it would be a joy to write an
entire book on the theme, a joy I propose to myself in continuance of this " How " series of books, if the public is sagacious enough to favor them; but it is far too large a subject to attack at the fag end of a chapter.