( Originally Published 1879 )
There are four classes of readers. The first is like the hour-glass; and their readings being on the sated, it runs in and runs out and leaves no vestige behind. A second is like a sponge, which imbibes everything, and returns it in the same state, only a little dirtier. A third is like a jelly bag, allowing all that is pure to pass away, and retaining only the refuse and dregs. The fourth is like the slaves in the diamond mines of Golconda, who, casting aside all that is worthless, obtain only pure gems.
One's reading is, usually, a fair index of his character. Observe, in almost any house you visit, the books which lie customarily on the center-table; or note what are taken by preference from the public or circulating library; and you may judge, in no small degree, not only the intellectual tastes and the general intelligence of the family, but also—and what is of far deeper moment—you may pronounce on the moral attainments and the spiritual advancement of most of the household. "A man is known," it is said, "by the company he keeps." It is equally true that a man's character may be, to a great extent, ascertained by knowing what books he reads.
The temptation to corrupt reading is usually strong est at the period when the education of the school-room is about closing. The test of the final utility, however, is the time when our youth leave these schools. If the mind be now awakened to a manly independence, and start on a course of vigorous self culture, all will be well. But if, on the other hand, it sinks into a state of inaction, indifferent to its own needs, and to all the highest ends and aims of life, then woe to the man. For few, very few, ever rouse them-selves in mid-life to a new intellectual taste, and to an untried application of their time and powers to that culture for which the Creator formed and endowed them.
'To read books which present false pictures of human life is decidedly dangerous, and we would say stand aloof. Life is neither a tragedy nor a farce. Men are not all either knaves or heroes. Women are neither angels nor furies. And yet, if you depended upon much of the literature of the day, you would get the idea that life, instead of being something earnest, some-thing practical, is a fitful and fantastic and extravagant thing. How poorly prepared are that young man and woman for the duties of to-day who spent last night wading through brilliant passages descriptive of magnificent knavery and wickedness. The man will be looking all day long for his heroine in the tin shop, by the forge, in the factory, in the counting-room, and he will not find her, and he will be dissatisfied. A man who gives himself up to the indiscriminate reading of novels will be nerveless, inane, and a nuisance. He will be fit neither for the store, nor the shop, nor the field. A woman who gives herself up to the indiscriminate reading of novels will be unfitted for the duties of wife, mother, sister, daughter. There she is, hair dishevelled, countenance vacant, cheeks pale, hands trembling, bursting into tears at midnight over the fate of some unfortunate lover; in the day-time,. when she ought to be busy, staring by the half hour at nothing; biting her finger nails to the quick. The carpet that was plain before, will be plainer, after through a romance all night long having wandered in tessellated halls of castles. And your industrious companion will be more unattractive than ever, now that you have walked in the romance through parks with plumed princesses, or lounged in the arbor with the polished desperado.
Abstain from all those books which, while they have some good things about them, have also an admixture of evil. You have read books that had the two elements in them—the good and the bad. Which stuck to you? The bad! The heart of most people is like a sleve, which lets the small particles of gold fall through, but keeps the great cinders. Once in a while there is a mind like a loadstone, which, plunged amid steel and brass filings, gathers up the steel and repels the brass. But it is generally just the opposite. If you attempt to plunge through a hedge of burrs to get one blackberry, you will get more burrs than blackberries. You cannot afford to read a bad book, however good you are. You say, "The influence is insignificant." I tell you that the scratch of a pin has sometimes produced the lockjaw. Alas, if through curiosity, as many do, you pry into an evil book, your curiosity is as dangerous as that of the man who should take a torch into a gun-powder mill merely to see whether it really would blow up or not.
Inferior books are to be rejected, in an age and time when we are courted by whole libraries, and when no man's life is long enough to compass even those which are good and great and famous. Why should we bow down at puddles, when we can approach freely to the crystal spring-heads of science and letters? Half the reading of most people is snatched up at random. Many stupefy themselves over the dullness of authors who ought never to have escaped oblivion. The invention of paper and printing—especially the production of both by a new motive power—may be said to have overdone the matter, and made it too easy to be born into the world of authorship. The race would be benefited by some new invention for strangling nine out of ten that sue for publicity. No man can do his friend or child a more real service than to snatch from his hand the book that relaxes and effeminates him, lest he destroy the solids and make his fibre flaccid by the slops and hashes of a catch-penny press. But especially is he a benefactor who instills the principle that no corn position should be deliberately sought, which is not good, beneficial, and above mediocrity.
To those who plead the want of time to read, we would say, be as frugal of your hours as you are of your dollars, and you can create time in the busiest day. Horace Greeley, the editor of a newspaper which has reached an almost incredible circulation, tells us, that when a boy, he would "go reading, to the wood-pile; reading, to the garden; reading, to the neighbors." His father was poor, and needed his services through the day; and it was a mighty struggle with him to get
Horace to bed. "I would take a pine knot," he says, "put it on the back-log, pile my books around me, and lie down and read all through the long winter evenings; silent, motionless, and dead to the world around me, alive only to the world to which I was transported by my book." In this country talent has a fair field to rise by culture from the humblest walks of life, and to attain the highest distinction of which it is capable. "Why," inquired a bystander of a certain carpenter, who was bestowing great labor in planing and smoothing a seat for the bench in a court-room, "why do you spend so much time on that seat?" "I do it," was the reply, " to make it easy for myself." And he kept his word; for, by industry, perseverance, and self-education, he rose, step by step, until he actually did after-wards sit as judge on that very bench he had planed as a carpenter.
Consider that what we carry to a book is always quite as important as what we receive from it. We may strike the keys of the best instrument, from earliest morn to latest night, but unless there be music in our soul, it can produce no harmony for us. While, to an earnest, inquiring, self-poised mind, "a good book is the plectrum by which our else silent lyres are struck." Master your reading, and let it never master, you. Then it will serve you with an ever-increasing fidelity. Only read books aright, and they' will charge your mind with the true electric fire. Take them up as among your best friends; and every volume you peruse will join the great company of joyous servitors who will wait around your immortal intellect. Then, too, your daily character will bear the signatures of the great minds you commune with in secret. And, as the years pass on, you will walk in the light of an ever-enlarging multitude of well-chosen, silent, but never-erring guides.
To read with profit, the books must be of a kind calculated to inform the mind, correct the head, and better the heart. These books should be read with attention, understood, remembered, and their precepts put in practice. It depends less on number than quality. One good book, well understood and remembered, is of more use than to have a superficial knowledge of fifty, equally sound. Books of the right character pro-duce reflection, and induce investigation. They are a mirror of mind, for mind to look in. Of all the books ever written, no one contains so instructive, so sublime, and so great a variety, as the Bible. Resolve to read three chapters each day, for one year, and you will find realities there, more wonderful than any pictures of fiction, that have been drawn by the finest pencillings of the master hand of the most practiced novel writer, who has shone in the dazzling galaxy of ancient or modern literature.
The advice in regard to reading only the best selected works, leads me to say, read slowly. We some-times rush over pages of valuable matter, because, at a glance, they seem to be dull; and we leap along to see how the story, if it be a story, is to end. We do every thing in this age in a hurry; we demand not only "fast" horses, but fast writers, fast preachers, and fast lecturers. Said a noted seaman's preacher in one of our large cities, "I work in a hurry, I sleep in a hurry, and, if I ever die, I expect to die in a hurry." This is the history of much of the present reading.
No one can too highly appreciate the magic power of the press, or too deeply depricate its abuses. News-papers have become the great highway of that intelligence which exerts a controlling power over our nation, catering the very-day food of the mind. Show us an intelligent family of boys and girls, and we will show you a family whére newspapers and periodicals are plenty. .Nobody who has been without these private tutors can know their educating power for good or evil. Have you ever thought of the innumerable topics of discussion which they suggest at the breakfast table; the important public measures with which, thus early our children become acquainted ; great philanthropic questions of the day, to which, unconsciously, their attention is awakened, and the general spirit of intelligence which is evoked by these quiet visitors ? Anything that makes home pleasant, cheerful and chatty, thins the haunts of vice and the thousand and one avenues of temptation, should certainly be regarded, when we consider its influence on the minds of the young, as a great social and moral light.
A child beginning to read becomes delighted with a newspaper, because he reads of names and things which are familiar, and he will progress accordingly. A newspaper in one year is worth a quarter's schooling to a child. Every father must consider that information is connected with advancement. The mother of a family, being one of its heads, and having a more immediate charge of children, should herself be instructed. A mind occupied becomes fortified against the, ills of life, and is braced for emergency. Children amused by reading or study are of course more considerate and easily governed.
How many thoughtless young men have spent their earnings in a tavern or grog shop who ought to have been reading! How many parents who have not spent twenty dollars for books for their families, would have given thousands to reclaim a son or daughter who had ignorantly or thoughtlessly fallen into temptation.
Take away the press, and the vast educating power of the school and the college would soon come to an end. Or, look one moment at the immense influence a single writer has had upon an age, or upon the world—Shakespeare in creating the drama, or Bacon and Des-cartes in founding different systems of philosophy. Who may estimate the influence of Charles Dickens upon society, when by the magic of his pen he touched the under world of poverty' and want and sin, over which the rich and the gay glided on, not knowing or thinking what was beneath their feet, and marched all this ghastly array of ragged and hungry children and sorrowful women and discouraged men, and the famished forms from the poor-house, and the ugly visage of the criminal, into the parlors of wealth and culture, and there had them tell the story of their woes and their suffering? Or who can tell the influence of a McDonald, or a Beecher, or an Eggleston in entering the wide realm of romance and compelling it to serve truth, humanity and religion? Or who knows the influence of Thomas Payne and Jefferson in strengthening the cause of liberty in our struggle for national independence ? Take one single writer of our own land—Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe. The single tale of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," stirred the heart of this vast nation to its profoundest depths. At the simple moving of her pen millions of swords and bayonets gleamed and flashed in the air, and vast armies met in deadly array and fought face to face, till liberty, re-baptized in blood, was given to man as man. This vast world moves along the lines of thought and sentiment and principle, and the press gives to these wings to fly and tongues to speak.