The Pernicious Influence Of Bad Books
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
"Let it be observed and remembered," says Noah Porter, "that a book is always written by a man, and that it is never by any magic or mystery any better than its author makes it to be," and it must be confessed with regret that the world is full of bad books and that the habit of reading may lead a man unconsciously into associations with evil. In the past a sort of religious veneration prevailed about books. They were few in number, kept in manuscript, and copied at a great cost of time and labor, and a very high value was placed upon them. After the introduction of printing the superstition was left, and there are traces of it even at the present day. It is almost impossible for a person to doubt what he sees in print. He may know that it is false, and yet there is a kind of sacredness about the printed word that is the foster-child of faith: An amusing story is told of Mr. H. Crabb. Robinson. When a child, he was corrected for spelling words wrong. In defence he showed his spelling-book. Upon being told that the word was wrongly printed, he was quite confounded. "I believed," says he, "as firmly in the infallibility of print as any good Catholic can in the infallibility of his church. I knew that naughty boys would tell stories, but how a book could contain a falsehood was quite incomprehensible." Not a few of us live and die with a similar notion in regard to the truthfulness of what we read in books and papers. Yet books not only contain falsehoods, but they contain pictures of vice and forms of evil, so skillfully drawn as not to awaken the alarm or repugnance of the reader.
Through one's confidence in printed books we are frequently led into the associations of iniquity before we are aware of it. In the sacred name of poetry the vilest trash has been given to the world. One of the greatest of English poets whose genius was illumined with transcendent light has been guilty of clothing the worst immoralities in the garments of enchanting beauty. A French novelist, one of the first in rank as a literary genius, corrupted the morals of a whole century of readers. And under the guise of stimulating the imagination, and enlightening the dull hours of life with the gleams of romance, writers and publishers have catered to the most depraved passion of humanity, and filled the world with a literature that is rank with the odors of the pit. There can be no doubt that the indiscriminate reading of certain forms of fiction furnishes the leading instruction in the school of murder, plunder, theft, and licentiousness. No doubt the waywardness and final destruction of thousands of our young people, is due to the evil influences of the books they read. Unquestioned, a bad book may go to the chamber of an innocent boy or girl ; but it contains suggestive words, descriptions of deception, foul talks that children should never see or hear, plot and counterplot of betrothal and betrayal, and words of passion that are read without a thought, when they should cover the face with crimson blushes. Such unhealthful pictures of a false and wicked life become too often the sole intellectual food of young men and women. What can be expected of a diet of villainy and immorality but similar villainies and immoralities in the life of the reader later on ? To discover the proportion to which this evil has grown it is only necessary to look at a few facts.. In the city of New York, on an average, about two thousand volumes of fiction are printed every month. The authors of fiction whose works are worthy to be read and who publish their works in New York city are probably less than one hundred, and it is only a very small proportion of this vast mass of literature that can safely fall into the hands of a young man or woman. But it is not the best books that have the greatest circulation. Add to this vast publication of books a million copies a week of the sensational story papers of the great metropolis, and then consider that twenty other cities add their quota to this vile stream of corrupt literature that is flowing like a river from the printing press of the land. A publisher of popular books in New York recently said:
" Some time since I inserted in a popular religious New York journal, at a cost of sixty dollars, a large display advertiserrent of good standard books. In the same issue of this paper I inserted at a cost of one dollar and twenty-five cents a small advertisement of a flash sensational book. What do you think was the result? Well, my sixty dollar advertisement brought me six orders for my good book, while my one dollar and twenty-five cent advertisement brought me one hundred and thirty orders for my bad book."
But the publishers, printers and venders of this pernicious literature are not responsible for its dissemination among the people. There are far-reaching causes in society that have created a very wide demand for books of this class. If there were no market for this. literature of evil its supply would not be so profitable as it now is; forming as it does the sole business of a large number of publishing houses in different parts of the country. ) If the American bought only good books and read only good books, there would be no place for the dime novel, the twenty-five cent romance, and other forms of cheap and corrupting literature. It does not, perhaps, kindle pleasant emotions, to say that the great mass of our people will read nothing except this literature, bred in the cess-pools of iniquity; but it is a glaring fact that the demand for. cheap and pernicious books is steadily and rapidly growing. The catalogue of dime books with less than a hundred numbers, twenty years ago, now contains more than a thousand and not a decent book upon the whole list. The enterprise, begun less than a quarter century ago, has grown wonderfully, until there is a large publishing house of this vile trash in almost every city. What. an army of the young must be reading this literature of perdition in the homes of our country! Off by themselves, alone with these disgraceful books, they are feeding their minds upon corrupt visions of life, upon exaggerated and fearful villanies, and are hopelessly poisoning their lives at the fountain head. Agitators and reformers tell us that the drink traffic is filling our prisons and reformatories with the victims of drunkenness and crime. But this debasing literature schools the young in both drunkenness and crime. It opens the way to a hundred vices and leads directly to bestialty. That which should fill the mind with high hope and earnest purpose becomes a means of degradation and destruction. We cannot speak too strongly against this great evil that is sapping the moral life of the nation. It is truly one of the greatest evils of the day. A recent investigation was instituted in one of the city schools of Ohio. It was found that ninety-two per cent. of the boys in the schools of this city carried with them habitually one or more of these vile stories, which they could take from their pockets and read whenever they could find moments of leisure. Sixty-eight per cent. of the girls in the same school were in the habit of reading the same stories in their homes at night, receiving them, in many cases, from the boys. What wonder that the teachers in this school were alarmed at the reading indulged in by their pupils, and the matter was no less a surprise and sorrow to the parents of the children. We suppose a similar investigation through the schools of the country would reveal similar results. In some schools we have heard of certain societies organized for the purpose of obtaining and disseminating these books. Money obtained from parents under one pretense or another is paid to the officers of the society, and the stories are sent for in some considerable quantity and distributed to innocent children without the knowledge of their parents or teachers. By a sort of free masonry this nefarious business is carried on until nearly all the children of the school are in the habit of reading this kind of literature.
The result of such associations with bad books is wholly bad. A taste is formed for a low form of fiction which cannot be satisfied with anything else, and the child often has to go through a real struggle before it can break away from the novelette to other and better books. That the habit of reading this vile trash results directly in crime is well established. A boy in Ohio, not long ago, had been poring over a sensational novel. It was a long story, and he had been reading it for two days. Under a temporary impulse of rashness he went into the yard and blew out his brains with the shot-gun, as the villain in the story had done. A few months ago the police of the city of New York discovered a half-dozen boys, armed with pistols and revolvers, ready to start forth as "road agents." They had been reading in some of the "blood and thunder" books of the day, of the road agents on the Western frontier; but they were luckily arrested before they had an opportunity to try their -hand at robbing an express train. Anthony Comstock in some of his reports told of a boy who shot his step-mother. When questioned as to his motive, he replied: "I do not see anything wrong in that kind of a thing; it is dead sure to make me the hero of a dime novel, with my picture in it." These examples, which might be fortified by a hundred others, show the tendency of this nefarious reading. It ministers directly to the lowest forms of degraded appetite and passion. No child can read such a book without the mind and character being contaminated with poison. Just as a good book will inspire, enliven and enlarge the better elements of manhood, so a bad book will degrade them. When the Turks captured Alexandria, in the year 64o, it contained the largest library then in existence. The Caliph then upon the throne ordered the books to be burned, and for six months the fires at the baths in Alexandria were supplied by the price-less treasures of antiquity. Would that some barbarous horde might infest the printing-houses of this corrupt literature ! Would that they might gather therefrom all the stock on hand and pile it in a huge pyramid in one of the public parks of the city. Let them pile on the top of this the types, and plates, and printing presses, and all the implements used in this nefarious business.
Let them add to this the million copies of the sensational weekly papers. Let them add the materials and presses of this form of literary vileness. Let it be proclaimed that a sacrifice is to be made to the youth and purity of the land. As a last tribute, let the tattered and stained copies that have been read by the boys and girls of the land, be brought forth and thrown upon the pile, already higher than the church spires and highest towers of the city ; and then, with due pomp and ceremony, let the torch be applied and let the seething mass of corruption and degradation go up in one tremendous conflagration. Let mothers and men, and teachers and children, freed from the corrupting influence of these pestiferous books, join in the triumphant sacrificial song, and sound a loud hosanna to the destruction of this mountain of unspeakable corruption.