“Books,” by Lydia Maria Child (from The Mother’s Book, second edition. Boston: Carter and Hendee, 1831; reproduction, Chester, CT: The Globe Pequod Press, Applewood Books, 1989; pp. 86-97)
The books chosen for young people should as far as possible combine amusement with instruction; but it is very important that amusement should not become a necessary inducement. I think a real love of reading is the greatest blessing education can bestow, particularly upon a woman. It cheers so many hours of illness and seclusion; it gives the mind something to interest itself about, instead of the concerns of one’s neighbors, and the changes of fashion; it enlarges the heart, by giving extensive views of the world; it every day increases the points of sympathy with an intelligent husband; and it gives a mother materials for furnishing the minds of her children. Yet I believe a real love of reading is not common among women. I know that the new novels are very generally read; but this springs from the same love of pleasing excitement, which leads people to the theatre; it does not proceed from a thirst for information. For this reason, it has a bad effect to encourage an early love for works of fiction; particularly such as contain romantic incidents. To be sure, works of this kind have of late years assumed so elevated
a character, that there is very much less danger from them than formerly. We now have true pictures of life in all its forms, instead of the sentimental, lovesick effusions, which turned the heads of girls, fifty years ago. But even the best of novels should form the recreation rather than the employment of the mind; they should only be read now and then. They are a sort of literary confectionary; and, though they may be very perfect and beautiful, if eaten too plentifully, they do tend to destroy our appetite for more solid and nourishing food. The same remarks apply, in a less degree, to children’s forming the habit of reading nothing but stories, which are, in fact, little novels. To prevent an exclusive and injurious taste for fiction, it is well to encourage in them a love of History, Voyages, Travels, Biography, &c. It may be done by hearing them read such books, or reading with them, frequently talking about them, and seeming pleased if they remember sufficiently well to give a good account of what they have read. Sir William Jones, who had perhaps a greater passion for knowledge than any other mortal, and who, of course, became extensively useful and celebrated, says, that when he asked questions about anything, his mother used to say to him, ‘Read your book, and you will know.’ Being an intelligent and judicious woman, she took pains to procure such volumes as would satisfy his inquiries; and in this way his love of books became an intense passion; he resorted to them as the thirsty do to a fountain. This anecdote furnishes a valuable hint. I am aware that all cannot afford to buy books freely; but I believe there are very few in this land of abundance, who do not spend in the superfluities of dress
and the table, more than enough to purchase a valuable library. Besides, ample means of information are now furnished the public by social libraries, juvenile libraries, lyceums, &c. I can hardly suppose it possible that any person can really want a book, in this country, without being able to obtain it. Such being the case, it certainly is easy to follow the example of Sir William Jones’s mother. For instance, a cold, stinging day in winter would naturally lead a child to say, ‘I wonder how people can live near the poles; where my geography says they have six months of night and winter.’ Here is a good opportunity for a parent to reply, ‘I will get a book about Polar Regions, and you shall read to me, after you have learned your lessons; if I am busy, and cannot hear you, you must read by yourself, and tell me about it.’
It is by seizing hold of such incidents as these, that a real love of knowledge may be instilled. The habit of having the different members of a family take turns to read aloud, while the others are at work, is extremely beneficial. It is likewise an excellent plan for young people to give a familiar account, in writing, of what they have read, and to make their own remarks upon the subject freely; but these juvenile productions should never be shown out of the family, or praised in an exaggerated manner, likely to excite vanity; and if one child is more gifted than another, care should be taken to bestow the greatest share of encouragement on the one that needs it most. I wish the habit of reading the purest and best authors aloud was more frequent in our schools. I know not how it is, girls learn an abundance of things, but they do not acquire a love of
reading. I know very few young ladies, among those esteemed thoroughly educated, to whom a book is really a pleasanter resource than visiting, dress, and frivolous conversation. Their understanding may have been well drilled in certain sciences; but knowledge has no place in their affections. The result is, that what they have learned at school is gradually forgotten, instead of being brought into constant use in after life. Like soldiers on parade day, they go through a certain routine, and then throw by their accoutrements as things useless for anything but parade. The fact is, we should always begin with the affections. What we love to do, we accomplish through all manner of obstacles; but what we do not love to do is uphill work, and will not be performed if it can be avoided. If a fondness for books be once imbibed, it is plain enough that the understanding will soon be enlightened on all interesting subjects; and a person who reads, as he drinks water when he is thirsty, is the least likely of all men to be pedantic: in all things, affectation is fond of making a greater show than reality. I once heard a woman in mixed company say, ‘My dear Mrs. ——, how can you play whist? I cannot possibly give my attention to such trifling things; if I attempt it, my mind is immediately abstracted.’ I at once set her down for a fool and a pedant. I should not have been afraid to risk a fortune that she had no real love of knowledge. Nature and truth have never learned to blow the trumpet, and never will. The lady whom she addressed was really intelligent and well-informed; she did not love to play whist, but she very good-naturedly consented to it, because her hostess could not otherwise make up the number requisite for
the game; knowledge was the food of her mind, not its decoration. Miss Edgeworth has very beautifully remarked, ‘We are disgusted when we see a woman’s mind overwhelmed with a torrent of learning; that the tide of literature has passed over it, should be betrayed only by its general fertility.’ And this will be the result, if books are loved as a resource, and a means of usefulness, not as affording opportunity for display.
I have said that reading works of fiction too much, tends to destroy a relish for anything more solid, and less exciting; but I would suggest that the worst possible thing that can be done is to prohibit them entirely, or to talk against them with undue severity. This always produces a fidgetty desire to read them; and unless the principles are very strong, they will be read by stealth. Direct prohibitions, though unquestionably necessary at times, are not likely to do great good, because they appeal to the understanding without being grounded in the heart. The best way is to allow the occasional perusal of novels, which are pure in spirit and in language. When a taste is once formed for the best novels, silly, lackadaisical ones will have no charm—they will not be read from choice. In this instance, as in others of more importance, evil is prevented from entering, by finding the mind occupied with good. Many readers, and writers too, think any book is proper for young people, which has a good moral at the end; but the fact is, some books, with a long excellent moral, have the worst possible effect on a young mind.—The morality should be in the book, not tacked upon the end of it. Vices the juvenile reader never heard of, are introduced, dressed up in alluring characters, which excite
their admiration, their love, their deepest pity; and then they are told that these heroes and heroines were very naughty, and that in the end they were certain to die despised and neglected.
What is the result? The generous bosom of youth pities the sinners, and thinks the world was a cruel world to despise and neglect them. Charlotte Temple has a nice good moral at the end, and I dare say was written with the best intention, yet I believe few works do so much harm to girls of fourteen or fifteen.
I doubt whether books which represent vice, in any way, are suitable to be put into the hands of those, whose principles are not formed. It is better to paint virtue to be imitated, than vice to be shunned. Familiarity with evil is a disadvantage, even when pointed out as an object of disgust. It is true that evil must come in the way of the young; they will find it in books, and they will find plenty of it in the world. It would be useless to attempt always to keep such volumes out of the way; but I would, as far as possible, avoid them when a child is young, and his mind is comparatively empty. After his principles and taste are formed, he will view such descriptions as he ought. I do not approve of stories about naughty children; they suggest a thousand little tricks and deceptions, which would not otherwise be thought of. A small book by a very excellent writer appears to me liable to this objection; I refer to Adelaide, or Stories for Children, by a Lady of Philadelphia.*
* In justice to one of the very best of American writers, I would remark that the book in question has no other fault than being about naughty children. It is very natural and entertaining.
Children, especially girls, should not read anything without a mother’s knowledge and sanction; this is particularly necessary between the ages of twelve and sixteen, when the feelings are all fervent and enthusiastic, and the understanding is not strengthened by experience and observation. At this period, the mind and heart are very active, and parents should take peculiar care to furnish them with plenty of innocent employment.
I had almost forgotten to mention the prejudice which some people have against all manner of fairy stories and fables, simply upon the ground that they are not strictly true. The objection does not seem to me a forcible one; because I do not believe children ever think they are true. During my own childhood, I am very sure I regarded them as just what they were,—as efforts of the imagination—dreams that had a meaning to them. I do object to reading many of these things; for they are the novels of infancy, and have a similar effect, though in a less degree. All frightful and monstrous fairy stories are indeed abominable; but I do not believe that Cinderilla [sic], or the Glass Slipper, ever injured any child. With regard to fables, children do not believe that dogs, foxes, and birds, talk to each other; nor do they think that the writer intended they should believe it; ther[e]fore it cannot be injurious to their love of truth. No child, who reads those pretty little verses beginning with,
‘Come up into my chamber,’ said the spider to the fly,—
‘ ’Tis the prettiest little chamber that ever you did spy!’
believes that the spider actually talked to the fly. Children understand the moral it is intended to convey perfectly well; they know that it means we should not
allow the flattery or solicitations of others to tempt us to what is improper and dangerous. Fables and fairy-stories, which contain a clear and simple moral, have, I think, a good tendency; but care should be taken to ascertain whether the little readers understand the moral, and to explain it clearly to them, if they do not.
Imagination was bestowed upon us by the Great Giver of all things, and unquestionably was intended to be cultivated in a fair proportion to the other powers of the mind. Excess of imagination has, I know, done incalculable mischief; but that is no argument against a moderate cultivation of it; the excess of all good things is mischievous.
A strong reason why we should indulge children in reading some of the best fairy-stories and fables, and young people in reading some of the best novels, is, that we cannot possibly help their getting hold of some books of this description; and it is never wise to forbid what we cannot prevent: besides, how much better it is that their choice should be guided by a parent, than left to chance.
Of late years, the circulating libraries have been over-run with profligate and strongly exciting works, many of them horribly exciting. I have a deep prejudice against the whole class. The greater the genius displayed, the more dangerous the effects. The necessity of fierce excitement in reading is a sort of intellectual intemperance; and like bodily intoxication, it produces weakness and delirium. The Pelham novels, the works of Byron, Maturin, Lewis, and Mrs. Radcliffe, though very different from each other, are all liable to this objection. They have a most unhealthy influence
upon the soul. But books that frighten and painfully excite the youthful mind, bad as they are, are not so bad as the honied poison of Thomas Moore. He does not show his cloven foot. He does not try to make us in love with sin by vindicating all its deformity; he covers it with a silver veil, and makes it float so gracefully before the young and innocent, that it seems to them a creature of light. Such books do infinitely more mischief, than those openly bad in principles and in language; for danger that is concealed is not easily avoided.
What words can be more delicate than Moore’s ‘Eveleen’s Bower?’ and what thoughts can be more indecent? Yet modest girls sing it, and think no harm.
The poems of L. E. L. cannot be charged with immodesty; but they are unreal, sentimental, and exciting. I would not put them into the hands of a young girl, particularly if she were imaginative or susceptible.
Historical works of fiction may be read in connexion with history to great advantage, at any time from fourteen years of age to twenty. There is an edition of Shakspeare, called The Family Shakspeare, in which impure sentences are entirely omitted; the historical plays in this edition would give a strong additional interest to the history of the periods they illustrate. Sir Walter Scott has furnished a novel for almost all the interesting reigns in English History. These works are not professedly religious or moral.—They are pictures of life just as it is—giving a distinct idea of the manners, costume, and superstitions, of various ages. Their influence is never in opposition to good; and to a think-
ing mind they afford abundant food for reflection, as well as an inexhaustible fund of amusement.
Amid the multiplicity of modern books, the old standard works are too much neglected. Young people had better read Plutarch’s Lives, and Anarcharsis’ Travels in Greece, than to read fifty of the best miscellaneous productions of the day. To read every new thing fosters a love of novelty and a craving for excitement; and it fritters away time and intellect to little purpose. Such books as I have recommended strengthen the mind, and fill it with something solid. They are particularly valuable on account of the classical information they contain. All women should have some classical knowledge. I do not mean that they should study Latin and Greek. I merely mean that they should have general information of the government, customs, religion, &c., of the ancients; and the reason I think it desirable is, that they cannot understand the allusions in good English books without some such knowledge.—Milton, for instance, is full of allusions to ancient customs and superstitions.
It is of very great importance that children should perfectly understand what they read. They should be encouraged to give clear and distinct accounts of what they have read; and when you are doubtful whether they know the meaning of a word, be sure to ask them. If you yourself do not know, do not hesitate to say so, and refer them to the dictionary. Some people think it diminishes respect to acknowledge ignorance; but the fear is unfounded. Good sense and good judgment command respect, whether they are accompanied by great extent of information, or not. No child ever
respected a judicious parent less for saying, ‘When I was young, I did not have such opportunities for learning as you have; but I know how to value knowledge; and that makes me so anxious you should learn.’
The habit, which I recommended in the third chapter of directing the attention of very little children to surrounding objects, lays an excellent foundation for obtaining clear and accurate ideas of what is read. The same habit of observation, that leads them to remark whether a thing is round or square, likewise leads them to attend to the sense of what they find in books.
I believe the multitude of little books generally put into the hands of children are an injury, rather than a benefit. Juvenile ideas are rapid and transient; and a repetition of the same thoughts makes them familiar and distinct. Ideas produce such a transient impression upon the mind of an infant, that he is never weary of hearing the same old story, over and over again; it is always new to him, because he forgets it as soon as it is repeated. The same remark is true, in different degrees, of all the various stages of childhood. It is better to read one book and understand it perfectly, than to read a dozen and understand them imperfectly. It is astonishing how much pleasure and information are lost by careless readers. An instructer [sic] once said to me, ‘I heard a young lady read The Abbot, by Sir Walter Scott. When she had finished, I tried to persuade her to tell me what she thought of it, and what she remembered. “Why, after all,” she replied, “Scott does not tell whether Queen Mary had sandy hair, or dark hair. I was in hopes he would, for I always wanted to know.” This girl was naturally bright and intelligent; but she
had not been accustomed to attend to anything, except what related to dress and personal appearance. The descriptions of Scottish scenery, the workings of religious prejudice, the intrigues of political faction, the faithful pictures of life and manners, were all lost upon her. She did not observe them because she had never formed the habit of observing. She read through these two volumes, so full of historical interest, without feeling interested in anything but the color of Queen Mary’s hair.’
Had she never read more than half a dozen books in her life, and had been called upon to give a faithful account of them, it would have been impossible for her to be so entirely unobserving of the beauties of that admirable work.
To conclude, I would suggest that it is better to have a few good books than many middling ones. It is not well for young people to have a great variety. If there are but few books in the house, and those are interesting, they will be read over and over again, and well remembered. A perpetual succession of new works induces a habit of reading hastily and carelessly; and, of course, their contents are either forgotten, or jumbled up in the memory in an indistinct and useless form.
Franklin said wisely, ‘Any book that is worth reading once, is worth reading twice;’ and there is much good sense in the Roman maxim, ‘Read much, but do not read many books.’ **
** Pliny, who gave this advice, lived long before the invention of printing; if such a precaution were necessary then, what would he say now.