“Novels and Novel-Reading,” by Rev. J. T. Crane (from Popular Amusements. Cincinnati: Walden & Stowe, 1869; pp. 121-152)
NOVELS AND NOVEL-READING.
“Of making many books there is no end.” Eccl. xii, 12.
What is a NOVEL? A recent writer thus defines it: A novel is a portraiture of “something new falling within the domain of fancy or imagination, with its interest centering in love.” If this be correct, it would seem that a novel, as such, is neither good nor bad, but is the one or the other according to its own individual character. To portray something new is certainly not wrong if the portraiture be true, and there be a good reason for the portrayal. There is a place, also, for fancy and imagination in the legitimate operations of the mind; nor does the
fact that the interest centers in love necessarily condemn it. True love, such as God designed to exist among the families of men, is a golden chain which binds in the best and purest friendship known on earth. Genuine, honest, rational love needs to be cultivated, not rebuked and repressed. It needs the controlling and formative influences of intelligence, reason, and religion, and may, therefore, be discussed by the press and on the platform or even in the pulpit.
And yet novel-reading has become one of the great vices of our age. Multitudes care for nothing but light reading. The bookstores abound with works of fiction. The records of our public libraries show that there are more readers in this department than any other—perhaps more than in all the rest. The literature which finds its way into the hands of our people, as they journey by land or water, is almost invariably fictitious. Our weekly periodicals, secular and religious, often
have their serial story. Our Sunday school libraries have been overwhelmed by the flood of weak and washy literature till scarce a vestige of sober history or real biography shows itself above the surface of the wild wilderness of waters. A whole generation of young people are growing up, to whom solid books are unknown, to whom the great historic names of the past are but a sound, and whose ignorance of the world of fact is poorly compensated by their acquaintance with the world of dreams.
It is a rule in political economy that demand creates supply. As all kinds of readers addict themselves to fiction, so all sorts of writers press into this wide and productive field, and exhibit results of every degree of badness, with now and then something of better quality. It is not easy for the young to find their way through this labyrinth of good and evil, the good little and the evil infinite. The safest rule, in whose application
the fewest mistakes will be made, is that of TOTAL ABSTINENCE. To declare that all the wild fruit of a certain forest is poisonous, and to prophecy the death of every one who eats a single berry there, may be contrary to truth; nevertheless, if nine out of ten of the kinds found there are deadly, and none but a well-taught observer is able to distinguish between the good and the evil, the warning to be given to the inexperienced is, “Touch not, taste not.”
In regard to novels this is often the only available rule. But if we are required to give more discriminating advice, there are four maxims which are plain, and, if faithfully adhered to, will, I think, be found safe.
1. If you have but little time for reading, spend none of it on works of fiction.
Your success in life, your happiness, usefulness, and safety in the world depend upon your intelligence, your good sense, your moral character, your modes of living. What you
are to be and what you are capable of accomplishing will depend, in no small degree, upon what you know. You require solid information. You need to learn ten thousand things which are to be found in books. Your usefulness in the circles to which you belong and your position in the community are intimately connected with the degree in which you improve your mind. You have much to do. You have no time to waste on counterfeit coin while golden treasures of knowledge woo you on every side. Read your Bibles. Read history, the records of the past, and the accounts of current events. Read the biographies of good men and women. Read books of science. Push your researches in every direction, delve in every mine that opens before you. Traverse every rich field that invites your footsteps. Discipline your mind, store your memory; train your will to all high resolves. If your lot in life is such that little time can be given to intellectual
culture, do not waste an hour on the idle dreams of the novelists.
2. In any case read only the best works of fiction.
Supposing that the time which you are able to devote to books is not narrowed down to an occasional leisure hour, and you feel disposed to glance at the department of fiction, read only the best. Books are companions. Choose your company wisely. Where a multitude surround you, the pious and the profane, the virtuous and the vile, the refined and the brutish, it is madness to associate with all that come. You know what the effect upon your good name would be if you were seen walking arm in arm with those whose very presence is dishonor. There are books so vile that the mere possession of them is fatal to reputation. You will find people whose minds are so empty, and whose talk is so frivolous, that the time spent in their society is lost. There are many books
of the same sort. You will meet still other people with whom you can not spend an hour without feeling that you have learned something worth knowing, that you have received an impulse in the direction of the true, the beautiful, and the good, and that you are wiser, purer, stronger because of the interview. There are books of this kind also. For the same reason, then, that you keep the best company to which you have access, read the best books within your reach. They will influence you as certainly as will living associates.
There are some few works of fiction which are well written and true to nature, and which inculcate the right and condemn the wrong. If you read fiction at all, read these. I do not name them, because I am not willing to be held responsible for all the time which might possibly be spent over them on the plea that they are here recommended. If you do not know which they are, you will
lose nothing by waiting till you are better informed. As for the bad, their “name is Legion.”
3. In all cases let works of fiction form but a very small part of what you read.
Read only the best, and read only a few even of the best. Or, if you want a more definite rule, read ten good, substantial works to every one of fiction, however good. The best works of imagination go but a little way in supplying the mental aliment which you need. You can not live on the odor of flowers, nor build up strong bone and muscle out of rainbows and moonbeams. You will grow in intelligence, sense, virtue, practical power for good only by means of solid food. Portraitures of “something new, falling within the domain of fancy, with their interest centering in love,” may please for the moment, but if you get nothing better your soul will be as poor and lank as the lean kine of Pharaoh’s dream. Confining your reading of this
sort to the least objectionable of the class, you must add another restriction, in order to be safe, and confine the time thus spent to your leisure moments—what remains after you have given due attention to better things.
4. Cease wholly to read fiction the moment you find that it begins to render substantial reading distasteful, and the common duties of life irksome, or injure you in any way in mind or morals.
The man who has tampered with some intoxicating drug until an artificial want, a new, imperious appetite, has been created, is on the road to ruin, so they have already done themselves a fearful wrong who have indulged in the intoxications of fiction, until they are restless and unsatisfied without it, and unostentatious every-day life, such as belongs to the vast majority of mortals, seems tame, dull, void of interest, so that the mind can with difficulty be held to its common-place details
and duties. And the same question may be made a test in both cases. What effort will it cost to stop? Will it require a mighty struggle, an agony of soul, a summoning of all concentrated power of will? Then summon the power and form the high resolve without a moment’s delay, for life and death tremble in the balance. Are virtue and honor so far undermined that the fictim is ready to take refuge in hypocrisy and lies, denying in public and indulging in secret? Alas! it is to be feared that the work of ruin is already done. At all events, only one hope remains. There must be a quick and thorough reform, a sudden sundering of the chains which bind to the “body of death.” In the matter of novels, are you uncertain whether the point of peril has been reached in your own case? Try yourself. Lay aside light reading; take up some solid work, and see if you can so interest yourself in it that you keep on to the end without impatience,
without a temptation to hurry over the tiresome task. If, like the Hebrews in the wilderness, you find it a weary march through a dry land, where you are haunted at every step by the recollection of the savory flesh-pots which you have left behind you, be assured that you can not escape too soon. The real question is whether you are not too far gone to escape at all. Error in regard to the reading of fiction is fraught with so many evils, that the rules given, stringent as they may seem, are abundantly justified.
Let our young people be constantly on their guard against the mental enslavement which marks the confirmed novel-reader. Common novel-reading is a fearful evil, and against it there are arguments numerous and weighty, which all will do well to heed.
1. It wastes precious time.
By universal consent, works of fiction are called “light literature;” and the name is correctly applied. To produce them belongs to
light thinkers, men and women whose purposes, principles, and convictions are all light—the light-weights of the world of mind and morals. How strangely the name of Martin Luther, John Wesley, or George Washington would sound connected with the authorship of a fanciful story whose “interest centers in love!” The names which illumine the historic page with the purest light are those which it would amaze us to find connected with the authorship of ordinary fiction. It is worth while to pause and inquire why we would be surprised. Is not this the solution: that men of real greatness, working in thorough earnest, under the influence of profound conviction, are too busy with the events and duties of the age in which they live to find time to spin out of nothing a dream life for the amusement of idle minds?
It is evident that but little is gained by the instructions of teachers so inferior as are the great mass of novel-writers. Their produc-
tions are too easy reading to discipline the mind. They aim chiefly to amuse the reader, not instruct, nor convince, nor raise him to the height of a great purpose; and, in general, the best that can be said of the best of them is, that they confer pleasure without inflicting injury. But whatever may be the quality, you may be sure that excess in quantity is injurious. The vast majority of novel readers are young, and for them to squander the precious hours is suicidal. Youth, wasted, ushers in a feeble middle life and an unhappy old age. They who sow nothing in the Spring will lament over an Autumn which brings no fruit. Novel-reading is simply a diversion, a pastime, and to spend more than an occasional hour in diversion, however innocent it may be in itself, is a waste of time, too precious to be thus thrown away.
2. Excessive light reading injures the mind.
The novelist seeks to bear his readers along without any labor on their part. They simply
witness the action, and watch the unfolding of the plot. The author amuses them with wit and humor; and, if he can, melts them with pathos, or charms them with eloquent description. He is the performer, and they are the spectators. If he is one of the best of his class, they may improve a little in some branches of knowledge, provided they are content to read slowly enough for the purpose. But habitual novel-readers hurry on to see “how it all comes out,” seldom pausing to consider the force of a figure, or the beauty of an expression. Ingenious thought, keen discrimination in depicting character, accurate descriptions of natural scenery, nice points of style, are lost in the rush of words. There is a headlong race of event after event, shadows and light, storm and calm, and at last an end, a rapid panorama, little of which is seen distinctly while it is passing, and still less is remembered when it is past. The intellect does not grow strong playing with straws
thus, where there is no exercise of the judgment on what is read, no effort of the memory to retain any thing. The novel-reader that does little or nothing but lounge about with a weak dilution of literature in hand, will soon become as soft and flabby in mind as in muscle, wholly incapable of lofty purposes and worthy deeds.
3. Excessive light reading tends to unfit for real life.
A devourer of novels seldom has an appetite for any thing else. To do our duty well, we must have our thoughts upon it, and our minds interested in it. The heart and the hands must go together, or the hands will soon tire, and do their work indifferently. What chance is there for the student who indeed holds Blackstone or Wood before his dreamy eyes, but whose thoughts are upon the unfinished romance in his desk? How can the daughter at home find happiness in aiding to bear the burden of domestic cares,
while her mind is in a whirl over some delicious love-story, in which she has lost her identity in that of the fascinating Lady Something, with four desperate rivals for her hand, and the crisis of her fate just over-leaf?
Works of fiction would be less doubtful reading if the reader, after finishing the last page of the story, utterly forgot the whole, or remembered it only as we remember veritable history. The loss in that case would be chiefly loss of time. But as things are, novel-readers spend many a precious hour in dreaming out clumsy little romances of their own, in which they themselves are the beautiful ladies and the gallant gentlemen who achieve impossibilities, suffer unutterable woe for a season, and at last anchor in a boundless ocean of connubial bliss. Nor does it require much previous mental cultivation to enable one to indulge in these visionary joys. The school-boy and school-girl, the apprentice, the seamstress, the girl in the kitchen, can conjure up
rosy dreams as readily as other people; and perhaps more readily, as it requires but little reading of the sort to render them impatient of their lot in life, and set them to imagine something that looks higher and better.
In fact, the Cinderella of the old nursery story is the true type of thousands of our novel-readers. They live a sort of double life—one in their own proper persons, and in their real homes; the other as ideal lords and ladies in dream-land. Ella, sitting among her native cinders, is a very prosaic individual, addicted to exceedingly prosaic employments, and fulfilling a destiny far removed from sublimated romance. But touched by the wand of the good Fairy, Ella is transfigured, her coarse garments are robes of magnificence, the mice are prancing steeds, the pumpkin is a coach, and she rides in state, the admiration of all beholders, and weds the prince triumphantly.
The modern Ella, sitting among the cin-
ders, has indeed no good Fairy to confer sudden splendors upon her; but her place is well supplied by sundry periodicals, designed for just this style of readers. And so Ella invests her six cents weekly, and reads, and dreams. According to the flesh, she bears an honest, humble name, busies herself with a cooking stove, or a noisy sewing-machine, and with all her matrimonial anglings, perhaps has never a nibble. In her other capacity she is the Countess of Moonshine, who dwells in a Castle of Spain, wears a coronet of diamonds, and to whom ardent lords and smitten princes make love in loftiest eloquence; and she is blest. But, as Napoleon once observed, there is only a step between the sublime and the ridiculous. At any moment the coach of state may relapse into its original squash, the prancing horses again become mice, the costly array turn once more to rags; and the Countess, sweeping in her trailing robes through the glittering crowd of
admiring lords and envious ladies, subside into her former simple self, with the hideous onions to be peeled, or the clattering machine to be kept in motion.
How can the two parts of this double existence harmonize? How is it possible for those whose minds are thus bewildered, and who have formed this inveterate habit of indulging in sentimental reverie, to engage heartily in the performance of commonplace duties? The inevitable result of excessive novel-reading is a distaste, if not an incapacity, for the sober thought and patient effort which are the price of success in every worthy path of life.
4. Excessive novel-reading creates an overgrowth of the passions.
The novel-reader naturally, and perhaps unconsciously, becomes identified with the personage in the story who is nearest to what he or she would like to be. With the book in his hand, and his whole soul for the time being wrapped up in the exciting history, the young
man ceases to be the apprentice, the clerk, the student, the farmer’s boy, the plain John or Peter of his real self. He is merged in the hero of the story, handsome in person, brilliant in mind, endowed with every excellence, and bearing a name of at least three syllables. He becomes the ardent suitor of the beautiful lady, the heiress of the immense estate. The burning words in which love is portrayed are his words. The whole thing becomes so far a reality that it has something of the force of a genuine experience; and he feels happy, or grows melancholy with the varying fortunes of his imaginary passion.
Now, if Peter be a boy of fifteen, it is tolerably evident that he is advancing a little too fast in his sentimental career. Like a certain variety of pears described in the fruit books, there is danger of his being rotten before he is ripe. He is meditating matrimony when he has scarcely got beyond the limits of marbles and green apples. He looks around
at the little girls to see which of them is the princess in disguise; and soon imagines he is desperately in love with some little damsel in the neighborhood, and seeing that in this dreadful world disappointment is always possible, he begins to canvass the most picturesque and pathetic modes of committing suicide, in case the ferocious uncle should interfere, as he did in the book.
The young lady is similarly affected. She fancies herself the beautiful heroine of the story, rich, accomplished, and, romantically, wretched. She, too, begins to look about for the model lover who lays his hand upon his heart, lifts his tearful face toward heaven, and says pretty things. She feels disdain for the plain young men of her acquaintance, and perhaps fixes her eyes upon some flashy stranger, whose unknown antecedents give her a chance to invest him with all the impossible perfections her romantic fancy is able to invent.
Now, this state of things has its ridiculous side, but it is not healthy nor safe. The effects are too serious to be passed by with a smile. The inveterate habit of day-dreaming thus created absorbs the thoughts, destroys the mental balance, impairs sound judgment, and produces tendencies which are very far from the views and feelings, aims and principles, on which usefulness and honor in the world depend. There is an overgrowth of the passions, an exaltation of marriage out of all due proportion to other sources of rational happiness, an overestimate of beauty, wealth, and the other accidentals of human life; and a corresponding underestimate of the value of piety, industry, and the sober virtues which are “in the sight of God of great price.” It is a vice of novelists as a class, to exalt love and matrimony above all else, and thus create in susceptible youth the habit of thinking and dreaming of matrimony above all else. Thus the novelist literally “turns the heads” of
young people, inasmuch as he places foremost and uppermost the faculty which the phrenologists locate low down in the back of the brain.
5. The habit of novel-reading creates a morbid love of excitement somewhat akin to the imperious thirst of the inebriate.
The victim of drugs does not love opium or alcohol because of its taste or smell. The effect which he covets is, in truth, a mental effect. He resorts to the drug that he may feel rich, powerful, exalted, and happy, while, in reality, he is “wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.” The victim of novels aims at the same thing in another way, by applying the bane directly to the mind itself.
But the inebriate soon finds that in order to produce the desired effect he must, from time to time, increase the strength of the dose. He adds to the quantity. Then from wine he goes on to brandy, and from that
to absinthe, drugging his benumbed brain to the verge of death, to gain, from time to time, a feeble return of the momentary joys which once a very little of his chosen stimulus had power to impart. The experience of the confirmed novel-reader is similar. The simple tales of innocent love which interest the beginner soon become commonplace. They fail to excite the fancy or stir the emotions, and then something stronger must be had. Quiet love and ordinary incident must give place to fierce rivalry and jealousy, hate, revenge, and murder.
The editors of certain periodicals belonging to this style of literature seem to have decided that the public mind in general has reached this final stage. I confess that my knowledge of these periodicals is not extensive, being confined to what is gained by [a] passing glance at windows and hand-bills, where their pictorial baits are thrust out to entrap buyers. The pictures which greet the
eyes of passengers are almost invariably pictures of somebody shooting or stabbing somebody. The last embellishment which I have noticed, however, is a cut of somebody strangling the other somebody with his naked hands. This is doubtless still more delightfully horrible to the admirers of this style of writing, and calculated to thrill them with a new sensation. When the mind has become so vitiated that it turns away not only from all solid reading, but even from the less objectionable works of fiction, to revel in nauseous descriptions of lawless passions and bloody deeds, and is so besotted with them that every thing else is void of interest, and every duty irksome, how far is it removed from some of the worst evils of drunkenness or even of insanity itself? How much worse is the victim of alcohol or opium than the victim of mental intoxication?
6. The habitual reading of novels tends to lessen the reader’s horror of crime and wickedness.
Crime is seldom actually committed until the mind has become familiar with the thoughts of it. The books which picture passion and crime keep the readers in closest contact with evil till the horror with which they first shrank from it is gone. Moreover, these books are sometimes written to serve a special purpose. An author may be given to some sin which places him under the ban of respectable society. He grows restive and malicious under the frowns of the good. He writes a book in which his own vice is white-washed into a sort of semi-respectability, and made merely an amiable weakness, while some Church member of sounding professions, or perhaps a Christian minister, turns out to be the villain of the plot. Thus in one character we see a villain bearing the Christian name, and in another a gross vice united with so many shining qualities that the moral deformity is hidden by the splendors that are thrown around it. Thus the
reader is trained to look suspiciously upon the virtuous and smile upon the vicious. If he is tempted in the direction of any particular wickedness, his memory will easily supply him with some model from the books, who was given to the same thing, and was a noble character, nevertheless, the admiration of all about him, generous, brave, and in the end successful and happy. The inference of the tempted one is naturally this: that he too can yield and be admired, and in the end be happy.
Aside from the fictitious respectability which vice gains by being portrayed as not incompatible with the possession of high and generous qualities, needless familiarity with the idea of crime lessens the horror with which we regard it. The more suicides in any community the more easy it is to commit suicide, when rage and disappointment supply the temptation. In communities where every man goes armed, and every eye is
familiar with scenes of blood, small provocations lead to murder. It is not irrational to assume that one reason why play-actors, as a class, tend to low morals is because it is a part of their regular business to personate immoral characters on the stage; and when the mind has become thoroughly imbued with the idea, and the lips familiar with the language of wickedness, the step from shame to reality is short and easy.
Thus the press becomes an apostle of unrighteousness when it lends its power to make the public mind familiar with all the phases of depravity. He that delights to dwell upon the nauseous details is not morally safe, and the vice which furnishes his choice reading is the very one into which he is liable to fall. The refined and the pure shrink with loathing from needless contact with the things which they condemn and abhor. I believe that the fearful multiplication of tragic crimes in our own day is due,
in no small degree, to two causes—one the too general circulation of a corrupt literature, which familiarizes the reader with all that is detestable and infamous in character and conduct, the other the common use of drugged liquors, which fire the brain with a wilder frenzy than even that which is produced by alcohol, and drive men to their doom with a still more powerful, relentless force. In brief, the increased prevalence of gross forms of wickedness is due to a general poisoning, mental and physical, which fills the minds and the veins of its victims with a more deadly venom than we have hitherto known.
An extract from a religious periodical, which comes to hand while I am writing, corroborates the first part of the statement made.
“A young man—J. H. W.—committed suicide recently in Indianapolis. He left a letter to his brother, in which he says: ‘I believe that if I had never read a novel I
should now be on the high road to fortune; but, alas! I was allowed to read the vilest kind of novels when I was eight or nine years old. If good books had been furnished me, and no bad ones, I should have read the good books with the same zest that I did the bad. Persuade all persons over whom you have any influence not to read novels.’ The Ordinary of Newgate Prison, in his report to the Lord Mayor, represents what a fruitful source of crime the Jack Sheppard and Paul Clifford style of novels has been among the youth of England. Inquiring into the causes which brought many lads of respectable parentage to the city prison, he discovered that all these boys, without one exception, had been in the habit of reading those cheap periodicals which are now published for the alleged instruction and amusement of the youth of both sexes.”
7. Excessive devotion to fictitious reading is totally at variance with Scriptural piety.
This needs neither proof nor illustration. Genuine piety takes hold of the heart, and draws the thoughts and the affections toward God, and makes duty the source of the sweetest enjoyment. But when the novel usurps the place of the Bible; when secret prayer is hurried over, or wholly neglected, because of a burning desire to know what comes next in the story; when meditation on divine things is forgotten in endless day-dreams of love and worldly splendor; or, worse still, when real life is thrown into the shade by the unreal, and made to appear mean and insipid; when the action of conscience and sober reason is swept aside by the wild delirium of mental intoxication, what result can we look for save apostasy and final ruin?
While I contemplate these things, I confess that I am almost ready to recant the former part of this chapter, and insert in the place of it a rigid iron rule for the guidance of all, young and old, learned and unlearned: TOTAL
ABSTINENCE FROM NOVEL-READING HENCEFORTH AND FOREVER. Surely, there is abundant cause for the rule of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which warns all her communicants to abstain from “reading those books which do not tend to the knowledge or love of God.”