“Novels and Romances” (from The Guardian; or Youth’s Religious Instructor, 1820; pp. 369-371)
Injurious reading is a source of corruption to young people. It will be immediately perceived I mean to reckon that reading which has a tendency to foster rather than correct evil propensities. Most young persons are excessively fond of novels and romances. Of this our circulating libraries are full proof, and the rapidity with which a new tale is known to sell, while a book of religious, or some other useful topic, is but seldom enquired after.
All novels are not equally injurious. Discrimination is just, but young people will not discriminate. They like any thing that moves their feelings, and that most which moves their feelings most. Novels are not the picture of real life, although they are usually designed to be such. “They paint beauty in colours more charming that nature, and discribe [sic] happiness that never existed.” The consequence is, that young people, who
have formed their ideas of the world from novels, sigh after that which the world can never afford. They are unfitted for the delights of ordinary society—Every thing to them is insipid, because it has not the high seasoning of a fiction—And after all their pretended knowledge of human nature, they are really ignorant of what is the state of the world, because they had been accustomed to contemplate it in a higher state of perfection than it ever can exhibit.
Besides deceiving them as it respects the grounds of happiness, novels produce a sad vacuity in the minds of their readers. They impart no knowledge of real value. Their votaries can talk forever, it is true, of the idle stories they contain, and usually their knowledge is measured by the number of novels they have read. But after all, there is a dreadful vacum [sic] produced in the mind by this kind of reading. A young man or a young woman shall read all the novels that can be culled from the libraries of Boston, and after all be as ignorant of the topics on which intelligent persons converse, as if they had read nothing at all. They know neither geography—nor history—nor any of the topics of polite literature. What a waste of time is it, then, to pore over the pages of romances, when there are other books of great value at hand!
It may be said that the taste may be rectified by the novels. I allow that a sprightliness and sensibility may in some instances [b]e promoted by them, and there are a few novels which may be read with advantage; but the great mass of them are filled with false sentiments on religion and morality, which cannot but vitiate the taste of every youthful mind. This is evident from the reluctance with which they turn from the romance to history, the sacred scriptures, or any books which require reflection and impart sound knowledge. These books are insipid to minds formed to the style of novels. What greater evidence can we want of the injurious tendency of them; The celebrated Dr. Goldsmith, who had himself written a novel, in writing to his brother respecting the education of a son, has this strong language. “Above all things never let your son touch a novel or a romance. How delusive, how distructive [sic] are those features of consummate bliss! They teach the youthful mind to sigh after beauty and happiness which never existed; to dispise [sic] the little good which fortune has mixed in our cup by expecting more than she ever
gave; and in general, take the word of a man who has seen the world, and has studied human nature more by experience than by precept, take my word for it, I say that such books teach us very little of the world.”
Injur[i]ous reading then is one source of corruption to the minds and lives of young persons. Such reading prepares the way for those amusements which constitute another source of danger to young people. On this subject I beg leave to be understood. Amusement of some kind are highly beneficial to youth, but it depends altogether upon what kind they are. Those amusements are beneficial, which are the result of reflection and sound reading, which tends to improve the mind and afford intellectual entertainment. Such amusements would be desired and relished by persons of good taste, sobriety, pure morals and religious principles. Whatever amusements are incompatible with piety and virtue, are injurious and criminal. Such amusements novel reading has a direct tendency to promote. A high excitement must be produced, or there is no pleasure. Ordinary conversation loses its relish. Ordinary scenes of social intercourse becomes tiresome. No intellectual delight is afforded, because they have not improved their intellects. Hence they must seek other pleasures—other means of exciting their feelings and gratifying their passions. An effervescence is produced which is congenial only with the theatre, the gaming table, and the whirl of passions and follies. On these amusements I will not enlarge, but only ask, are they authorized by the Bible? Do they accord with the precepts of Christ?—Are they congenial with the spirit and temper of Christianity? Do those who attend them love their God, the Saviour, their Bible, their secret and public devotions?—are they not for the most unthinking, irreligious, and profane? Is not their conversation and conduct for the most part at war with every principle of virtue and piety? If so, their amusements are sources of c[o]rruption, they are attended at the expense not only of time and property, but of conscience and the interest of eternity. Their indulgence will plant thorns in a dying bed, and fill the soul with unutterable anguish in the prospect of judgment.