“What Books Shall I Read?,” by Simon Brown (from The Mother’s Assistant, and the Young Lady’s Friend, February 1845; pp. 37-39)
[Addressed to a Niece.]
I hear, with much pleasure that you are fond of reading. If so, you have a never-failing source of delight and improvement before you; a source from which you can draw unlimited supplies. If you make a good selection, you can go to books, with perfect confidence, for instruction and advice. There are cases, where you might feel the need of advice, and yet feel some delicacy in calling upon your dearest friend, either because you might not wish to charge such an one with your troubles, or reveal your own.
Books are not selfish. Whatever of good you can obtain from them, comes with a single purpose; and whatever there is bad in them, is so much the worse, because it is mingled with pretended morality and a plausible reasoning, which insinuate themselves into our views and feelings, before we are aware there is any danger.
The habit of reading is much like all other habits we contract—either establishing our principles and improving our morals, or unsettling all of good which has been before implanted. A bad habit sets us adrift on a sea of doubt and uncertainty, with the strong bucklers of our heart cast off, and exposing it to every temptation which may beset us in our devious path through life. Our principles which are the most firmly fixed become loosened, and finally uprooted, leaving us without protection against the numberless ills by which we are ever surrounded.
The first thing, then, in a course of reading, is to make a proper selection. Your attention will be constantly attracted by an imposing array of fascinating and attractive titles of novels, plays, and sentimental books. These books are written for various purposes; some to gratify an overweening vanity, some as a source of profit,
and others as a matter of amusement, to quiet a morbid, restless, and wrongly-balanced mind. In each of these, the book is written from wrong motives. The only true motive, namely, that of doing good to our kind, is not considered. Thus you see, that, in selecting a books for perusal, there are three chances to one against us, in making a proper selection. If, in crossing a river, each day, there are three chances of your being drowned, to one of your getting safely across, you would ponder well before you took the final step. Now, if you consider these as statements of facts, it is all the caution, in relation to a proper course of reading, which need be given to one as considerate and prudent as I am confident you are.
The habit of singing impure and vulgar songs, has a mischievous influence upon the morals and the heart. Those fine, pure, and holy feelings of the soul, which are our buckler and shield against temptation, become thrust out by long indulgence in trolling impure glees, catches, and songs, and a participation in their usual accompaniments. It is just so in reading. If we accustom ourselves to light and fanciful reading, and enlist our sympathies in all the imaginary trials and sickly sensibilities of the heroine of a romance, we render ourselves unfit for the stern duties of life, and cannot expect to relish those substantial and improving subjects, which are suitable to qualify us to take an active and useful part on the stage of life. Such reading requires no effort of the mind, and it consequently becomes enervated and listless for want of its appropriate aliment. The mind gradually grows weak and imbecile, and finally falls into dotage, even before the system has attained its maturity and vigor. This is the reason why there are so many young men and women, whose conversation is futile and superficial, and who find it painful to engage upon subjects connected with the arts, science, or popular literature.
In order to converse intelligently, and with interest and profit to others, the mind must, in the first place, be well supplied with materials to work upon; and then great pains must be taken to arrange our words into smooth and elegant sentences. She who has these acquirements, and a tolerable degree of fluency, may make herself agreeable in whatever company she may happen to fall. She will command attention, because she can impart information. She will win the respect of her associates, if her information springs from a pure and justly balanced mind. It seems to me, then, that your
happiness through life, may depend, in a great measure, upon a matter which may look trifling in comparison with many others. My reasoning is simply this: we cannot be happy without purity of mind. Any thing, therefore, which tends to poison the fountain, tends also to decrease our happiness. No matter whether it be books, music, plays, or coarser dissipation, the effect is the same.
For example, should you read a novel where one of the characters is a depraved, unblushing villain, although adorned with all the outward graces of a gentleman,—brave, accomplished, and intelligent,—and who, by these very accomplishments, maintained a false position in society, would you not (unconsciously perhaps at the time) imbibe ideas and feelings, which would render you less able to resist when assailed by temptation? I believe you would. I believe such a result inevitable. Happy, therefore, those young persons, who can confidently apply to some judicious friend for occasional advice in so important a matter.
Have you ever seen a course of reading laid down by Chancellor Kent? It is a small book, and might afford you many useful hints. There are now so many books upon Astronomy, Chemistry, Geology, Natural Philosophy, Botany, Mechanics, Agriculture, and Horticulture, Voyages and Travels, and the whole scope of history, beautifully illustrated by plates, all of which are not only exceedingly interesting, but of sterling worth, that it is to deeply to be regretted, the time of any young person is wasted on the trash, with which the press at present teems. You must consider that the mind at your age is ready to receive the slightest impression, and that a stricter watchfulness is required, than when that peculiar ductility is lost.
The character and habits you now form, will be likely to remain through life. How important, then, that they be correct and good. When Persico commenced the statue of Columbus, he spent whole hours, and days even, endeavoring to make every thing right as he proceeded, so that no alteration would ever be necessary. This should be our rule and study of life; and then we should be obeying that injunction of our blessed Saviour, ‘Be ye perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.’
Washington, D.C., Jan., 1845.