There are four classes of readers. The first is like the hour-glass; and its reading being on the
sand, it runs in and runs out and leaves no vestige behind. A second is like a sponge, which
imbibes everything, and returns it in the same state, only a little dirtier. A third is like a jelly
bag, allowing all that is pure to pass away, and retaining only the refuse and dregs. The fourth
is like the slaves in the diamond mines of Golconda, who, casting aside all that is worthless,
obtain only pure gems.
One's reading is, usually, a fair index of his character. Observe in almost any house you visit,
the books which lie customarily on the centre-table; or note what are taken by preference
from the public or circulating library; and you may judge, in no small degree, not only the
intellectual tastes and the general intelligence of the family, but also - and what is of far
deeper moment - you may pronounce on the moral attainments and the spiritual advancement
of most of the household. "A man is known," it is said, "by the company he keeps." It is
equally true that a man's character may be, to a great extent, ascertained by knowing what
books he reads.
The temptation to corrupt reading is usually the strongest at the period when the education of
the schoolroom is about closing. The test of the final utility, however, is the time when our
youth leave these schools. If the mind be now awakened to a manly independence, and start on
a course of vigorous self-culture, all will be well. But if, on the other hand, it sink into a state
of inaction, indifferent to its own needs, and to all the highest ends and aims of life, then woe to
the man. For few, very few, ever rouse themselves in mid-life to a new intellectual taste, and to
an untried application of their time and powers to that culture for which the Creator formed
and endowed them.
To read books which present false pictures of human life is decidedly dangerous, and we
would say stand aloof! Life is neither a tragedy nor a farce. Men are not all either knaves or
heroes. Women are neither angels nor furies. And yet, if you depended on much of the
literature of the day, you would get the idea that life, instead of being something earnest,
something practical, is a fitful and fantastic and extravagant thing. How poorly prepared are
that young man and that young woman for the duties of to-day who spent last night wading
through brilliant passages descriptive of magnificent knavery and wickedness! The man will
be looking all day long for his heroine in the tin shop, by the forge, in the factory, in the
counting-room, and he will not find her, and he will be dissatisfied. A man who gives himself
up to the indiscriminate reading of novels will be nerveless, inane, and a nuisance. He will be
fit neither for the store, nor the shop, nor the field. A woman who gives herself up to the
indiscriminate reading of novels will be unfitted for the duties of wife, mother, sister,
daughter. There she is, hair disheveled, countenance vacant, cheeks pail, hands trembling,
bursting into tears at midnight over the fate of some unfortunate lover; in the day-time, when
she ought to be busy, staring by the half hour at nothing; biting her finger-nails to the quick.
The carpet that was plain before, will be plainer, after having, through a romance all night
long, wandered in tessellated halls of castles. And your industrious companion will be more
unattractive than ever, now that you have walked in the romance through parks with plumed
princesses, or lounged in the arbor with the polished desperado.
Abstain from all those books which, while they have some good things about them, have also
an admixture of evil. You have read books that had the two elements in them - the good and
the bad. Which stuck to you? The bad! The heart of most people is like a sieve, which lets the
small particles of gold fall through, but keeps the great cinders. Once in a while there is a
mind like a loadstone, which, plunged amid steel and brass filings, gathers up the steel and
repels the brass. But it is generally just the opposite. If you attempt to plunge through a hedge
of burrs to get one blackberry, you will get more burrs than blackberries. You cannot afford
to read a bad book, however good you are. You say, "The influence is insignificant." I tell you
that the scratch of a pin has sometimes produced the lockjaw. Alas, if through curiosity, as
many do, you pry into an evil book, your curiosity is as dangerous as that of the man who
should take a torch into a gunpowder mill merely to see whether it really would blow up or
Inferior books are to be rejected, in an age and time when we are courted by whole libraries,
and when no man's life is long enough to compass even those which are good and great and
famous. Why should we bow down at puddles, when we can approach freely to the crystal
spring-heads of science and letters? Half the reading of most people is snatched up at random.
Many stupefy themselves over the dullness of authors who ought never to have escaped
oblivion. The invention of paper and printing - especially the production of both by a new
motive power - may be said to have overdone the matter, and made it too easy to be born into
the world of authorship. The race would be benefited by some new invention for strangling
nine out of ten who sue for publicity. No man can do his friend or child a more real service
than to snatch from his hand the book that relaxes and effeminates him, lest he destroy the
solids and make his fibre flaccid by the slops and hashes of a catch-penny press. But especially
is he a benefactor who instills the principle that no composition should be deliberately sought
which is not good, beneficial, and above mediocrity.
To those who plead the want of time to read, we would say, be as frugal of your hours as you
are of your dollars, and you can create time in the busiest day. Horace Greeley, the editor of a
newspaper which reached what was then an almost incredible circulation, tells us, that when a
boy, he would "go reading, to the wood-pile; reading, to the garden; reading, to the
neighbors." His father was poor, and needed his services through the day; and it was a mighty
struggle with him to get Horace to bed. "I would take a pine knot," he says, "put it on the
back-log, pile my books around me, and lie down and read all through the long winter
evenings; silent, motionless, and dead to the world around me, alive only to the world to which
I was transported by my book." In this country talent has a fair field to rise by culture from
the humblest walks of life, and to attain the highest distinction of which it is capable. "Why,"
inquired a bystander of a certain carpenter, who was bestowing a great labor in planing and
smoothing a seat for the bench in a court-room, "why do you spend so much time on that
seat?" "I do it," was the reply, "to make it easy for myself." And he kept his word; for, by
industry, perseverance, and self-education, he rose, step by step, until he actually did
afterwards sit as judge on that very bench he had planed as a carpenter.
Consider that what we carry to a book is always quite as important as what we receive from it.
We may strike the keys of the best instrument, from earliest morn till latest night, but unless
there be music in our soul, it can produce no harmony for us. While, to an earnest, inquiring,
self-poised mind, "a good book is the plectrum by which our else silent lyres are struck."
Master your reading, and let it never master you. Then it will serve you with an
ever-increasing fidelity. Only read books aright, and they will charge your mind with the true
electric fire. Take them up as among your best friends; and every volume you peruse will join
the great company of joyous servitors who will wait around your immortal intellect. Then, too,
your daily character will bear the signatures of the great minds you commune with in secret.
And, as the years pass on, you will walk in the light of an ever-enlarging multitude of
well-chosen, silent, but never-erring guides.
To read with profit, the books must be of a kind calculated to inform the mind, correct the
head, and better the heart. These books should be read with attention, understood,
remembered, and their precepts put in practice. It depends less on number than quality. One
good book, well understood and remembered, is of more use than to have a superficial
knowledge of fifty, equally sound. Books of the right character produce reflection, and induce
investigation. They are a mirror of mind, for mind to look in. Of all the books ever written, no
one contains so instructive, so sublime, and so great a variety as the Bible. Resolve to read
three chapters each day, for one year, and you will find realities there, more wonderful than
any pictures of fiction that have been drawn by the pencilings of the most practiced novel
writer in the dazzling galaxy of ancient or modern literature.
The advice in regard to reading only the best selected works leads us to say, read slowly. We
sometimes rush over pages of valuable matter, because, at a glance, they seem to be dull; and
we leap along to see how the story, if it be a story, is to end. We do every thing in this age in a
hurry; we demand not only fast horses, but fast writers, fast preachers, and fast lecturers. Said
a noted seaman's preacher in one of our large cities, "I work in a hurry, I sleep in a hurry,
and, if I ever die, I expect to die in a hurry." This is the history of much of the present reading.
No one can too highly appreciate the magic power of the press, or too deeply deprecate its
abuses. Newspapers have become the great highway of that intelligence which exerts a
controlling power over our nation, catering the every-day food of the mind. Show us an
intelligent family of boys and girls, and we will show you a family where newspapers and
periodicals are plenty. Nobody who has been without these private tutors can know their
educating power for good or evil. Have you ever thought of the innumerable topics of
discussion which they suggest at the breakfast table; the important public measures with
which thus early our children become acquainted; the great philanthropic questions of the
day, to which, unconsciously, their attention is awakened, and the general spirit of intelligence
which is evoked by these quiet visitors? Anything that makes home pleasant, cheerful, and
chatty, thins the haunts of vice and the thousand and one avenues of temptation, should
certainly be regarded, when we consider its influence on the minds of the young, as a great
social and moral light.
A child beginning to read becomes delighted with a newspaper, because he reads of names and
things which are familiar, and he will progress accordingly. A newspaper, in one year is worth
a quarter's schooling to a child. Every father must consider that information is connected with
advancement. The mother of a family, being one of its heads, and having a more immediate
charge of children, should herself be instructed. A mind occupied becomes fortified against
the ills of life, and is braced for emergency. Children amused by reading or study are of
course more considerate and easily governed.
How many thoughtless young men have spent their earnings in a tavern or grog shop who
ought to have been reading! How many parents who have not spent twenty dollars for books
for their families, would have given thousands to reclaim a son or daughter who had
ignorantly or thoughtlessly fallen into temptation!
Take away the press, and the vast educating power of the school and the college would soon
come to an end. Or, look one moment at the immense influence a single writer has had upon
an age, or upon the world - Shakespeare in creating the drama, or Bacon and Descartes in
founding different systems of philosophy. Who may estimate the influence of Charles Dickens
upon society, when by the magic of his pen he touched the under world of poverty and want
and sin, over which the rich an the gay glided on, not knowing or thinking what was beneath
their feet, and marched all this ghastly array of ragged and hungry children and sorrowful
women and discouraged men, and the famished forms from the poor-house, and the ugly
visage of the criminal, into the parlors of wealth and culture, and there had them tell the story
of their woes and their suffering? Or who can tell the influence of a MacDonald, or a Beecher,
or an Eggleston in entering the wide realm of romance and compelling it to serve truth,
humanity and religion? Or who knows the influence of Thomas Paine and Jefferson in
strengthening the cause of liberty in our struggle for national independence? Take one single
writer of our own land - Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe. The single tale of "Uncle Tom's Cabin,"
stirred the heart of this vast nation to its profoundest depths. At the simple moving of her pen
millions of swords and bayonets gleamed and flashed in the air, and vast armies met in deadly
array and fought face to face, till liberty, re-baptized in blood, was given to man as man. This
vast world moves along lines of thought and sentiment and principle, made eloquent by the
clangor of the printing-press.
The Royal Path of Life - Aims and Aids to Success and Happiness - 1882 by T.L. Haines & L.W. Yaggy