William Parsons Atkinson.

On the right use of books: a lecture online

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Copyright, 1878,

The following Lecture was written for ', and first read to,
a class of young business men, at that admirable institution,
the Boston Voting Men's Christian Union. Many additions
have since been made to //, and some parts have been altered.
For the opinions it contains nc one is responsible but the

Cambridge :
Press of John Wilson &* Son.


THAT excellent writer, the Rector of Lincoln
College, Oxford, discoursing the other day on Books
and Critics,* quotes Mrs. Browning as saying:
" The ne plus ultra of intellectual indolence is the
reading of books. It comes next to what the
Americans call whittling." Nothing can be more
diametrically opposed to popular belief ; for
that belief is that there is something meritorious
in the very act of reading. It does not matter
much what we read barring immoral reading
provided we only read. Parents love to see their
children reading, it keeps them out of mischief,
they say, and take little heed of the quality or
direction of their reading ; as if, the main point
once gained, these were of quite inferior impor-
tance. Is it not all contained in books ? There is
a sorj: of sacredness attached, in their minds, to the
printed page ; as if, the imprimatur once received,

* Fortnightly Review, Nov., 1877.



thought took on quite a different character from
what it had before.

Nevertheless, I am much of the mind of Mrs.
Browning. I do not believe that the world is much,
if any, the wiser for a good deal of the reading that
goes on in it ; and perhaps I cannot better begin
what I have to say on the subject than by trying to
ascertain why this is true.

Perhaps I may say that the answer is an obvious
one. We do not profit by our reading because we
do not know how to read, and we do not know how
because we have never been taught. To be sure,
it is a ,very difficult art ; and in one sense, and that
the deepest, we may say that it cannot be taught.
Goethe is reported to have said : " I have been fifty
years trying to learn how to read, and I have not
learned yet." The art which Goethe had not
learned in fifty years, we need not feel ashamed
not to be perfect in ; and yet the question may well
arise, Why, with all the reading that goes on, is so
much well-meant effort absolutely thrown away ?
I am a teacher in a school of science, but my own
teaching lies not among scientific, but among
non-scientific subjects, though I cannot use the
current phraseology without a protest, and I am
in the habit of prefacing my instruction in history


and literature to the successive classes of young
men who come to me by a request that they would
give me an account of their previous English
studies and English reading ; and I remember the
contrast which, not long ago, two of their answers
afforded. One wrote me a list of English authors,
beginning with Chaucer and ending with Haw-
thorne whom he had " gone through," as the phrase
is, at school, and wound up with the naive remark
that there was only one study that he hated more
than he hated English Literature, and that was
the other study with which I was about to engage
his attention ; namely, Rhetoric and Composition.
And herein I suppose he was only honestly and
frankly expressing the state of mind of the average
school-boy, which is the result of the ordinary
school teaching of these subjects. A state of
chronic disgust at good literature which drives
him to "dime novels" for recreation, combined with
a chronic incapacity to pen an ordinary letter cor-
rectly, is, I fear, too often the upshot of the literary
training of our schools. The other told me that
he was the son of a country physician ; that he had
not had much schooling, but that his father had a
small general library, and that he had done much
reading in his father's books up in the retirement


of his father's hay-mow ; and the hay-mow had so
far proved the better school that no disgust was in-
dicated for Rhetoric or Literature. What the
school, with its elaborately misdirected effort, had
failed to do for the one, the other had done for him-
self : he had learned in part the Art of Reading.

I do not wish to draw any argument from these
examples in favor of what is called self-education,
or to underrate the value of school training, even
with all its present imperfections and absurdities.
At school, the child's mind is drilled, however badly ;
trained, in company with others, to take the first
steps on that broad highway which all generations
must follow ; put in possession, however imper-
fectly, not so much of knowledge, as of those tools
of knowledge which are indispensable, if higher
real knowledge is to be acquired afterwards. I
would be the last to overlook the importance, in
early school training, of those semi-mechanical ele-
ments of drill, discipline, and mental gymnastic,
on which the value of the mind as an instrument
for future acquisition so much depends. But why
the question comes does this school training, so
elaborately applied, so often prove fruitless ? Why
does this school knowledge, so painfully acquired,
lie like dead lumber in the mind, even if it enter


the mind at all ? Why does it not take root, and
quicken into life, and grow ? The answer can only
be that pedants have exalted the means into an end ;
in perfecting the machinery, have lost sight of the
object the machinery should accomplish ; and thus,
while our children are overtaught and overdrilled,
they are not educated ; and the defects of our edu-
cational system are nowhere so patent as in its
failure to impart a real taste for books, to commu-
nicate the true Art of Reading.

You have invited me, whose calling keeps me
among books, to say a word to you about the right
use of them. And because my calling has kept
me among books, and I can thus bring personal
experience to bear upon the subject, I hope I may
be able to say a helpful word or two. But, though
I speak of an Art of Reading, do not suppose I mean
to lay down any body of rules for your guidance.
I have no such rules. In study as in life, each of
us must find his own way, though there are none of
us so wise that we cannot be helped by the experi-
ence of our neighbors. It is some of the results of
that experience that I purpose giving you ; and if
some of my remarks seem trite, and quite wanting
in the charm of novelty, I can only plead that the
most important subjects are the most hackneyed,


and that one of the results of my experience has
been to find that the older I grow the more highly
I value many truths which, for the very reason that
they are trite and obvious, are most certain of
being neglected.

I shall therefore begin with this remark, that for
success in reading and study, though it is well
enough to have a good head, it is far more impor-
tant to have a good digestion. I do not think it
makes us unhappy to know that we have not all
the wits of our eminent intellectual neighbors.
What does make us unhappy is not to be able to
use all the little wits that we possess ; and we
never can do that, unless we have a good stomach.
Now, to the end of having a good stomach, in order
that we may be in possession of all our wits, we
must be abstemious in our reading. Nothing so
certainly deranges the digestion as cramming the
brain. This is one of those trite remarks which I
wish above all things to impress upon you. If it
were really impressed upon the mind of the com-
munity, it would revolutionize our education. That
the very first and most indispensable of all the
qualifications that go to make a successful student
is a sound physical constitution, is the great truth
which all modern physiology preaches, and, none the


less, which almost all modern practice still ignores.
And it seems in vain that modern physiology tells
us why, that it is only thus that fresh and
healthy blood can flow, to set in healthy activity
that wonderful little instrument, delicate as wonder-
ful, by means of which alone, while we are on this
little ball of earth, we think. We must have an in-
tellectual existence of some kind. To live what
is it but to think and feel ? And, willingly or un-
willingly, that existence is carried on here through
the medium of that material instrument, the brain.
And it is by the indirect control we possess over
that, that we are enabled largely to determine what
sort of an intellectual and emotional life we shall
lead upon the earth, whether it shall take us over
clear and sunny mountain-tops, or through the very
valley of the shadow of death.

This is all getting trite and commonplace enough ;
and yet is it not what we still ignore in all our prac-
tice ? The popular idea of a young scholar is that
he should be a pale and spectacled young man, very
thin, and with a slight and interesting tendency
to sentimentality and consumption. Parents send
their weakly children to college ; and it is supposed
to be an ordinance of nature that a large proportion
of what are called promising young persons should


die young. Well, they are promising young persons
in the sense of never performing any thing ; but,
instead of killing them with a college, it would be
vastly better to turn them out to grass till they got
strong enough to exchange promise for perform-
ance ; at least, till such time as we can get colleges
organized that will not kill them. While they con-
tinue in that so-called promising condition, depend
upon it, they are not stuff to make successful schol-
ars of. You might as well take all the weakly
trees to make an orchard, or all the lean and stunted
cattle to make a herd. "How can you," said I
once to the most laborious student I ever knew,
" how can you do such an enormous amount of study
and mental labor ? " " Because," was the answer,
" I laid up so many rods of stone wall on my
father's farm when I was a boy."

It is plain, then, that the most important question
for the good student and reader is not, amidst this
multitude of books which no man can number, how
much he shall read. The really important questions
are, first, what is the quality of what he does read ;
and, second, what is his manner of reading it.
There is an analogy which is more than accidental
between physical and mental assimilation and diges-
tion ; and, homely as the illustration may seem, it is


the most forcible I can use. Let two sit down to a
table spread with food : one possessed of a healthy
appetite, and knowing something of the nutritious
qualities of the various dishes before him; the
other cursed with a pampered and capricious appe-
tite, and knowing nothing of the results of chemical
and physiological investigation. One shall make
a better meal, and go away stronger and better fed,
on a dish of oatmeal, than the other on a dinner
that has half emptied his pocket. Shall we study
physiological chemistry and know all about what
is food for the body, and neglect mental chemistry,
and be utterly careless as to what nutriment is
contained in the food we give our minds ? I am
not speaking here of vicious literature : we don't
spread our dinner-tables with poisons. I speak
only of the varying amount of nutritive matter
contained in books. Only think of the range
what we may call the nutritive range which lies
between Shakspeare and Mr. Tupper ! And yet
" Proverbial Philosophy " weighs as much avoir-
dupois, and looks as fair on the library shelves, as
the greatest of poets.

We have been building a monument lately in
Boston, but I think the grandest and noblest monu-
ment our good old city ever reared is that Public


Library of hers, open, without money and without
price, to rich and poor alike ; albeit, its architecture
does leave something to desire. But I saw the
other day, in a newspaper, lamentable statistics of
the use it is put to by the rising generation. There
is a storehouse of the richest and best intellect-
ual food, but mingled with great heaps of husks
and not a little poison, and they have never been
taught how to pick out the grain from the chaff,
not even how to avoid the poison. I do not think
they find much there that is positively vicious, but
there seems to be an absolutely unlimited demand
for twaddle. Does not this prove what I set out
with saying, that our schools do not teach the Art
of Reading? At the only schools the great ma-
jority of the boys and girls attend, they have been
set down to a Barmecide feast of empty cups and
platters. The alphabet, cyphering, grammar, writ-
ing, are not knowledge : they are only the tools of
knowledge, indispensable tools, indeed, skill
in the use of which it is the business, but not the
only nor the highest business, of these schools to im-
part. But the poor boys and girls are kept, year in
and year out, wielding knife and fork of grammar
and spelling and cyphering over dishes empty of
all real mental nutriment, diligently dipping spoons


into bowls where the intellectual draught that
should have slaked their thirst has been forgotten.*
Then we turn these babies in intellect loose in a
public library, and expect them to find their way !
What wonder that, to supply the demands of such
readers, twaddle-mills, if I may be allowed such
an expression, are set up, and cannot grind their
grist of intellectual chaff fast enough to supply
the market. After all, age has its advantages.
I thank my stars that I was born in those prehis-
toric times when boys read Scott's novels, and be-
fore the advent of the Oliver Optics and the Mrs.
Southworths, who are doing so much to weaken
the mental fibre of thjs generation.

Just as the Public Library is the needful supple-
ment to the Public School, and Boston will some
day be honored for having been the first to give the
truth a practical recognition, and a good collec-
tion of books has been well called the college of the
nineteenth century, so it will never be rightly
made use of till our schools give a really efficient
preparation for it by teaching the Art of Reading.

* A long step will have been taken towards remedying this
state of things when the admirable " Suggestions accompanying
the Course of Study for Grammar and Primary Schools,'* recently
issued by the Boston Board of School Supervisors, shall be
universally carried out in the spirit in which they have been
drawn up.


And at the foundation of this art of reading
there lie certain distinctions, which, if we learn to
make them, will guide us in our choice of books.
Let me quote one of these distinctions from De
Quincey, that, namely, between what he calls the
Literature of Knowledge and the Literature of
Power. You will find it in his Essay on Pope.

"There is the literature of knowledge" he 'says,
" and there is the literature of power. The func-
tion of the first is to teach; the function of the
second is to move. The first is a rudder; the
second, an oar or a sail. The first speaks to the
mere discursive understanding ; the second speaks,
ultimately it may happen, to the higher understand-
ing or reason, but always through affections of
pleasure and sympathy." And he illustrates his
distinction thus : " What do you learn from ' Para-
dise Lost ' ? Nothing at all. What do you learn
from a cookery-book ? Something new, something
that you did not know before, in every paragraph.
But would you therefore put the wretched cookery-
book on a higher level of estimation than the divine
poem ? What you owe to Milton is not any knowl-
edge, of which a million separate items are still but
a million of advancing steps on the same earthly
level : what you owe is power, that is, exercise and


expansion to your own latent capacity of sympathy
with the infinite, where every pulse and each sepa-
rate influx is a step upwards. . . . All the steps of
knowledge, from first to last, carry you further on
the same plane, but could never raise you one foot
above your ancient level of earth ; whereas the very
first step in power is a flight, is an ascending
into another element/'

Such, slightly abbreviated, is Mr. De Quincey's
fine distinction. Now I think the books we are
most concerned with here are those belonging, not
to the literature of knowledge, but those belonging
to the literature of power, and first and foremost
the books of the poets. Is it not worth our while
to study Poetry ? " Study poetry ! " I hear some
sentimental young lady or gentleman say. " What
occasion is there for study ? why, it 's my delight.
Stars and flowers and the moon and hearts and
darts and every thing lovely, all those dear, de-
lightful volumes in blue and gold, I have them
about me all the time." Yes, about you, my dear
sentimental young lady or young gentleman, on the
centre-table, and in elegant rows on the book-
shelves, about you, but not in you.

I once met with a lecture and a very good
lecture it was by Mr. Palgrave, an excellent


critic, on the " Scientific Study of Poetry," and it
was addressed to the members of a Workingmen s
College. Was there ever a more incongruous com-
bination of ideas, some people would say, than this
of Science, Study, Poetry, and Workingmen ? And
yet I venture to say that unless we approach the
subject of Poetry in just that spirit, viewing it first
as a serious study, next as a study involving prin-
ciples quite as much as Chemistry or any other of
those branches of the investigation of the laws of
matter to which, by a strange perversity of lan-
guage, the term Science is getting to be exclusively
confined ; and, again, if we do not believe that the
subject of Poetry is one pre-eminently fitted to be
a theme for a lecture to workingmen, in other
words, if we do not believe that Poetry addresses
itself not merely to the so-called " cultured classes,"
who are so ready to believe that they possess a
monopoly of wisdom, but to man as man, we shall
never know any thing at all about it, we shall
remain in the intellectual condition of the blue-
and-gold young lady, with her poetry on her centre-
table, but not in her soul.

I have no thought of attempting here a definition
of Poetry, though I should like to come and give
you a lecture on the art of reading it. Whether


we call it, with Aristotle, imitation ; whether we
say more worthily, with Lord Bacon, " that it was
ever thought to have some participation of divine-
ness, because it doth raise and erect the mind by
submitting the shows of things to the desires of
the mind ; whereas, reason doth buckle and bow
the mind unto the nature of things ; " * whether, in
more modern times, we define it, with Shelley, as
" the best and happiest thoughts of the best and
happiest minds ; " or say, with Matthew Arnold, that
"poetry is simply the most beautiful, impressive,
and widely effective mode of saying things ; " and,
again, that " it is to the poetical literature of an age
that we must in general look for the most perfect
and most adequate interpretation of that age ; " or
whether we say, with the greatest poet of the last
generation, that " poetry is the breath and finer
spirit of all knowledge, the impassioned expression
which is in the countenance of all science," f all
I am concerned to say here is, that Poetry is that
branch of the Literature of Power pre-eminently
worthy of study, and that without study we shall
know but little about it.

Now suppose, to revert to my first position, that

* Advancement of Learning, B. n. 4. 2.
t Wordsworth's Critical Preface.


our children were really taught to read Poetry in
school ; I am as sure that it could be done as I am
that it is not done now ; suppose that the tyranny
of Gradgrind, with his clatter of grammar-books
and spelling-books and cyphering-books, most of
them useless, were somewhat abated, and feeling
and imagination as well as bare intellect were
appealed to, and not only appealed to but trained
and developed and directed, do you think there
would be such a rush at the library for the Oliver
Optics, and the Mrs. Southworths, and, worse still,
for the Miss Braddons of the day ? I am sure the
twaddle-factories would have to shut up, or at least
work half-time. Peter Parleyism and other goody-
goodyisms would be less rampant, and the gin-and-
water of the circulating library would lose its
attractive flavor.

" Do not laugh at him," said an accomplished
lady once to me, as we were talking of an eccentric
teacher, famous in the days of our youth, " do
not laugh at him. He taught me really to love
and appreciate English poetry, so that it has been a
delight to me all my life through." That was much
to say of any teacher ; that was true education.

I just spoke of the gin-and- water of the circu-
lating library ; but let me put in a good word for


the circulating library, and for the study of novels.
Yes, the study of novels ; for novel-writing has be-
come, in these modern days, an important branch
of art, and novels a very real and substantial
department of literature. He who either neglects
'or despises or fears novels, not only cuts himself
off from one of the very best sources of intellectual
and moral refreshment, but ignores a branch of
literature from which a wise reader can get instruc-
tion as well as entertainment. I am not a very
social man, and some of my best friends are in
novels. Don't you know all Jane Austen's people ?
Have you ever lain on a couch, languid with illness,
and had some pleasant voice read "Wives and
Daughters " to you ? I say nothing of the great
artists, of Thackeray, of George Eliot ; but such
is my love for the dear old mother-country, that
I can greatly enjoy Mr. Trollope's best stories, and
even read his worst, for the sake of the glimpses of
English life they give me. I can even find an
hour's amusement in the absurdities of that extraor-
dinary mountebank whose remarkable fortune it
now is for the moment to misgovern England.

You know what Talleyrand said to the young
man who could not play whist : "Young man, what
an unhappy old age you are laying up for yourself ! "


And so, of him who has not learned how to read
novels, it may be said, What a source of refreshing
and improving and innocent amusement he has
failed to avail himself of !

You say that no department of literature con-
tains so much mischievous rubbish. It is very true,
and the only remedy is such a training of the popu-
lar taste as would make such rubbish intolerable ;
and I know of no more hopeless feature in the rather
hopeless-looking subject of popular education, than
its failure to train the imagination, the greatest of
all educational forces. Is it owing to the remains
in us, here in New England, of that old Puritanism
which hated every thing beautiful because it could
only associate it with that license and lawlessness
against which it was the grim and unlovely protest ?
Let us hold the virtues of our Puritan Fathers in
all honor, for they were the salvation of the nation ;
but let us discriminate. These same Puritan Fa-
thers of ours were stone-blind to much that consti-
tutes the very essence of all true education.

Many good people have Puritanic objections to
poetry, and still more to novel-reading, because of
its abuses ; and certainly the intemperate novel-
reader is little, if any, better than the intemperate
dram-drinker. But there is another class of ob-


jectors whom the defender of imaginative literature
has to meet, and that is the Gradgrinds before-
mentioned, the so-called practical men. " Poetry ?
Imagination ? " they say. " What have they to do
with the realities of life?" meaning corn, cotton,
lard, iron, and other solid things. " Do you think a
young man who goes mooning about in the woods,
and can't for the life of him tell whether the tim-

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Online LibraryWilliam Parsons AtkinsonOn the right use of books: a lecture → online text (page 1 of 4)