Popular Science Monthly/Volume 83/August 1913/Education Through Reading




THREE is a wide variety of motives any one of which may lead a person to become a reader. Sir John Herschel wrote:

Were I to pray for a taste that should stand me in stead under every variety of circumstances, and be a source of happiness and cheerfulness to me during life, and a shield against its ills, it would be a taste for reading.

A Suwanee reviewer deals with reading as an elegant pastime, the mental profit yielded by it being considered incidental. The reading of books as he thinks of it is to be classed with the viewing of pictures, a sort of esthetic exercise, delightful, uplifting, cultivating and, incidentally, informing, not resorted to, however, for the sake of information, at least not primarily for the sake of this, but for the refined pleasure to be derived from the exercise.

Reading for pleasure and diversion is perfectly legitimate when people have time and inclination for this; and it is well to urge those having time for it to cultivate also the inclination; but that is not the aspect of reading to which we would draw attention now. It is proposed to discuss reading as an earnest occupation, carried on with the direct purpose of drilling and storing the mind, its pleasurable and esthetic results, important as they are in themselves, being quite secondary. The theme, then, is reading as a distinct, invaluable, and too little recognized educational resource.

Consider first the very great encouragements to reading which now exist, and then note certain methods for responding to these encouragements, for utilizing the magnificent and ever-improving opportunities to read profitably opened to all in our modern life.

A cordial invitation to wide reading is extended by the presence all about us of ample literature, representing every department of thought, in forms perfectly convenient and incredibly cheap.

Carlyle said:

Of all things which men do make here below by far the most momentous, wonderful and worthy are the things we call books.

And Macaulay:

I would rather be a poor man in a garret with plenty of books than a king who did not love reading.

"Oh for a booke and a shady nooke,
Eyther in doors or out,
With the green leaves whispering overhead,
Or the street cryers all about.

"Where I may read all at my ease
Both of the new and old,
For a jolly good booke wherein to looke,
Is better to me than gold."

Not to speak of good old books, to be had in the stalls for a song, of the newspapers, which contain not a little good reading matter, especially in their Sunday editions, or of the innumerable magazines better and worse, there are editions of nearly all the world's literary masterpieces which are low-priced enough for the poorest and at the same time elegant enough for all but the most fastidious. You can find low-cost library editions and five-cent pocket editions, well printed, on good paper, with readably large type, suitable for all the demands of any undergoing the pangs of literary thirst. Not alone the masterpieces are so represented; but thousands of less pretentious though very useful books. Good reading matter is almost thrust upon us now.

This vast literary treasury contains riches from every gold-bearing region of the earth. The best specimens of antique and of foreign letters are there, having been translated into our tongue, in most cases, by capable scholars, and thus rendered accessible to such as read only in English. The best works of Plato and Aristotle, of Cicero, one of the world's greatest literators, of Boccaccio, Petrarch and Dante, of Leibnitz and Kant, Schiller and Goethe, indeed of all the mightiest German, Italian and French writers, can not only be read by us all at our leisure but can be owned by nearly all who would wish to own them.

This is no argument against learning foreign languages. Not every good product of foreign pens has been Englished. To become acquainted with the most recent best things written abroad you must read the originals. It is true, further, that no translation ever made or ever possible can carry with it across the chasm separating tongue from tongue the entire meaning, or the delicate shades of moaning, or the rich stylistic aroma, of a true literary work. It is nevertheless a benediction of the first order that in so many cases where we can not consult a literary original, we can possess ourselves of the authors main thoughts. Petrarch and likewise Keats read Homer in translation. If we can not topographically survey a country, scanning intimately its by-ways, it is worth a great deal to be able to travel leisurely its highways.

Besides the cheap edition and the translation, there is the free library. Those who are or think they are too poor to purchase much literary material, can, in any considerable center of population, find and read all that they need of it in some public library, without money and without price. The public libraries in the principal cities offer the most ample and inviting opportunities for reading, and these opportunities are growing richer every year. Public libraries are enlarging and new ones opening. In nearly every state, a Library Commission is planting libraries in small places and carrying traveling libraries to the remotest hamlets. Quite as important, librarians are mastering their trade, becoming more and more able to make libraries available to such as use them.

The opportunities for securing information and culture through reading, which are now presented by low-priced editions, good translations and free libraries, constitute, together, a potent appeal to ua to read.

Another such appeal lies in the certainty that by properly using these privileges any one of us can become a well-informed, well-educated person. "Reading makes the full man," says Francis Bacon.

Says Lecky ("Map of Life, Conduct and Character"):

While the tastes which require physical strength decline or pass with age, that for reading steadily grows. If it is judiciously managed reading is one of the most powerful means of training character and disciplining and elevating thought. It is eminently a pleasure which is not only good in itself but enhances many others. By extending the range of our knowledge, by enlarging our powers of sympathy and appreciation, it adds incalculably to the pleasures of society, of travel, of art, to the interest we take in the vast variety of events which form the great world-drama about us. To acquire this taste in early youth is one of the best fruits of education, and it is especially useful when the taste for reading becomes a taste for knowledge, and when it is accompanied by some specialization and concentration and by some exercise of the powers of observation.

Mere reading by itself alone can of course never produce the ideal education. Reading can not wholly take the place of schooling. The seminary, student conferences and debates, the class, class drill, oral explanations from arousing and able instructors, the inspiration which each student derives from the student body about him, and the other thousand and one stimulating associations connected with every good school, exert an influence which books and reading are powerless to produce. One who has never been subject to these influences, be he the most omnivorous and painstaking reader in the world, is unfortunate. Get all the schooling you can. If possible couple it with your reading. Irregular schooling is better than none, and so is a poor teacher. None of us are too old or too learned to be benefited by a term or a course of lessons or lectures in school, college or university. However, if you have never been able to avail yourself of these excellent aids in the training of mind, and if you are now and henceforth unable to do so, do not despair. You can read, and your chances are enviable. Studious, persistent familiarity with noble letters will place you among the knowing, and it is worth all the effort it can possibly cost you. It will give you, if not the ideal education, a real education, broad, full, useful, enjoyable, a fortune which wealth could not buy. It will keep you from being a boor and make you a cultivated person instead. You may grow to be a connoisseur, a critic, an authority in some department of literature, philosophy, art or science. If you persist, though no degree ever crown your attainments, you may yet be able to instruct masters and doctors. Short of this, the possibilities of profit from reading are indefinitely rich and great. It is a sort of mental suicide if we neglect them.

In these last words, to make the argument specially strong, we have been supposing the case of the people who possess little or no school training. But such as have enjoyed that training, however long, ought nevertheless to appreciate the advantages of reading. If familiarity with books can not take the place of mental drill, no more, certainly, can mental drill take the place of familiarity with books. If you already possess a good foundation laid in school build upon it by reading. The chances of profiting in this way ought to impress you as much as if you had been less fortunate in respect to schooling.

The existence of low-cost editions and of excellent translations of good books, made accessible through free libraries and otherwise, is calculated to bring to bear upon us all a moving incentive to read. If we yield to this incentive, whoever we are and whatever mental advantages we may have enjoyed hitherto, the result will be invaluable mental cultivation and improvement.

Some one will interpose: "I do not love to read; it is a bore. I hate books. If I am to get good from reading you must tell me how I may develop interest in them."

How sad the confession that one does not love to read. Compare Edward Gibbon's avowal that he would not exchange his love of reading for all the gold of the Indies.

Two sorts of people avoid reading, those with very little intelligence and those possessing such unusual intelligence and originality that their minds keep busy without external stimulus. The dull ones can not perhaps be helped much; the others need only proper direction in order to find good reading a perpetual delight.

An intelligent person who dislikes reading is nearly sure to be deeply interested in something; in games, in hunting, in some kind of animals or sort of mechanism. Get a first-rate book discussing his hobby and see if you can not bait his taste therewith. Most likely he will read that and call for another and another. These book? will suggest still others and your man is a reader.

If all such traps fail, get your protégé to read a thrilling short story, or touch him with a live coal of patriotic verse like Oliver Wendell Holmes's

Ay, tear her tattered ensign down.
Long has it waved on high.
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky.

With this poem should always go a brief historical account of its interesting origin and effects.

No matter, at first, how ill-written the novel may be, if only it is fetching. One of Conan Doyle's "Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" would well fulfill this office. If a man were not interested in these pieces you would be justified in giving him up. But most would be interested. The story would catch the mind and launch it, and the good work would be begun. Well begun would in this case be far more than half done. From the short story the learner would pass to higher and better story themes out into prose fiction at large and into poetry. After a while he would need no more attention, as the novel he began with might lead to the reading of historical novels, histories and essays, placing him upon a literary life, proving independent and happy in that direction.

Let us now go on to inquire how we can effectively respond to the incentives impelling us to read, how utilize the facilities for reading made available by modern conditions, how gain the mental advancement which reading may bring.

One precept to this end is: save the scraps of your time. Diligently hoard and use those odds and ends of hours which so easily run to waste and which most people let run to waste. Five minutes once or half a dozen times a day, after rising, before retiring, waiting for meals, at recess or during some other lull in school work, now pass unimproved, which are probably salvable by nearly every one. Such bits of time are eminently suitable for memorizing choice verse. One reader thus imbibed the following draught of nectar from an Irish poet named Davis:

Sweet thots, bright dreams my comfort be,
I have no joy beside;
Oh, throng around and be to me,
Power, country, fame and bride!

On holidays many throw away whole hours together. In most cases such lost instants make up in the course of a year several days, perhaps weeks, which ought to be turned to profitable account.

Few can afford the eyesight strain necessary to read in railway carriages; but a well-lighted railway station, if you happen to be detained in it, is an eminently fit place for reading. Against such occasions, more or less frequent in every life, always go equipped with a pocket edition of some choice author. "A book of verses underneath the bough" or whereever else you camp is a fitting companion.

In urging this employment of spare fragments of time, we are not forgetting the need which all have of recreation. Our bodies must of course be rested when they are weary, and so must our minds. Time spent in reading when you are too tired to read is not saved, but lost. The most healthy person sometimes needs the fullest possible relief from mental exercise, and that during the day. For all this it is true that change of mental activity, as from our regular work to a delightful book, affords mental rest of a most valuable order. If your dinner is ten minutes late you need not take up Euclid or the "Principia." Use Thackeray, or even a comic paper.

A second precept toward utilizing one's reading opportunities is: Carefully select your matter. Here comes up the very important question, what to read. Answer: In the first place, negatively, it does not pay to spend much time upon newspapers or upon ordinary magazines. Not that one may not fish up from these great seas now and then a pearl; but that the average time and labor cost of such pearls is too great. Also eschew ordinary fiction and ordinary poetry, save now and then an hour when the mental alimentary canal, lacking tone, can keep down nothing but broth. Life is too short to read all that is truly excellent; it is certainly too short to read much of what is just passable.

Read more books and less periodical literature. A bad habit has arisen in this matter. The great ability, along with the timeliness, of many magazine pieces now, has had the unfortunate effect of turning readers from board to paper covers. A new book we ignore because Book Notes or the Critic or the Dial or the Outlook or some other sheet has had a review of it. But the best possible review of a book is no substitute for the book. As well dine upon odors from a hotel kitchen. Read all the reviews that appeared upon Lecky's "History of England in the Eighteenth Century"; then take time and go through the work itself. You will find it a new world. Equally great is the error men make in reading so few old books. A few years ago it was found, by questioning, that only one out of a class of a hundred and ten college seniors knew anything about Milton's prose works. Many who consider themselves fairly well read have never touched Bacon's "Essays" or the "Pilgrim's Progress." Such as do read many books, among them, too, books which came out before the Spanish War, often mistakenly avoid the most precious works because they are bulky. To master Masson's "Life of Milton" or Spedding's "Life of Bacon" is a liberal education. It is at once a wonder and a misfortune that so few essays are read now. The rage is all for poetry instead. Colleges and universities offer a hundred lectures on poetry to one on prose belles lettres. So far as one can observe, the noble essays of Hume, Macaulay and Montaigne are nearly forgotten. Interest in this class of literature should be revived.

Rarely has a busy man or woman the time to peruse the whole of an author, however famous. It would rarely be of use to read wholes, even with amplest leisure. It is the mark of a great writer to have uttered a good deal of trash; and it is almost a sure proof of a reader's pedantry if he has read all which a given author has published, unless he has done so to hunt up errors or peculiarities. It shows that he has read not con amore, but merely that he might boast. Too many read just to be able to say they have read. The desire of reputation for attainments often outruns the desire for attainments. One young lady who said she had read Shakespeare was asked if she was familiar with Romeo and Juliet. She replied that she had often read Romeo, but that Juliet was somehow always out of the library when she called for it.

As already said, we can not read all even of the best; which remark naturally forces a search for some principle or principles by which to make selection. Two principles suggest themselves, one objective, the other subjective. The objective one is that the very greatest classics in the world's literature, Homer, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe, should be more or less familiar to all. The subjective principle is: Consulting your occupation or your bent, select some specialty in letters and do your main reading with reference to that.

If you are a member of a profession your stock and standard reading ought to be related to that profession, not narrowly, of course, but generally, in a way to give life, breadth and atmosphere to your daily toil, relieving the tedium of homely tasks and spreading a hue of intelligence over business which but for this might seem leaden. Every great branch of mental work by which men earn bread has, besides the technical volumes which set forth its laws, a side literature, little technical, which connects it by a seamless web with polite letters. This is the library where a professional man should do his main reading.

A teacher, for instance, who has to teach literature or history should, for general reading, cultivate literature or history at large. The course to pursue in these cases is obvious. But how if chemistry or physics, or biology is your department? In such a case read the history of the science and of science in general, the biographies of great scientific discoverers and the excellent fiction and verse to which scientific men and scientific interest have given birth. Thus a physiographer would read, among other things, Shelley's "Cloud"; perhaps also his "Ode to the West Wind." There is no more interesting and there is no more valuable reading than well-written biographies of scientific men. The history of scientific discovery widens into the history of discoveries in general and this into the history of civilization.

If you have no profession, being only a person of leisure, let your reading follow your bent. Deal with poetry or essays, with history or science, with philosophy or art, as may best suit your fancy. Make yourself an authority on some particular author or cluster of authors, or upon the literature of a race or of a century. In a case of this sort the cautions to be observed are: Keep your reading unitary and systematic, and do not try to cover too much ground. If you have no bent, read history and biography.

One means, then, to the utilizing of opportunities for reading is: Hoard, miserly, your minutes; and another is: Choose carefully your matter. We now go on to speak of a third means, and it is: Methodically digest and conserve; methodically conserve and digest. Either form of phrasing the rule is correct, for we conserve our mental attainments by digesting them and we digest them by conserving.

Many people read vastly, yet never have much to show for it, because they trust to interest and memory to retain what ought to stay with them, using no method for assisting memory. It is a great mistake. Memory is invaluable, of course, and should be hard worked. The exercise of piling up in one's memory nuggets of literary gold can not be commended too highly. Still, the reader who employs no mnemonic apparatus, no mechanism, no ways and means for supplementing memory work, is an intellectual prodigal. What means or contrivances can be suggested for conserving and digesting the useful matter with which reading supplies the mind?

We must learn to assort as we read, to attend to what has meaning for us and pass lightly over the rest. "Some books," says Bacon, "are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested." Few books are worth reading word for word. Much can be skipped without loss. Many a good book is of such a character that if you begin by carefully perusing the preface and table of contents, so as to discover the author's train of thought, you can read the rest at the average rate of three or four pages per minute. This reading at a gallop is a knack into which one grows by long practise. You gradually acquire a feeling for what you want and fix the mind on that alone. Thought is thus freer to master "for keeps" the passages deserving this, which is as important as the ignoring of the rest. The question, "Understandest thou, then, what thou readest?" is as pertinent as it is old.

Take notes in reading, partly to fix attention, helping you recall in general what you may never need or care to recall in detail, and partly to make fast for future consultation the matters which most forcibly impress you. No one can tell you, and you can not prescribe to yourself, when, upon what occasion, upon what sort of a passage to take a note. Feeling, prescience, second sight, must guide. Many data that you put down will never seem to profit you, but the note-taking may be no whit the less valuable for this. Thought going into the mind may change form, as food turns into blood, but it is never lost.

However, though the jotting down of impressions against paragraphs read is never, in itself, useless, it is none the less proper to warn you against writing too many of these memoranda. Very frequent or very long pauses for that purpose not only consume time but also interrupt interest and dim the impression made on you by the author's thought as a whole. Moreover, it is pleasant to reflect that the older you grow in the reading business the less you will need to remit reading for the sake of a note and the less likely you will be to do so unnecessarily. Take notes, then, but not too many.

Notes should be written in ink, legibly, each with careful reference to book, chapter and paragraph or page. You will never know which of your many entries you may by and by wish to appeal to, and it would be a pity in time of need, to have aid near, of which, owing to negligent writing, you could not avail yourself. Use for notes very ordinary blank books, or pads, of good paper, writing on only one side of a leaf, so that each leaf may be readily detached if necessary. Take notes, not many, but few, perfectly plain, and on easily detachable leaves.

We have been explaining that the reader must "take" notes: We now urge that he must "make" notes, by which is meant something additional and more important. The new point is this: that you should not be satisfied with thinking your author's thoughts after him, but should follow out all fertile suggestions made by him, into reflections of your own. Horace Bushnell used to say that he could never possibly read a book through. If it did not "find" him he threw it away on that account. If it did "find" him he was early beguiled by it into independent cogitations, which interested him more than the author's, so that he deserted the book on their account. These reactions of the readers's own mentality are the very best fruit of reading. Encourage them: give up to them: let them divert and master you. The book which drives you from itself by rousing you to amend, refute or amplify its teaching is precisely the book you need. It is life-giving food for your mind.

You here discover what was meant by the remark that we digest mental stores in conserving them and conserve them by digesting.

All thought-germs of your own, no less than the plants not your own that you culled from the other man's garden; the original matters no less than the memoranda, must be laid away, so many green flowers, for preservation in note-books. Use one and the same series of books for both sorts of products.

So far as you can manage it, whether with the notes you have taken or with the notes you have made, confine each note to one subject and to one page of the book, leaving the rest of the page blank. If a note covers most of the page, leave the next page blank. If, in your hurry, you have written too much on a page, or have mixed two subjects in one note, take early opportunity to separate item from item, placing each on a page by itself. In making these adjustments and transfers, use scissors, write as little as possible, and make no fuss or parade of nicety. The entire operation of writing and registering notes—we can not too much emphasize this—should be as simple, informal and rapid as possible, lest the labor of it and the time consumed by it should disgust you with the plan.

Some day, after your notes have become a little voluminous, it will interest you to glance them over. You will be surprised at their richness, and nearly every item will appeal to you with greater zest than when you placed it there. Each that was more or less original at first will now sweep your thought further on, while nearly every mere registry of some one else's idea will now compel your mind to bring up ideas out of its own depths. Before you are aware you will whip out your fountain pen and begin to make additions. Your thought treasures will swell as you count the precious metal they contain; and this result will recur each time you take account of stock. You will often need to insert new pages. Just pin them in or paste them slightly at the edge, making the mechanical exertion of the process from first to last as simple and little tiresome as can be.

Later, you will some time be called on for an essay or a paper on some topic of which you are known to be fond. Turning through your notes you will find most that you wish to say all ready to your hand, needing only that you detach the proper leaves, bring them together in order, slightly amplified, it may be, and write neat bridges between them. Spurts of fresh and original cogitation will almost inevitably accompany this recension process, and these, of course, will not be rejected.