“No entertainment is so cheap as reading,” says Mary Wortley Montagu; “nor any pleasure so lasting.” Good books elevate the character, purify the taste, _take the attractiveness out of low pleasures_, and lift us upon a higher plane of thinking and living. It is not easy to be mean directly after reading a noble and inspiring book. The conversation of a man who reads for improvement or pleasure will be flavored by his reading; but it will not be about his reading.
Perhaps no other thing has such power to lift the poor out of his poverty, the wretched out of his misery, to make the burden-bearer forget his burden, the sick his sufferings, the sorrower his grief, the downtrodden his degradation, as books. They are friends to the lonely, companions to the deserted, joy to the joyless, hope to the hopeless, good cheer to the disheartened, a helper to the helpless. They bring light into darkness, and sunshine into shadow.
“Twenty-five years ago, when I was a boy,” said Rev. J. A. James, “a school-fellow gave me an infamous book, which he lent me for only fifteen minutes. At the end of that time it was returned to him, but that book has haunted me like a spectre ever since. I have asked God on my knees to obliterate that book from my mind, but I believe that I shall carry down with me to the grave the spiritual damage I received during those fifteen minutes.”
Did Homer and Plato and Socrates and Virgil ever dream that their words would echo through the ages, and aid in shaping men’s lives in the nineteenth century? They were mere infants when on earth in comparison with the mighty influence and power they now yield. Every life on the American continent has in some degree been influenced by them. Christ, when on earth, never exerted one millionth part of the influence He wields to-day. While He reigns supreme in few human hearts, He touches all more or less, the atheist as well as the saint. On the other hand who shall say how many crimes were committed the past year by wicked men buried long ago? Their books, their pictures, their terrible examples, live in all they reach, and incite to evil deeds. How important, then, is the selection of books which are to become a part of your being.
Knowledge cannot be stolen from us. It cannot be bought or sold. We may be poor, and the sheriff may come and sell our furniture, or drive away our cow, or take our pet lamb, and leave us homeless and penniless; but he cannot lay the law’s hand upon the jewelry of our minds.
“Good books and the wild woods are two things with which man can never become too familiar,” says George W. Cable. “The friendship of trees is a sort of self-love and is very wholesome. All inanimate nature is but a mirror, and it is greater far to have the sense of beauty than it is to be only its insensible depository.
“The books that inspire imagination, whether in truth or fiction; that elevate the thoughts, are the right kind to read. Our emotions are simply the vibrations of our soul.
“The moment fiction becomes mendacious it is bad, for it induces us to believe a lie. Fiction purely as fiction must be innocent and beautiful, and its beauty must be more than skin deep. Every field of art is a playground and we are extra pleased when the artist makes that field a gymnasium also.”
Cotton Mather’s “Essay to do Good” read by the boy Franklin influenced the latter’s whole life. He advised everybody to read with a pen in hand and to make notes of all they read.
James T. Fields visited Jesse Pomeroy, the boy murderer, in jail. Pomeroy told him he had been a great reader of “blood and thunder” stories; that he had read sixty dime novels about scalping and other bloody performances; and he thought there was no doubt that these books had put the horrible thoughts into his mind which led to his murderous acts.
Many a boy has gone to sea and become a rover for life under the influence of Marryat’s novels. Abbott’s “Life of Napoleon,” read at the age of seven years, sent one boy whom I knew to the army before he was fourteen. Many a man has committed crime from the leavening, multiplying influence of a bad book read when a boy. The chaplain of Newgate prison in London, in one of his annual reports to the Lord Mayor, referring to many fine-looking lads of respectable parentage in the city prison, said that he discovered that “all these boys, without exception, had been in the habit of reading those cheap periodicals” which were published for the alleged amusement of youth of both sexes. There is not a police court or a prison in this country where similar cases could not be found. One can hardly measure the moral ruin that has been caused in this generation by the influence of bad books.
In the parlor window of the old mossy vicarage where Coleridge spent his dreamy childhood lay a well-thumbed copy of that volume of Oriental fancy, the “Arabian Nights,” and he has told us with what mingled desire and apprehension he was wont to look at the precious book, until the morning sunshine had touched and illuminated it, when, seizing it hastily, he would carry it off in triumph to some leafy nook in the vicarage garden, and plunge delightedly into its maze of marvels and enchantments.