“On Novel Reading” (from The Guardian; or Youth’s Religious Instructor, 1820; pp. 46-49)
Youth almost habitually seek amusement. The youthful intellect requires relaxation from a close attention to literary acquisitions: and to relieve the wearisomeness of such attention, books of amusement are generally sought, and read with avidity. At this period, the mind as well as the body, is forming, is progressing toward the maturity of adult age; and, in this immature state, is peculiarly susceptible of impressions; and these impressions, whether good or bad, usually last, and have great influence on the future character. Important then is it, that impressions made during the tender impressible years of childhood and youth, should be such as shall tend to prepare, rather than unfit the mind for respectability, real enjoyment, and permanent usefulness in riper years. There is a disposition in early life to regard what is printed in books as certainly correct. Consequently ideas drawn from that source, are likely to be adopted by the youthful reader, before his mind has been accustomed to reflect, compare, reason, and judge for himself. If these general remarks be correct, surely every parent, who is concerned for
the usefulness and happiness of his child, will, with deep solicitude, watch over his reading. He will remove from his reach, such books as may tend to instil false sentiments, vitiate the taste, or corrupt the morals of his beloved offspring. A question here arises: what books have such a tendency? and, since youth must have something amusing and interesting, as well as instructive, what kind of reading will gratify these desires? If left without restraint, or a guide in reading, Novels are eagerly sought, and swallowed often without digestion. What consequences result? The taste is frequently vitiated, and a relish for more solid reading lost. Yet I would not assert that every work, bearing the name of a novel, has this deleterious tendency; far from it. In Miss More’s “Coelebs,” are found many exceedingly instructive, as well as sprightly and agreeable conversations. It abounds with useful sentiments, and suggests many important rules for the regulation of the manners, the conduct, the intellect, and the heart. It delineates great variety of character; and the evil, the abusrdit of inconsistency in conduct, and makes one not only admire consistency, but desire to attain it. In short, this admirable production answers what ought to be the design of every moral work; it excites disapprobation, nay hatred of vice, disgust at affected singularities, and inspires a love of virtue and genuine piety. It exemplifies the happy tendency and influence of religion, particularly in domestic life. The plan of education adopted by Mr. Stanley, was attended with so good success, one is desirous to be made acquainted with his mode or procedure. I shall not now refer to his general plan, but only quote his sentiments relative to his children’s reading. “Don’t you think elementary books,” said Lady Belfield, “are of great use in attracting children to love reading?” “Doubtless they are,” said Mr. Stanley. “The misfortune is, that the stimulants used to attract at first, must be not only continued, but heightened to keep up the attraction. These books are novels in miniature, and the excess of them will lead to the want of novels at full length. The early use of savoury dishes is not usually followed by an appetite for plain food. To the taste, thus pampered, history becomes dry, grammar laborious, and religion dull. I make renouncing their baby books a kind of ephocha: by thus distinctly marking the period, they never think of returning to them.
The great profusion of children’s books protracts the imbecility of childhood. They arrest the understanding, instead of advancing it. They give forwardness without strength. They hinder the mind from making vigorous shoots, teach it to stoop when it should soar, and contract when it should expand. They inculcate morality and good actions it is true, but they often inculcate them on a worldly principle, and rather teach the pride of virtue and the profit of virtue, than point out the motive of virtue and the principle of sin. They reprobate bad actions as injurious to others, but not as an offence against the Almigh[t]y. Even children should be taught that when a man has committed the greatest possible crime against his fellow creature, still the offence against God is what will strike a true penitent with the deepest remorse. All morality not drawn from this scriptural source, is weak, defective, and hollow. Give children the Bible itself. I never yet knew a child, who did not delight in Bible histories, and desire to hear them again and again. From the histories, we proceed to the parables, and from them to the miracles, and a few of the most striking prophecies. When they have acquired a good deal of this desultory knowledge, we begin to weave the parts into a whole. At eight years they read the scripture with their mother, systematically.”
The argument used by many in favour of novel reading, is that novels display character, describe men and manners, depict the human heart, and make youth acquainted with the world. But is this correct? Is an accurate description of man, of the manners and customs of the world, usually given in such productions? Are not the scenes so highly wrought, and the characters drawn so perfect, that youthful expectation is so greatly raised, that the every day scenes of common life, in which he will probably be called to act, seem to him insipid, if not disgusting. He loves nothing that is common; with him it is vulgar.
A late “Recorder,” notices the death of a young lady of 17, in Ohio, and observes—“this was a case of cool, premeditated suicide, occasioned by extreme sensibility, and romantic ideas, created by novel reading. She imagined herself ridiculed and slighted by a young gentleman, who had engaged her affections: she frequently improperly suspected her friends of coolness, and was unhappy because she had no
relation. She was heiress to a considerable property, and had been well educated.”
If a knowledge of the human heart and character, together with the habits of man, be the object of reading, may not these objects be far more probably attained, by perusing the actual conduct and character, and actions of men, and scenes of real life, contained in the writings of authentic historians and judicious biographers? Here mankind are seen as they are; not as fiction would imagine and embellish them. Here scenes are described similar to those in which the youth may himself act. Here he may learn to hate vice, and love virtue; while too many novels so interest the reader in behalf of the vicious hero, that he will rejoice in his success, and not disapprove his conduct. ’Tis true that real history will often leave the wicked prosperous, and the good oppressed; faith in a revelation, which points to a day of righteous retribution, can alone solve this problem. The sanctuary disclosed to the Psalmist the “end” of the wicked, and he no longer murmured at their prosperity, but stood self-accused at his own folly and short-sightedness.
Rarely will a youth engage with assiduity, or even without disgust, in a study requiring mental exertion, immediately after his mind has been relaxed and debilitated; his taste, if not his heart corrupted; and his soul kindled into ardour at scenes of imagined bliss, which probably he will never realize, but which will only prepare his mind for bitter disappointment. Do not such histories as “Tom Jones,” and even the celebrated Richardson’s “Pamela,” tend to sap the foundation on which delicacy of mind, modesty of deportment, or even virtue is built[.] This foundation undermined and destroyed, what safeguard from gross vice, has the youth, whose mind is not yet imbued with the principles of that religion, which requires purity of heart? Surely no one, who knows the strength of man’s natural depravity, and who is a friend of man, can wish to add such fuel to the flame already raging in his breast.