What children should read—and how much—was of great interest to many in 19th-century America. “What Does Johnny Read?” explored for readers of The Little Corporal an analogy between eating and reading, with the “nutrition” of books as valuable to the mind as the nutrition of food is to the body. That the piece is addressed to boys and their parents may reflect the growth of dime novels and series books in late-19th-century America, as parents and social reformers began to worry that the exciting stories in these books were having a deleterious effect on their readers.

“What Does Johnny Read?” (from The Little Corporal, January 1872; p. 34)

“Oh, every thing,” says his father, proudly. “Johnny is a perfect book-worm, and we just have to drive him away from his book.”

Sorry to hear it, master Johnny; a live boy has no business to be a book-worm. It is no more a sign of a smart boy to be a great reader than it is of a strong man to be a great eater. One may read too much as well as eat too much, and the brain as well as the stomach be loaded with undigested food that is only an injury to it. It is not what you eat, but what you digest, that makes you strong. It is not the food in your stomach, but the food taken up by the wonderful machinery of your body and made over into blood, and bone, and nerve, and sinew, that keeps up the daily growth of your body and builds you up into a man. And just so the food which you give your mind must be taken up and worked over, and become part of the mind itself, or it is good for nothing. If it has no nutrition in it, nothing to make new thoughts and new ideas, if it can not give something to the mind, or waken something in it, then it is chaff, rubbish, poison, any thing but food. Half a dozen lines of the right sort, read in the right way, are worth volumes of trash, or even of good sense carelessly read and then forgotten.

Do n’t throw away your books, Johnny, but learn to go through them as the miner goes through his panful of sand and quartz, watching for the gleam of gold, and carefully picking out the precious bits.

And we should like to say to Johnny’s father and mother, do not rest satisfied while your boy “reads every thing.” It is a direful day for you if you have neglected to direct and cultivate his taste until he has come to be a mere devourer of the stories of wild, improbable adventure and exciting fiction, which is poured out like a flood for the destruction of our boys; but even yet you can do something to counteract the evil if you are willing to work for it—by taking your child with you into the fields of art, of history, and of science, which may be made as charming to the unfolding mind as the regions of romance.

Copyright 1999-2024, Pat Pflieger
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