The Talent of Reading Wisely

Susan Fenimore Cooper

Daughter of James Fenimore Cooper

(Written in the interests of the Girls’ Friendly Society).

Originally published in The Ladies’ Home Journal, Vol. IX, No. 3 (February 1892), p. 18.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

EVERY period of time brings especial duties. Every gift of providence brings with it especial responsibilities connected with that gift.

The American people have been endowed to a larger extent than any other nation with one great talent. There are very few exceptions to the general rule that all can read. We are very proud of our spelling book. We are not a little conceited, perhaps, over our school renders. But let us pause occasionally to ask ourselves if we are sincerely thankful for this great blessing — the ability to read. That this talent with which a gracious Providence has endowed our people should be considered by all a very great blessing, there can be no doubt. All that is most noble, most beautiful, most instructive in the writings of high genius, of learned minds, of devout souls, lies open before us, thanks to the art of printing.

But here on earth the wheat and the tares must continue to grow in the same field until the great final judgment. Thus, while the worthy printing press has bestowed such precious blessings on the human race, there is no important agent among us to-day so actively, so incessantly working for evil, as the unworthy printing press. Where one really good book is printed, fifty volumes, large or small, evil in their tendencies, are daily scattered to the four winds of heaven, their pages more or less tainted with weak folly, wicked precept, presumptuous infidelity, degrading impurity.

In such a state of things, every Christian woman is, of necessity, thrown upon her personal responsibility. To each one of us reading may become a blessing or a curse, according to the use we make of this talent entrusted to us. Let us then reject what is evil, and choose what is good. No mere cleverness should lead us to read a doubtful book. No display of genius, however brilliant, should allure us to open a volume whose pages are unclean. A book whose general character is one of irreverent scepticism should be shunned for conscience sake. Let it be remembered that a book positively evil in its tendencies is a great and dangerous enemy; no poison more deadly than that contained in a wicked book — it is poison to the body, and to the soul it is a poison even more fatal. Nay, even the thousand weak and trashy volumes scattered about our homes are not without danger. If read to any extent, they weaken the mind, and enervate the character. One cannot be in a healthy condition when feeding on froth.

Some years ago a venerable woman, the widow of a farmer, who in her early life had been nurse to two generations of the same family, was sitting in her little parlor. A book lay on the table near her. “Have you read this book, nurse— ” asked a young girl drinking tea at the farm-house.

“No, dear; I do not allow myself to read all that is printed,” was the gentle answer.

Well would it be for all of us if we carried out the same conscientious rule of this wise nurse. In fiction, let us read only what has been written by the best pens. In poetry, let us shun all that is tainted with evil tendencies. In the newspaper, let us throw aside whatever spreads before us details of shameful crime.

Works of fiction, tales of all kinds, no matter how wild, how ridiculously unnatural, how intensely silly, have an especial attraction for uneducated boys and girls. But, alas! the novels and newspaper stories which fall into the hands of young girls working in factories and shops are too often entirely flooded with folly, too often tainted with evil. Not long since a young girl from a country parish went to seek work in a large town. At the end of six months she wrote to her old home, boasting that she had “a wine-colored silk dress trimmed with lace,” and also that she had read seventy novels in three months! This young girl worked a sewing- machine for a living. The names of those seventy novels were a curiosity. They were all of the lowest class, crime novels and sensational stories, made up of cheap trash.

Works of fiction of high character are improving reading. But the passion for common fiction may become almost as dangerous as dram-drinking.

In many cases an inexperienced young girl cannot be expected to make a good choice of reading. And this is one of the points where a true friend can be of great assistance to a young person. Let us inquire with loving interest of the young people under our charge what books and papers they are reading. Let us caution them earnestly against trashy reading. Let us lead them to seek the advice of some older and wiser friend when in doubt as to the character of a book or paper. Let us lead them to seek suggestions in the same way as regards reading which shall be both improving and pleasant for their leisure hours. Biography, travel, the very best works of fiction, the best of poetry, afford much material to make a choice of good reading for our young friends.