Boyd Winchester: The Ordinary Reader and the Pleasure of Reading

BOYD WINCHESTER — It is the pleasure, and not the profit, spiritual or temporal, of reading which most requires to be preached to the ordinary reader. All such pleasure ministers to the development of much that is best in us, mental and moral, and the charm is broken and the object lost if the remote consequence of profit is consciously pursued to the exclusion of the immediate end of enjoyment. To the ordinary reader, with ordinary capacity and leisure, reading is, or ought to be, not a business, but a means of pleasing himself by an honest diversion. It is not every one who is fitted by nature or inclination for a definite course of reading, or, indeed, for serious reading in any sense. The habit and power of reading with reflection, comprehension, and memory all alert and awake do not come by nature to us any more than many other sovereign virtues. We must have reading for recreation and amusement, as well as reading for instruction and business. One is agreeable, the other useful; and the human mind requires both. It indicates rather a practical than a philosophical way of thinking when we place the agreeable and useful in opposition to each other, and look upon one with a kind of contempt as compared with the other.

Presuming that by the agreeable is meant nothing that violates law and duty and sound moral sentiment, but that which simply aims rather to produce delight than conviction, then reading as a mere relaxation of the mind is in reality a most desirable and a not too common form of mental appetite. Of most persons it is wrong to demand that they should read “to weigh and consider,” or read “with method and to an end,” for self-improvement or material reward. If we must concern ourselves with reading only what is important, and not waste our time upon what is insignificant, who shall determine the marks by which we shall recognize these differences? Reading, which is as light as chaff to one, may be as weighty as grain to another. The very sight of Locke or Adam Smith would compel some persons to draw their hands across their heads from sheer weariness, while to others they may be wellsprings of pure delight. Is the reading that gives pleasure, and so furnishes the whole intellectual life to numbers of people, to be discouraged because the matter it represents is insignificant? Or is it to be condemned because it stirs no depths and leaves nothing behind but, as is alleged, an “impotent voracity for novelty and desultory information?” We wish to dissent emphatically from the view of Lord Bolingbroke that, “he who fails to read with discernment will not be able to think, without which it is impertinent to read,” and the opinion of James Russell Lowell that miscellaneous reading, “except for conscious pastime hebetates the brain and slackens the bowstring of the will, communicating as little intelligence as the messages that run along the telegraph wire do to the birds that perch on it.” We prefer the contention that any method of reading is better than no habit of reading at all.

It is a subject of astonishment that, instead of expanding to the utmost the employment of this pleasure-giving faculty, many persons set themselves to work to limit its exercise by all kinds of arbitrary rules and regulations. It is a strange aberration that makes us criticise persons for having sources of enjoyment in which we cannot share, and pursue with intolerant interference and unsparing derision all deviations from our own self-imposed standards. Some critics go so far as to assert that the gratification of the imagination is an object too trifling and insignificant for the employment of advanced reason, and that the allurements of reading should be used only to entice us to knowledge, and that it must be useful knowledge, meaning thereby usually that it must enable one to get on in one’s business or profession. But even if they mean something higher than this — even if they mean that knowledge to be worth anything must subserve, ultimately if not immediately, the material or spiritual instincts of mankind — the doctrine is one which should be energetically repudiated. It is an equally pernicious maxim that the knowledge gathered from reading, freed from any persevering labor or exacting reflection, is worse than no knowledge at all. Southey tells us that in his walk one stormy day he met an old woman, to whom he made the rather obvious remark that it was dreadful weather. She answered philosophically that, in her opinion, “any weather is better than none.” We should be inclined to say that any knowledge is better than none. A little knowledge is all that on most subjects any of us can hope to attain, and as a source, not of worldly profit, but of personal pleasure, it may be of infinite value to its possessor. There is a charm in desultory and miscellaneous reading, and it does not necessarily tend to enervate the mind, destroy masculine thinking, and “close it against what is spiritually sustaining.”

A habit of diffusive reading introduces the mind to a great variety of intellectual habits, and becomes a source of liberality by enabling one to sympathize with the opinions of others. In opening a wide sphere of satisfaction and pleasure to the mind there is no discredit of its highest energies or impairment of its noblest powers.

We should adjust our reading not only to our time and inclination ; but, whether the amount be large or small, it should be varied in its kind. The mind is not only relieved, but more stimulated and enriched by roaming at large in the fields of literature than if confined too long and too closely to any single spot. The flesh of animals that feed excursively is admitted to have a higher flavor than that of those cooped up. May there not be the same difference between those who read as their taste prompts and those who are confined to stated tasks? We may, in fact, apply to reading Lord Brougham’s wise saw on education, and say that “it is well to read everything of something, and something of everything.” In this way we can ascertain the bent of our own tastes. We may read whatever our immediate inclination prompts.

“Examine how your humor is inclined,
And which the ruling passion of your mind;
Then seek a writer who your way does bend,
And choose an author as you choose a friend.”

The best method of guarding against the danger of reading what is useless is to read only what is interesting, adopting the plan of Montaigne, “if one book does not please me, I take another.” For it is a general rule, though not a universal one, that we profit little by that reading which we do not enjoy. Tranio, in “The Taming of the Shrew,” gives much the same advice to his master, Lucentio :

No profit grows where is no pleasure ta’en:
In brief, sir, study what you most affect.

Above all things, signpost reading is to be avoided; that is, securing from some adviser a list of books, mapping out a scheme of study, which is to be conscientiously pursued with a definite aim and fixed expectation. Such reading is usually done with an obstinate endeavor and painful expenditure of mental perspiration, until it cramps the understanding, chokes the imagination, and stupefies and darkens the mind. It is worse than no food at all, for it takes away appetite and affords no more nourishment than the Tartars found in the books they used to eat, believing they could inwardly digest their contents.

The central good of reading is often destroyed by mechanical and harshly intellectualized study. He has only half learned the art of reading who has not added to it the even more refined accomplishment of skipping and skimming; and the first step has hardly been taken in the direction of making reading a pleasure until interest in the subject, and not a desire to complete an appointed task, is the prevailing motive of the reader. Dr. Johnson, being asked if he had read a new book that was being much admired, gave the reply: “I have looked into it.” “What? have you not read it through?” returned the inquirer. Dr. Johnson, offended at being pressed to own his cursory mode of reading, tartly retorted: “No! sir, do you read books through?” Lord Bacon’s dictum is well known: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested — that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly and with diligence and attention ; and some may be read by deputy.” Of by far the larger number of current books it may be said it is probably better to read them quickly, dwelling only on the best and most important passages.

There was a time when reading constituted a world of its own, and when that world and the world of men were as “kingdoms in oppugnancy.” To be a man of reading was then looked upon almost as a monastic vocation. As late as 1778 referring to the general diffusion of knowledge, Dr. Johnson cited in proof thereof the fact that “all our ladies now read, which is a great extension.”

But the cloistral days of literature, the exclusive privileges of reading, are past. Of all the privileges we enjoy in this boasted century, there is none perhaps for which we ought to be more thankful than for the easy access to books. The multiplication and cheapening of books have brought the pleasures of reading to every man’s door, until “a room without a book” well deserves the characterization of Cicero, “as a body without a soul.” There is no occasion for the alarm, which some express, at the incessant accumulation of fresh books. Let the “cataract of printed stuff,” as it is contemptuously designated, flow and still flow until the catalogues of our libraries make libraries themselves. Let book- making go on until the earth seem a mere standing ground for writers and printers, the sea ink, and the sky parchment.

A love of reading has a most ennobling and refining tendency; it is a love which does not require justification, apology, or defense. It is essentially 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, to the pleasures of travel, to the pleasures of art, to the interest we take in the variety of events which form the great world-drama around us. The love of reading is the richest and the happiest gift to the children of men. “If,” declares Sir John Herschel, “I were to pray for a taste which should stand me in stead under every variety of circumstance, and be a source of happiness and cheerfulness to me through life, and a shield against its ills, however things might go amiss, and the world frown upon me, it would be a taste for reading.” It is not every one who could say with Gibbon that he would not exchange his love of reading for all the wealth of the Indies.

Dogberry may justly claim that reading and writing come by nature, yet a taste in them may be cultivated, although it is not apt to be done on rules mechanically applied. Reading is a matter of the emotions as much as of the intellect, and there can be no scientific methods of instruction. The taste is not produced by certain definite means, which may be analyzed and measured qualitatively or quantitatively, just as the composition and effectiveness of drugs ; but it is instinct with its own laws, which it carries out spontaneously, correcting and modifying, rather by the aid of a natural sense than from principles formally laid down. The aim of every reader should be to acquire the art of sympathy, to cultivate sensibility, to relax intellectual rigidity, and to read sympathetically. We are more susceptible to the vital interpretation of literature, as we more steadily apprehend that our highest study is not to acquire views and facts, but sensations. Reading will render us more of itself as we bring to it more of ourselves. It is not necessary to be a philosopher to enjoy the pleasures of reading, for the practice need be by no means a study. While the tastes which require physical strength pass with age, that for reading steadily grows. It is illimitable in the vistas it opens ; it is one of the most easily satisfied, as one of the cheapest, and it is one of the least dependent on age, seasons, and the varying conditions of life.

There Are Readers and Readers

There are readers and readers. Some read to think, to rouse the mind and employ the judgment — these are few ; some read to write — these are common ; some read to talk, following the advice of Burke to his son, diversifying the matter infinitely in their minds so as to apply it to every occasion that arises — these form the majority of readers. Some will read only old books, while others will read only new books. Some read for the express purpose of consuming time. Some have two distinct sorts of readings: one to enjoy and one to work by. There are the hard, pragmatic readers, and the sympathetic, responsive readers. Some are mercurial, while others are saturnine, the two general divisions under which Addison classes readers. Some read that their minds may sit still in repose. It was reading of this kind Longfellow must have appreciated when he penned his proem to “The Waif:”

Come, read to me some poem,
Some simple and heartfelt lay,
That shall soothe this restless feeling,
And banish the thoughts of day.

Some love their books like Lamb, whose affection was expressed in the quiet kiss with which he greeted his best-loved volumes; or like Southey, whom Wordsworth, on a visit, found patting his books affectionately with both hands as he would a child. Others treat their books as some people do lords, inform themselves of their titles, and then boast of an intimate acquaintance. Sir William Hamilton seemed able “to tear the entrails from book or paper by a glance, and forever to retain their contents.” Lord Macaulay from youth to age was continuously occupied “gorging and enfeebling” his intellect by the unlimited consumption of every species of literature, from the masterpieces of the age of Pericles to the latest rubbish from the circulating library. Gibbon considered that his mind grew fastest in a certain year when he was under no regular teacher, but was left to “that free desultory reading which was,” as he tells us, “the employment and comfort of his solitary hours.”

All of us have some peculiar habits, relishes, and tastes in reading, more or less pronounced, that the public might be entitled to regard as false or foolish. But certainly those who neither assume to dictate to the public, nor make any demand on public admiration should be permitted to find out where their strength and enjoyment lie, and indulge in a gratification which neither disappoints nor fails them.

To many of our children the pleasures of reading are locked and sealed by the attempt to force books upon them at an age unfit for their reading. Why should the young be compelled to associate books which would be a source of pleasure with the memory of hours spent in weary study? I would put a child into a library where no unfit books are, and let him read at his choice. A child should not be discouraged from reading anything that he takes a liking to, from a notion that it is above his reach. If that be the case, the child will soon find it out and desist; if not, he of course gains the instruction, which is much the more likely to come from the inclination with which he takes up the study. Happy the child who has the use of a good library, and who for a certain part of every day is allowed to read at random ; who is “turned loose in the rich pasture of literature to browse where he pleases.” It would be a wise practice in every school, with as much regularity as the morning prayer, to read aloud some fine or instructive passage from a book which is accessible to those who wish to read more. It is not needful that every word of what is read aloud should be understood by the hearers. If that were the case, the Epistles of St. Paul would be a sealed book to all but scholars. Children derive impulses of a powerful kind in hearing things which they cannot entirely comprehend ; something they can always grasp, and what they cannot understand they either supply by some strange meaning of their own, or let it pass by unheeded. It is said a mother read to her children, who were under twelve, the whole of Spenser’s “Faerie Queene.” They had no conception of the allegory, but they took the shield of the red-cross knight in their play and lived over again in their imagination the life they had learned about.

Children should not be too systematically drilled and overtrained in their reading. We should not impose upon them too fastidious a standard, and demand that all they read must wear the clothes in fashion, conform to the courtesies of life, and be in conventional style; that they must remember to be right and good and wise, rigidly enforcing the rule of Cato, cum bonis ambula, as to their books, even if they grow dull and irksome. Nor is it necessary to erect the course of reading for children into a Draconian moral code. They will be sure to get what they want:

“What we are free to do we slight,
What is forbidden whets the appetite.”

And are we not doing a graver wrong to the morals of the young by driving them to do things in secret, to steal that food which their constitution craves, and which under proper guidance might be made wholesome?

“To read, to think, to love, to pray, these are the things that make us happy,” and they are necessary to the daily progression which should inevitably attend every one of us. We should heed the admonition of Goethe: “One ought every day at least to read a good book, to hear a little song, to see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.”

**Boyd Winchester (1836-1923), U.S.A. politician and diplomat. “The Question of Reading”, in The Sewanee Review, vol. VIII, 1900; OR in: ON READING. Le plaisir de lire, Pieffe Edizioni 2017 (e-book)

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