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Habits of Reading

I have devoted two chapters of this book to the matter of Reading, speaking of the selection of books and of the way to read them. But since those papers were first printed, I have had I know not how many nice notes from young people, in all parts of this land, asking all sorts of additional directions. Where the matter has seemed to me private or local, I have answered them in private correspondence. But I believe I can bring together, under the head of "Habits of Heading," some additional notes, which will at least reinforce what has been said already, and will perhaps give clearness and detail.

All young people read a good deal, but I do not see that a great deal comes of it. They think they have to read a good many newspapers and a good many magazines. These are entertaining,--they are very entertaining. But it is not always certain that the reader gets from them just what he needs. On the other hand, it is certain that people who only read the current newspapers and magazines get very little good from each other's society, because they are all fed with just the same intellectual food. You hear them repeat to each other the things they have all read in the "Daily Trumpet," or the "Saturday Woodpecker." In these things, of course, there can be but little variety, all the Saturday Woodpeckers of the same date being very much like each other. When, therefore, the people in the same circle meet each other, their conversation cannot be called very entertaining or very improving, if this is all they have to draw upon. It reminds one of the pictures in people's houses in the days of "Art Unions." An Art Union gave you, once a year, a very cheap engraving. But it gave the same engraving to everybody. So, in every house you went to, for one year, you saw the same men dancing on a flat-boat. Then, a year after, you saw Queen Mary signing Lady Jane Grey's death-warrant. She kept signing it all the time. You might make seventeen visits in an afternoon. Everywhere you saw her signing away on that death-warrant. You came to be very tired of the death-warrant and of Queen Mary. Well, that is much the same way in which seventeen people improve each other, who have all been reading the "Daily Trumpet" and the "Saturday Woodpecker," and have read nothing beside.

I see no objection, however, to light reading, desultory reading, the reading of newspapers, or the reading of fiction, if you take enough ballast with it, so that these light kites, as the sailors call them, may not carry your ship over in some sudden gale. The principle of sound habits of reading, if reduced to a precise rule, comes out thus: That for each hour of light reading, of what we read for amusement, we ought to take another hour of reading for instruction. Nor have I any objection to stating the same rule backward; for that is a poor rule that will not work both ways. It is, I think, true, that for every hour we give to grave reading, it is well to give a corresponding hour to what is light and amusing.

Now a great deal more is possible under this rule than you boys and girls think at first. Some of the best students in the world, who have advanced its affairs farthest in their particular lines, have not in practice studied more than two hours a day. Walter Scott, except when he was goaded to death, did not work more. Dr. Bowditch translated the great MA(C)canique CA(C)leste in less than two hours' daily labor. I have told you already of George Livermore. But then this work was regular as the movement of the planets which Dr. Bowditch and La Place described. It did not stop for whim or by accident, more than Jupiter stops in his orbit because a holiday comes round.

"But what in the world do you suppose Mr. Hale means by 'grave reading,' or 'improving reading'? Does he mean only those stupid books that 'no gentleman's library should be without'? I suppose somebody reads them at some time, or they would not be printed; but I am sure I do not know when or where or how to begin." This is what Theodora says to Florence, when they have read thus far.

Let us see. In the first place, you are not, all of you, to attempt everything. Do one thing well, and read one subject well; that is much better than reading ten subjects shabbily and carelessly. What is your subject? It is not hard to find that out. Here you are, living perhaps on the very road on which the English troops marched to Lexington and Concord. In one of the beams of the barn there is a hole made by a musket-ball, which was fired as they retreated. How much do you know of that march of theirs? How much have you read of the accounts that were written of it the next day? Have you ever read Bancroft's account of it? or Botta's? or Frothingham's? There is a large book, which you can get at without much difficulty, called the "American Archives." The Congress of this country ordered its preparation, at immense expense, that you and people like you might be able to study, in detail, the early history in the original documents, which are reprinted there. In that book you will find the original accounts of the battle as they were published in the next issues of the Massachusetts newspapers. You will find the official reports written home by the English officers. You will find the accounts published by order of the Provincial Congress. When you have read these, you begin to know something about the battle of Lexington.

Then there are such books as General Heath's Memoirs, written by people who were in the battle, giving their account of what passed, and how it was done. If you really want to know about a piece of history which transpired in part under the windows of your house, you will find you can very soon bring together the improving and very agreeable solid reading which my rule demands.

Perhaps you do not live by the road that leads to Lexington. Everybody does not. Still you live somewhere, and you live next to something. As Dr. Thaddeus Harris said to me (Yes, Harry, the same who made your insect-book), "If you have nothing else to study, you can study the mosses and lichens hanging on the logs on the woodpile in the woodhouse." Try that winter botany. Observe for yourself, and bring together the books that will teach you the laws of growth of those wonderful plants. At the end of a winter of such careful study I believe you could have more knowledge of God's work in that realm of nature than any man in America now has, if I except perhaps some five or six of the most distinguished naturalists.

I have told you about making your own index to any important book you read. I ought to have advised you somewhere not to buy many books. If you are reading in books from a library, never, as you are a decently well-behaved boy or girl, never make any sort of mark upon a page which is not your own. All you need, then, for your index, is a little page of paper, folded in where you can use it for a book-mark, on which you will make the same memorandum which you would have made on the fly-leaf, were the book your own. In this case you will keep these memorandum pages together in your scrap-book, so that you can easily find them. And if, as is very likely, you have to refer to the book afterward, in another edition, you will be glad if your first reference has been so precise that you can easily find the place, although the paging is changed. John Locke's rule is this: Refer to the page, with another reference to the number of pages in the volume. At the same time tell how many volumes there are in the set you use. You would enter Charles II.'s escape from England, as described in the Pictorial History of England, thus:--

"Charles II. escapes after battle of Worcester.

"Pictorial Hist. Eng. 391/855, Vol 3/4."

You will have but little difficulty in finding your place in any edition of the Pictorial History, if you have made as careful a reference as this is.

My own pupils, if I may so call the young friends who read with me, will laugh when they see the direction that you go to the original authorities whenever you can do so. For I send them on very hard-working tramps, that they may find the original authorities, and perhaps they think that I am a little particular about it. Of course, it depends a good deal on what your circumstances are, whether you can go to the originals. But if you are near a large library, the sooner you can cultivate the habit of looking in the original writers, the more will you enjoy the study of history, of biography, of geography, or of any other subject. It is stupid enough to learn at school, that the Bay of God's Mercy is in N. Latitude 73A deg., W. Longitude 117A deg.. But read Captain McClure's account of the way the Resolute ran into the Bay of God's Mercy, and what good reason he had for naming it so, and I think you will never again forget where it is, or look on the words as only the answer to a stupid "map question."

I was saying very much what I have been writing, last Thursday, to Ella, with whom I had a nice day's sail; and she, who is only too eager about her reading and study, said she did not know where to begin. She felt her ignorance so terribly about every separate thing that she wanted to take hold everywhere. She had been reading Lothair, and found she knew nothing about Garibaldi and the battle of Aspramonte. Then she had been talking about the long Arctic days with a traveller, and she found she knew nothing about the Arctic regions. She was ashamed to go to a concert, and not know the difference between the lives of Mozart and of Mendelssohn. I had to tell Ella, what I have said to you, that we cannot all of us do all things. Far less can we do them all at once. I reminded her of the rule for European travelling,--which you may be sure is good,--that it is better to spend three days in one place than one day each in three places. And I told Ella that she must apply the same rule to subjects. Take these very instances. If she really gets well acquainted with Mendelssohn's life,--feels that she knows him, his habit of writing, and what made him what he was,--she will enjoy every piece of his music she ever hears with ten times the interest it had for her before. But if she looks him out in a cyclopA|dia and forgets him, and looks out Mercadante and forgets him, and finally mixes up Mozart and Mercadante and Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer, because all four of these names begin with M, why, she will be where a great many very nice boys and girls are who go to concerts, but where as sensible a girl as Ella does not want to be, and where I hope none of you want to be for whom I am writing.

But perhaps this is more than need be said after what is in Chapters V. and VI. Now you may put down this book and read for recreation. Shall it be the "Bloody Dagger," or shall it be the "Injured Grandmother"?


Edward Everett Hale

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