Children and Books

by Mary Tappan Wright

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     “Let us not, therefore, read for amusement, as the children do, neither for information, as do those who are avaricious for facts alone. No, let us read to live! And by so doing make for ourselves an atmosphere of all great thoughts, a companionship of all the noblest minds.”—MONTAIGNE.
     This, after all the passage of centuries, carries with it the gist of the whole matter; reading that does not enter into living is as dead as unrelated facts, as demoralizing as unremitting amusement; and it is this reading to live which we covet for our young people.
     The question is how to procure it. Our children have very little time to devote to good literature. Facts are purveyed them abundantly—superabundantly—at school, and amusement they take good care to secure without assistance; but the living interest that shall create “an atmosphere of all great thoughts” and make a “companionship of all the noblest minds,” a matter of daily living, is too often wholly unknown to them. The teacher may lend it, often does; some children, rare and delicate of perception, keenly artistic, sensitively fine, may possess it in themselves, but these cases are exceptional; as a rule this source of noble incentive and lofty pleasure lies as much outside the lives of our young people as China or the wilds of Africa.
     We deplore this mistake and lay the blame generously at every door but the one nearest us; for, taking the multiplication table backwards as well as forwards, and the capitals of the United States as a frozen nucleus, the truth is that our children are compelled every winter to roll up a terrible aggregate of cold facts for which, individually, we disclaim responsibility, while collectively we all stand back and smile in chilly approval. We live in an age avaricious of facts, and we partake of the propensities of our period. We fatten our children on useful information, develop their bodies with physical culture, their manners with dancing, their eyes and hands with modelling and drawing; then we offer them up to a Moloch called Science and light the sacrificial fires with perennial supplies of arithmetic.
     Later on, to the pressure of preparation for college entrance examinations we add an innumerable host of time-wasting educational fads of our own, thus leaving neither peace nor opportunity for the young people to enjoy the beauty of the reading that forms a part of their preparatory work; Milton becomes a task, Wordsworth a jest, and even the easy magic of fiction becomes powerless to amuse; and all this happens in that period of a child’s life when the influence of great thoughts and noble minds would be strongest and leave the deepest impression. There are not a few of us who would echo the sentiments of that desperate mother who cried: “I may not further things in this world. I do not expect ever to add to the sum of human achievement; but in the matter of my children’s education there is one thing I can do—I will be an impediment.”
     In the best sense this is the only solution for our difficulties; even if school requirements were lightened and altered we should not be much the gainers, because the main responsibility of our children’s tastes lies with ourselves, and with no one but ourselves. At home, and only at home, can they live into the very heart and soul of good literature and great thought. How they are to do it is so dependent on individual predilection and capacity that there is no beaten track, scarcely a finger post; only we may rest assured that what we like they will like, and, although they listen to what we teach, they invariably follow what we are. So it is that a feigned interest is worse than none, however honest and anxious be the intent of the feigning. Of course the child who loves to read will read, whether you encourage him or not, and the child who hates to read may be led to the stream but never can be forced to drink; but the first is never beyond the need of sympathy and guidance, and the second is almost too infrequent a case to need consideration. It is in the long ranks between the two that we find our own children, and wherever they be there lies our work—not always congenial, and frequently inopportune! For, in the hurried, busy lives that women lead—so full of petty detail, so encroached upon by non-obligatory obligations, small interests, physical weariness and mental worry—it is difficult to find time or spirit for the task. Women too often have no place of refuge or quiet, and the lack of peace wears out their nerves. For the sake of the children mothers need selfishly to conquer a space for themselves, wherein they may have room to forget themselves.
     And they are not alone. Here is Matthew Arnold in a letter to his sister:
     “‘Hide thy life,’ said Epicurus, and the exquisite zest there is in doing so can only be appreciated by those who, desiring to introduce some method into their lives, have suffered from the malicious pleasure the world takes in trying to distract them until they become as scatterbrained and empty-hearted as the world itself.”
     Over and over again in Mr. Arnold’s letters, he mourns the infrequency with which the element of greatness, of the sublime, as it were, touches our lives. At times he went to church daily for this very reason; for there, no matter how elsewhere false harmonies may clash and bray, a man still must hear the clear, perfect call that draws the eyes of our soul to the heights!
     To the children, each day, in some way this insistent note might well be sounded. Daily, by something high and sweet and compelling, might they be rapt into a brave, large world, beyond play, beyond tasks, where, from the “fell clutch of circumstance,” they might wrest that refuge of peace we mourn, unavailing.
     There are so many means to this end. Children are hungry for companionship—they suffer torture from ennui. Every child carries about with it a perpetual vacuum which it abhors, and he who will read aloud is hailed as a deliverer.
     But even before reading aloud I would file a plea for learning poetry by heart. “Good poetry,” says Matthew Arnold, “good poetry is formative; it has, too, the precious power of acting by itself, and in a way suggested by nature. I believe that even the rhythm and diction of good poetry are capable of exercising some formative effect, even though the sense be imperfectly understood. But of course the good of poetry is not really got unless the sense of the words is thoroughly learned and known. Thus we are remedying what I have noticed as a signal mental defect of our school children—their almost incredible scantiness of vocabulary.”
     And by remedying this scantiness of vocabulary in our children we shall do even more than Mr. Arnold indicates. We shall remove one of the most serious barriers to their enjoyment of both prose and poetry, not only when they read by themselves but when we read to them. Nine times out of ten a lack of interest arises from a lack of language. Once let the children get a little hold on the meanings of words, an idea of the mere mechanical swing and rhythm of poetry, and even the youngest will delight in it and in everything pertaining to it.
     Almost all teachers agree in pointing out the importance of frequent and persistent learning by heart for children of all ages. For over and above the mere utility, it insures them an inalienable possession—a solace in loneliness, uplifting in depression, inspiring in defeat; and the task is not irksome—even little children love it. A whole school of tiny tots, the oldest not six and the youngest less than four, learned in two terms all of Tennyson’s “May Queen” by heart, as well as “Break, Break, Break,” and Hood’s “Past and Present.” The melancholy tone of the two latter made them very popular, and one manly mite used to make the pathetic confession that he was further off from heaven than when he was a boy, with a fervor that filled his eyes with tears. He might have learned something better, perhaps, but for him the patter of the rain on the roofs, the waving of the branches outside the attic windows, the peeping sun at morn, were voiced in the poem, and long after the threadbare sentiment had worn away, he remembered the beauty of that first consciousness of the loveliness of his surroundings with gratitude.
     By careful teaching and frequent reading aloud quite young children can be taught to appreciate a surprising number of things that they could not possibly read by themselves. Macauley’s, and in fact nearly all ballads are welcomed by them with enthusiasm. “Old Ballad,” a seven-year-old once assured me, was her favorite author. “He always has something to tell.”
     Children prove this interest by their readiness to dramatize whatever appeals to their fancy; long before they can read they will play scenes from Hawthorne’s “Wonderbook” and episodes from Kingsley’s “Greek Heroes,” and stories from English history. Sir Walter Raleigh will lay his best overcoat in the mud and Queen Elizabeth will disdainfully trample it; beautiful, in flaxen wig, Lady Jane Grey gives up her young life on the scaffold, only to revive cheerfully and play her part in the same harrowing tragedy on the following day. “Ivanhoe” has been known to cause a revival of the age of chivalry. And later on, “The Fairie Queen,” the “Idyls of the King,” Malory’s “Morte d’Arthur,” Tennyson’s “Sir Galahad,” Matthew Arnold’s “Sorhab and Rustum,” “The Eve of St. Agnes,” “Macbeth,” “The Tempest,” “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “As You Like It,” “The Taming of the Shrew,” “Julius Caesar,” and a roll of noble works too long to call, might be made out of the poetry and prose which children under twelve have been known to enjoy and understand when it has been carefully and lovingly read and shared with them. For poetry, with its swing and rhythm, its colored words and singing rhymes, is intended to be read aloud. The half is lost by reading in silence and alone, and the child who reads to himself feels this, but not knowing what is lacking loses interest, and says he does not care for it, when he really does not know what it means.
     To teach the children this, takes patience; it takes tact and, above all, it takes time. All three were given once in behalf of a little boy of seven, who utterly refused to read to himself. He had a grandmother and an aunt over whom he tyrannized, but these noble women, while they might be enslaved, would not consent to be degraded. “I will read to you if you will listen to something good, not otherwise!” prefaced an evening’s entertainment, when the grandmother, who was reading the “Fairie Queen,” declined to exchange it for “Puss In Boots.” She had a fine sense of rhythm and an unusual readiness in language; and her modern renditions of Spenser were not to be despised as intellectual gymnastics, while they undoubtedly brought the poem within the measure of the boy’s comprehension, and gave him the stories in a shape whose greatest merit lay in the fact that it was ephemeral, and could not be fixed in his mind by a repetition which in later years might detract from the charm of the original. But the aunt, who was a conscientious person and a teacher of English literature, viewed these harmless travesties with suspicion. In her turn she read a great many of the books over again to the boy, teaching him the old words and carefully explaining a great deal that he could not understand. The hours thus spent never seemed wearisome, and as soon as the boy was a little older he began to read for himself, and the “Fairie Queen” became an inalienable portion of his mental inheritance. He talked of it, thought of it, played it with his friends. They made theatricals, where the stage manager roared as a dragon in a patchwork quilt. Una was seven, and the Red Cross Knight was ten; their days were a succession of glorious deeds, their dreams a pageant of knightly forms—and the reward of that aunt and grandmother will be lifelong!
     Next to hearing and reading, however, it is important that the children should be encouraged to talk of what they hear and read. It is not always easy, when we are tired and preoccupied, to turn the heavy family conversational coach out of its well-worn ruts. Evening after evening we see it lumber on over the same old territory, making for the same old goal; from its windows rises a Babel of youthful voices in formless school gossip, shouting verbless sentences and flinging out shapeless ideas, with an endless repetition of phrases. We long to enforce some of the often decried iron military rule of other days and arbitrarily put an end to this trivial and degenerating prattle; but we weakly hesitate, feeling that this happy, if unintelligent, cheerfulness is better than the sullen silence which might replace it; but if we could only consider the inborn passion which children have for talking, our firmness would be greatly reinforced. There are occasions when for them death would be preferable to silence, and when they find that poor talk is forbidden, the simple, primal instincts of self-preservation will prompt them to improve. Moreover, habits of slovenly speech and paucity of vocabulary undeniably foster weakness of brain and mind, and should be fought in the interests of health just as unflinchingly as we would combat laziness, or gluttony, or any other personal torpidity.
     An honest and fervent interest in any good thing, when shared by a whole family, is always an awakening and broadening influence, and thus the reading of Shakespeare’s plays in parts appeals to the natural dramatic instincts of children, and gives to them a loving sense of possession and participation. Even when stumblingly done, the reading aloud clears away, as if by magic, most of the difficulties of understanding a play: passages of apparently dull buffoonery take on a youthful irresistible drollery, and tragedy rushes on, all its unreality brushed aside in the sweep of living words. What has done more for us than those dear, comical family readings, where the little ones took the shorter parts and stumbled oddly over well-worn quotations, and the older ones paused in startled pleasure at placing sayings long known apart from their proper context? It all seems associated with holidays and Christmas, when the red light from the log fire danced upon an unbroken circle of faces, and the mistletoe dangled in the middle of the room and the evergreens gloomed around the pictures.
     But, after the need of our own personal guidance is once conceded, the problem of just what that guidance shall be is one which no two people work out in the same way, for no two children need the same solution. We must study the children. Their tastes are quite as individual as ours, and when neither trivial nor depraved are fully as worthy of consideration; still, outside of the realm of personal choice lies a whole great world of absolute catholic beauty which appeals to the truth in us all. Into this world we guide them, giving them our best to carry forward when we falter and fall by the way. We have seen our own vast hopes and probabilities dwindle to the merely possible, and even our possibilities are cramped to the measure of our limitations, that stretch—a wall—inexorably across our pathway. Beyond this wall lie all our foregone opportunities, our best ambitions, our unworked mines of genius, our vaulting thoughts. Our good deeds often dwell there, and sometimes, alas! our better selves—all on the further side of our limitations. It were a sorry thing if into that outer country we might not send the children. They are the finders of our lost chances, the fulfilment of our first ambitions, the expression of our best thoughts. They are our good deeds, our better selves—the redeemers of our foregone futures!

“Children and Books” by Mary Tappan Wright was originally published in The Churchman v. 81, no. 9 (whole no. 2876), March 3, 1900.

The work of Mary Tappan Wright here reproduced is in the public domain. All other material in this edition is ©2011 by Brian Kunde.

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1st web edition posted 9/19/2011
This page last updated 9/19/2011.

Published by Fleabonnet Press.