THE BOOK FOR THE EVENING LECTURE
To attempt a list of books suitable for the family lecture would be as hopeless as it is unnecessary; but it is possible to discuss the principles on which the selection should be made. In the first place, to get information is not the object of the family reading, but to make the young people acquainted with the flavour of, to give them a taste for a real "book"––that is, roughly speaking, a work of so much literary merit, that it should be read and valued for the sake of that alone, whatever its subject-matter.
This rule makes a clean sweep of the literature to be found in nine houses out of ten––twaddling story-books, funny or "good"; worthless novels; second-rate writing, whether in works of history or of general literature; compendiums, abstracts, short sketches of great lives, useful information in whatever form. None of these should be admitted to the evening lecture, and, indeed, the less they are read at all, the better. A good encyclopaedia is an invaluable storehouse of facts, and should be made use of to elucidate every difficulty that occurs in general reading; and information got in this way, at the moment it is wanted, is remembered but it is a mistake to read for information only.
Next, the book must be as interesting, amusing, or pathetic, as may be, but not too profound; the young people have been grinding all day, and now they want relaxation. One is sorry for girls and boys who do not hear the Waverley Novels read at home; nothing afterwards can make up for the delight of growing up in the company of Peveril of the Peak, Meg Merrilees, Jonathan Oldbuck, the Master of Ravenswood, Caleb Baiderstone, and the rest; and every page is a training in righteous living and gentlemanlike feeling. But novels are not the only resource; well-written books of travel are always charming; and, better than anything, good biographies of interesting people; not any of the single-volume series of "Eminent" persons, but a big two-volume book that gives you time to become at home with your man.
Important historical works had better be reserved for the holiday, but historical and literary essays by men of letters afford very delightful reading. There is no hurry. The evening reading is not task work. It is not important that many books should be read; but it is important that only good books should be read; and read with such ease and pleasant leisure, that they become to the hearers so much mental property for life.
The introduction to a great author should be made a matter of some ceremony. I do not know whether a first introduction to Ruskin, for instance, is the cause of such real emotion now as it was to intelligent young people of my generation; but The Crown of Wild Olive still, probably, marks a literary epoch for most young readers.
One other point: it is hopeless and unnecessary to attempt to keep up with current literature. Hereafter, it may be necessary to make some struggle to keep abreast of the new books as they pour from the press; but let some of the leisure of youth be spent upon "standard" authors, that have lived through, at least, twenty years of praise and blame.