Home Culture - Books

HOME CULTURE––BOOKS

Although any attempt at intellectual training must be abandoned by the parents when once their children have gone to school, intellectual culture is a different matter, and this the young people must get at home, or nowhere. By this sort of culture I mean, not so much the getting of knowledge, nor even getting the power to learn, but the cultivation of the power to appreciate, to enjoy, whatever is just, true, and beautiful in thought and expression. For instance, one man reads––

   ". . . He lay along,
   Under an oak, whose antique root peeps out
   Upon the brook that brawls along this wood;
   To the which place a poor sequester'd stag,
   That from the hunter's aim had ta'en a hurt,
   Did come to languish;"––

 and gets no more out of it than the four facts of the reclining man, the oak, the brook, and the wounded stag. Another reads, and gets these and something over––a delicious mental image, and a sense of exquisite pleasure in the putting of the thought, the mere ordering of the words. Now, the second has, other things being equal, a hundredfold the means of happiness which the first enjoys; he has a sixth sense, a new inlet of pleasure, which adds enjoyment to every hour of his life. If people are to live in order to get rich, rather than to enjoy satisfaction in the living, they can do very well without intellectual culture; but if we are to make the most of life as the days go on, then it is a duty to put this power of getting enjoyment into the hands of the young.

They must be educated up to it. Some children, by right of descent, take to books as ducks to the water; but delight in a fine thought, well set, does not come by nature. Moreover, it is not the sort of thing that the training of the schools commonly aims at; to turn out men and women with enough exact knowledge for the occasions of life, and with wits on the alert for chances of promotion, that is what most schools pretend to, and, indeed, do, accomplish. The contention of scholars is, that a classical education does more, turns out men with intellects cultivated and trained, who are awake to every refinement of thought, and yet ready for action. But the press and hurry of our times and the clamour for useful knowledge are driving classical culture out of the field; and parents will have to make up their minds, not only that they must supplement the moral training of the school, but must supply the intellectual culture, without which know- ledge may be power, but is not pleasure, nor the means of pleasure.

The habit of casual reading, about which Sir John Lubbock says such wise and pleasant words, is a form of mild intellectual dissipation which does more harm than we realise. Many who would not read even a brilliant novel of a certain type, sit down to read twaddle without scruple. Nothing is too scrappy, nothing is too weak to "pass the time!" The "Scraps" literature of railway bookstalls is symptomatic. We do not all read scraps, under whatever piquant title, but the locust-swarm of this class of literature points to the small reading power amongst us. The mischief begins in the nursery. No sooner can a child read at all than hosts of friendly people show their interest in him by a present of a "pretty book." A "pretty book" is not necessarily a picture-book, but one in which the page is nicely broken up in talk or short paragraphs. Pretty books for the schoolroom age follow those for the nursery, and, nursery and schoolroom outgrown, we are ready for "Mudie's" lightest novels; the succession of "pretty books" never fails us; we have no time for works of any intellectual fibre, and we have no more assimilating power than has the schoolgirl who feeds upon cheese-cakes. Scott is dry as dust, even Kingsley is "stiff." We remain, though in another sense than that of the cottage dame, "poor readers" all our days. Very likely these strictures do not touch a single reader of this page, and I am like a parson of the three-decker age inveighing against the ways of the thieves and drunkards who were not in the pews. But the mischief is catching, and the children of even reading parents are not safe. Guard the nursery; let nothing in that has not the true literary flavour; let the children grow up on a few books read over and over, and let them have none, the reading of which does not cost an appreciable mental effort. This is no hardship. Activity, effort, whether of body or mind, is joyous to a child. We older people who went out of our Robinson Crusoe into our Scott did not find the strong meat too much for us. I wonder does any little girl in these days of many books experience the keen joy of the girl of eleven I can recall, crouching by the fireside, clasping her knees, and listening, as she has never listened since, to the reading of Anne of Geierstein? Somehow, the story has never been re-read; but to this day, no sense impressions are more vivid than those of the masked faces, the sinking floor, the weird trial, the cold bright Alpine village––and no moral impression stronger than that made by the deferential behaviour of "Philip" to his father. Perhaps the impression made later by the Heir of Redclyffe ranks next in intensity. But we must adapt ourselves to new conditions; "books for the young" used to be few and dull; now, they are many and delightful.

In connection with this subject let me add a word about story-telling. Here are some of the points which make a story worth studying to tell to the nestling listeners in many a sweet "Children's Hour";––graceful and artistic details; moral impulse of a high order, conveyed with a strong and delicate touch; sweet human affection; a tender, fanciful link between the children and the Nature-world; humour, pathos, righteous satire, and last, but not least, the fact that the story does not turn on children, and does not foster that self-consciousness, the dawn of which in the child is, perhaps, the individual "Fall of Man." But children will not take in all this? No; but let it be a canon that no story, nor part of a story, is ever to be explained. You have sown the seed; leave it to germinate.

Every father and mother should have a repertoire of stories––a dozen will do, beautiful stories beautifully told; children cannot stand variations. "You left out the rustle of the lady's gown, mother!" expresses reasonable irritation; the child cannot endure a suggestion that the story he lives in is no more than the "baseless fabric of a vision." Away with books, and "reading to"––for the first five or six years of life. The endless succession of story-books, scenes, shifting like a panorama before the child's vision, is a mental and moral dissipation; he gets nothing to grow upon, or is allowed no leisure to digest what he gets. It is contrary to nature, too. "Tell us about the little boy who saved Haarlem!" How often do the children who know it ask for that most hero-making of all tales! And here is another advantage of the story told over the story read. Lightly come, lightly go, is the rule for the latter. But if you have to make a study of your story, if you mean to appropriate it as bread of life for your children, why, you select with the caution of the merchantman seeking goodly pearls. Again, in the story read, the parent is no more than the middleman; but the story told is food as directly and deliberately given as milk from the mother's breast. Wise parents, whose children sit with big eyes pondering the oft-told tale, could tell us about this. But it must be borne in mind that the story told is as milk to the child at the breast. By-and-by comes the time when children must read, must learn, and digest for themselves. By the way, before a child begins school work may be the time to give a little care to a subject of some importance.

We are in a bad way for epithets: there are hardly more than a dozen current amongst us; and of these one person has seldom more than one or two in everyday use. A cup of tea, a dress, a picture, a book, a person,––is "nice," "perfect," "delicious," "delightful," "jolly," according to the speaker; not at all according to the thing spoken of. Adverbs help a little; a thing may be "nice," "how nice!" or "too awfully nice!" but the help is rather in the way of force than of variety. J. finds all agreeable things "too awfully nice!" while B. finds the same things only "nice." As a rule, things and persons have each one distinctive quality; to see what that is in a flash, and to express it in the fittest word, is a proof of genius, or of the highest culture. "That abysmal question, the condition of East London":––if one had not known that the speaker was a man of just perceptions and wide range of thought, intimately conversant with the questions of the day, that one phrase of a short conversation would have conveyed all that and more. The fitness of this use of "abysmal" stamped the speaker. Little children often surprise and amuse their elders by the fitness and elegance of their phraseology. We have only to foster this power of theirs, to put good words in their way, to treat the perpetual use of "jolly" or "delicious" as rather idiotic, and we are not only fitting our children to shine in society, but doing some- thing to conserve the treasures of the beautiful mother-tongue of our inheritance. It might be worthwhile to hunt up good strong Saxon epithets for everyday use from the writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Milton alone affords a treasure-trove. In the hymn beginning,

   "Let us with a gladsome mind,"

there are half-a-dozen adjectives used with original force; perhaps half-a-dozen peculiar to that hymn, in their use if not in their form. We cannot go about talking of the "golden-tressed sun"; that is too good for us; but to get "gladsome" into our common speech is worth an effort. "Happy-making" again, in the wonderful Ode to Time,––could we have a fitter word for our best occasions?