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The Home Monthly

by Helen Delay. [Willa Cather]

From The Home Monthly, 6 (May 1897):  18.

Old Books and New.

"And further, by these, my son, be admonished:" of making many books there is no end. —Eccl.

That is the way I always feel when the publishing houses make their spring announcements. Then I am reminded that art is long and time is fleeting, and that though the spirit is willing the purse is weak and one can't possibly read all the books in the world, not even all the literature of the small part of the world we live in. And I suppose in the Hebrew king's day it was just the same, and will be for all time to come. And yet, of this immense out-put of literature how few books will be yet alive in the next century? And yet the next century is by no means far away. Think how many hundreds of books are never heard of after their first editions. So perhaps it's just as well that we haven't time to read all the new books; we should get a deal of chaff and very little of that which satisfies. For what is the use of experimenting with uncertainties when there are those books that are young after a dozen centuries, books that have survived war, and famine, and the destruction of nations.

*   *   *

Mr. Lawrence Hutton recently wrote for St. Nicholas a sketch of his youth under the title, "A Boy I Knew." In the closing chapter he says that people often ask him what books were his best friends in those days. He answers that in his boyhood there was but one book. Robinson Crusoe never made friends with this queer little boy, nor did any of Cooper's scouts or trappers. The book of books to him was "David Copperfield." That was sufficient unto him, satisfied and soothed him as it has many another one of us. I wonder if we will ever feel more deeply for a real child than we do for poor Davie when he is wrestling with the awful problem of the cheeses, while his poor, patient mother is crying to herself, and Mr. Murdstone is twisting the dreadful cane in his hand. There is one passage that I have never learned yet to read with dry eyes, and that is where Davie comes home from school when his mother is dying, and she takes him in her arms and lays his face on her breast beside that of the little, new baby that is sleeping there, and he breaks out:

"I wish I had died then; I have never been so fit for heaven since."

But if I were to undertake to enumerate the beauties of "David Copperfield", I should have to write a book almost as long as it. There is the storm scene that is so strongly sustained and so tenderly closed. Why, often at night, when I have nothing else to do, I just let myself think of Ham Peggotty fighting his life out among the breakers, and of Steerforth with that foreign red cap on his head climbing the mast of the sinking ship, and of him as David found him afterward, lying on the storm-drenched sand "with his head upon his arm, as I have often seen him lie at school." Even now I can see those pictures as clearly as when I was a child. And then there is Barkis and little "Em'ly" and Dora and Agnes, and all the rest of them, and they do not seem to us like the characters of a novel, but like real people whom we have met and loved and pitied. The big, human heart of Charles Dickens never beat truer than when he wrote this story of his own boyhood. Of Dickens' books I like that one best. Perhaps because Dickens himself liked it best, for you know in the preface he says: "Like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favorite child, and his name is David Copperfield."

*   *   *

I got a letter last week from a little boy just half-past seven who had just read "Huclkeberry Finn" and "Tom Sawyer." He said: "If there are any more books like them in the world, send them to me quick." I had to humbly confess to him that if there were any others I had not the good fortune to know of them. What a red-letter-day it is to a boy, the day he first opens "Tom Sawyer." I would rather sail on the raft down the Missouri again with "Huck" Finn and Jim than go down the Nile in December or see Venice from a gondola in May. Certainly Mark Twain is much better when he writes of his Missouri boys than when he makes sickley romances about Joan of Arc. And certainly be never did a better piece of work than "Prince and Pauper." One seems to get at the very heart of old England in that dearest of children's books, and in its pages the frail boy king, and his gloomy sister Mary who in her day wrought so much woe for unhappy England, and the dashing Princess Elizabeth who lived to rule so well, seem to live again. A friend of Mr. Clemens' once told me that he said he wrote that book so that when his little daughters grew up they might know that their tired old jester of a father could he serious and gentle sometimes.

*   *   *

Don't read "Sir George Tressady," Mrs. Humphrey Ward's latest novel. It's not a Christian duty and it will bore you to death. It is slower and more tedious than "Marcella," and there is no point to it when you are done with it. One can stand a tedious book if it comes out somewhere at last, but "Sir George Tressady" does not. If you want to read Mrs. Ward, take up "David Grieve" again. That is done in her best style and the first book of it at least is thoroughly admirable. The childhood of David and his sister is done with a strong comprehensive touch that recalls George Eliot's matchless treatment of little Tom and Maggie Tulliver.

Speaking of Tom and Maggie reminds me that there are just plenty of people who have never read "The Mill on the Floss." And yet you can get it for fifteen cents anywhere. It is a queer thing, the inexpensiveness of books. You have to pay ridiculous prices to hear good music, and painting and statues cost fortunes. But you can get just as good a copy of "The Mill on the Floss" as you need for the price of a dish of ice cream. Think of the labor it cost George Eliot to write that book, of the life long study it cost her to be able to write any such book, and yet you can get the results of all her genius and pains for a sum too insignificant to mention. That is why literature is most truly the art of the people. Books are the only masterpieces that the poor man can have as well as the rich. They are cheaper than meat and flour.

*   *   *

Do you happen to have a boy who don't like to play quite as well as his brothers do, who hunts the quiet corners with a book and who reads "The Arabian Nights' under his desk at school, while his geography lies neglected on the top of it? If you have, don't discourage these performances too much. It is a good thing to know geography, but for some purposes it is even better to know The Arabian Nights." You can never tell to what good things a taste for imaginative literature will lead a boy. But, on the other hand, don't encouarge him too much. Don't make him think that he is the only boy in the world who has loved to read those dear old Arabian tales, or he will soon grow to be a very pedantic and unlovable little boy indeed. And above all things don't lead him to believe that because he likes to read fine stories he will necessarily write them some day. If he tries his hand at writing stories "sit down" on him, laugh at him a little. It won't do any harm. If he should chance to have in him the stuff out of which good stories are made it will come out anyway. Do not encourage him to consider himself "literary" or he will be a bore to every one. But of one thing you may be sure: the boy who likes good books will always love his mother the better for it. He will be a more sincere and earnest man, a more sympathetic comrade than his companions who do not read.

*   *   *

You can afford to give a little more care and attention to this imaginative boy of yours than to any of your other children. His nerves are more finely strung and all his life he will need your love more than the others. Be careful to get him the kind of books he likes and see that they are good ones. Get him a volume of Poe's short stories. I know many people are prejudiced against Poe because of the story that he drank himself to death. But that myth has been exploded long ago. Poe drank less than even the average man of his time. No, the most artistic of all American story tellers did not die because he drank too much, but because he ate too little. And yet we, his own countrymen who should be so proud of him, are not content with having starved him and wronged him while he lived, we must even go on slandering him after be has been dead almost fifty years. But get his works for this imaginative boy of yours and he will tell you how great a man the author of "The Gold Bug" and "The Masque of the Red Death" was. Children are impartial critics and sometimes very good ones. They do not reason about a book, they just like it or dislike it intensely, and after all that is the conclusion of the whole matter. I am very sure that "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Black Cat" will give this wool-gathering lad of yours more pleasure than a new bicycle could.