The Lost Art of Reading
Gerald Stanley Lee
Author of "The Shadow Christ" (A Study of the Hebrew Poets) and "About an Old New England Church" "A Little History"
G. P. PUTNAM'S SONS
New York and London The Knickerbocker Press
GERALD STANLEY LEE
Published, November, 1902 Reprinted January 1903
The Knickerbocker Press, New York
BOOK I INTERFERENCES WITH THE READING HABIT CIVILISATION I—Dust II—Dust III—Dust to Dust IV—Ashes V—The Literary Rush VI—Parenthesis—To the Gentle Reader VII—More Parenthesis—But More to the Point VIII—More Literary Rush IX—The Bugbear of Being Well Informed—A Practical Suggestion X—The Dead Level of Intelligence XI—The Art of Reading as One Likes THE DISGRACE OF THE IMAGINATION I—On Wondering Why One Was Born II—The Top of the Bureau Principle THE UNPOPULARITY OF THE FIRST PERSON SINGULAR I—The First Person a Necessary Evil II—The Art of Being Anonymous III—Egoism and Society IV—i + I = We V—The Autobiography of Beauty THE HABIT OF NOT LETTING ONE'S SELF GO I—The Country Boy in Literature II—The Subconscious Self III—The Organic Principle of Inspiration THE HABIT OF ANALYSIS I—If Shakespeare Came to Chicago II—Analysis Analysed LITERARY DRILL IN COLLEGE I—Seeds and Blossoms II—Private Road: Dangerous III—The Organs of Literature IV—Entrance Examinations in Joy V—Natural Selection in Theory VI—Natural Selection in Practice VII—The Emancipation of the Teacher VIII—The Test of Culture IX—Summary X—A Note LIBRARIES. WANTED: AN OLD-FASHIONED LIBRARIAN I—viz. II—cf. III—et al. IV—etc. V—O
BOOK II POSSIBILITIES I—The Issue II—The First Selection III—Conveniences IV—The Charter of Possibility V—The Great Game VI—Outward Bound
BOOK III DETAILS. THE CONFESSIONS OF AN UNSCIENTIFIC MIND I—UNSCIENTIFIC I—On Being Intelligent in a Library II—How It Feels III—How a Specialist Can Be an Educated Man IV—On Reading Books Through their Backs V—On Keeping Each Other in Countenance VI—The Romance of Science VII—Monads VIII—Multiplication Tables II—READING FOR PRINCIPLES I—On Changing One's Conscience II—On the Intolerance of Experienced People III—On Having One's Experience Done Out IV—On Reading a Newspaper in Ten Minutes V—General Information VI—But—— III—READING DOWN THROUGH I—Inside II—On Being Lonely with a Book III—Keeping Other Minds Off IV—Reading Backwards IV—READING FOR FACTS I—Calling the Meeting to Order II—Symbolic Facts III—Duplicates: A Principle of Economy V—READING FOR RESULTS I—The Blank Paper Frame of Mind II—The Usefully Unfinished III—Athletics VI—READING FOR FEELINGS I—The Passion of Truth II—The Topical Point of View VII—READING THE WORLD TOGETHER I—Focusing II—The Human Unit III—The Higher Cannibalism IV—Spiritual Thrift V—The City, the Church, and the College VI—The Outsiders VII—Reading the World Together
BOOK IV WHAT TO DO NEXT I—See Next Chapter II—Diagnosis III—Eclipse IV—Apocalypse V—Every Man His Own Genius VI—An Inclined Plane VII—Allons
Interferences with the Reading Habit
The First Interference: Civilisation
"I see the ships," said The Eavesdropper, as he stole round the world to me, "on a dozen sides of the world. I hear them fighting with the sea."
"And what do you see on the ships?" I said.
"Figures of men and women—thousands of figures of men and women."
"And what are they doing?"
"They are walking fiercely," he said,—"some of them,—walking fiercely up and down the decks before the sea."
"Why?" said I.
"Because they cannot stand still and look at it. Others are reading in chairs because they cannot sit still and look at it."
"And there are some," said The Eavesdropper, "with roofs of boards above their heads (to protect them from Wonder)—down in the hold—playing cards."
There was silence.
* * * * *
"What are you seeing now?" I said.
"Trains," he said—"a globe full of trains. They are on a dozen sides of it. They are clinging to the crusts of it—mountains—rivers—prairies—some in the light and some in the dark—creeping through space."
"And what do you see in the trains?"
"Miles of faces."
"And the faces?"
"They are pushing on the trains."
* * * * *
"What are you seeing now?" I said.
"Cities," he said—"streets of cities—miles of streets of cities."
"And what do you see in the streets of cities?"
"Men, women, and smoke."
"And what are the men and women doing?"
"Hurrying," said he.
"Where?" said I.
The population of the civilised world to-day may be divided into two classes,—millionaires and those who would like to be millionaires. The rest are artists, poets, tramps, and babies—and do not count. Poets and artists do not count until after they are dead. Tramps are put in prison. Babies are expected to get over it. A few more summers, a few more winters—with short skirts or with down on their chins—they shall be seen burrowing with the rest of us.
One almost wonders sometimes, why it is that the sun keeps on year after year and day after day turning the globe around and around, heating it and lighting it and keeping things growing on it, when after all, when all is said and done (crowded with wonder and with things to live with, as it is), it is a comparatively empty globe. No one seems to be using it very much, or paying very much attention to it, or getting very much out of it. There are never more than a very few men on it at a time, who can be said to be really living on it. They are engaged in getting a living and in hoping that they are going to live sometime. They are also going to read sometime.
When one thinks of the wasted sunrises and sunsets—the great free show of heaven—the door open every night—of the little groups of people straggling into it—of the swarms of people hurrying back and forth before it, jostling their getting-a-living lives up and down before it, not knowing it is there,—one wonders why it is there. Why does it not fall upon us, or its lights go suddenly out upon us? We stand in the days and the nights like stalls—suns flying over our heads, stars singing through space beneath our feet. But we do not see. Every man's head in a pocket,—boring for his living in a pocket—or being bored for his living in a pocket,—why should he see? True we are not without a philosophy for this—to look over the edge of our stalls with. "Getting a living is living," we say. We whisper it to ourselves—in our pockets. Then we try to get it. When we get it, we try to believe it—and when we get it we do not believe anything. Let every man under the walled-in heaven, the iron heaven, speak for his own soul. No one else shall speak for him. We only know what we know—each of us in our own pockets. The great books tell us it has not always been an iron heaven or a walled-in heaven. But into the faces of the flocks of the children that come to us, year after year, we look, wondering. They shall not do anything but burrowing—most of them. Our very ideals are burrowings. So are our books. Religion burrows. It barely so much as looks at heaven. Why should a civilised man—a man who has a pocket in civilisation—a man who can burrow—look at heaven? It is the glimmering boundary line where burrowing leaves off. Time enough. In the meantime the shovel. Let the stars wheel. Do men look at stars with shovels?
* * * * *
The faults of our prevailing habits of reading are the faults of our lives. Any criticism of our habit of reading books to-day, which actually or even apparently confines itself to the point, is unsatisfactory. A criticism of the reading habit of a nation is a criticism of its civilisation. To sketch a scheme of defence for the modern human brain, from the kindergarten stage to Commencement day, is merely a way of bringing the subject of education up, and dropping it where it begins.
Even if the youth of the period, as a live, human, reading being (on the principles to be laid down in the following pages), is so fortunate as to succeed in escaping the dangers and temptations of the home—even if he contrives to run the gauntlet of the grammar school and the academy—even if, in the last, longest, and hardest pull of all, he succeeds in keeping a spontaneous habit with books in spite of a college course, the story is not over. Civilisation waits for him—all-enfolding, all-instructing civilisation, and he stands face to face—book in hand—with his last chance.
Dust to Dust
Whatever else may be said of our present civilisation, one must needs go very far in it to see Abraham at his tent's door, waiting for angels. And yet, from the point of view of reading and from the point of view of the books that the world has always called worth reading, if ever there was a type of a gentleman and scholar in history, and a Christian, and a man of possibilities, founder and ruler of civilisations, it is this same man Abraham at his tent's door waiting for angels. Have we any like him now? Peradventure there shall be twenty? Peradventure there shall be ten? Where is the man who feels that he is free to-day to sit upon his steps and have a quiet think, unless there floats across the spirit of his dream the sweet and reassuring sound of some one making a tremendous din around the next corner—a band, or a new literary journal, or a historical novel, or a special correspondent, or a new club or church or something? Until he feels that the world is being conducted for him, that things are tolerably not at rest, where shall one find in civilisation, in this present moment, a man who is ready to stop and look about him—to take a spell at last at being a reasonable, contemplative, or even marriageable being?
The essential unmarriageableness of the modern man and the unreadableness of his books are two facts that work very well together.
When Emerson asked Bronson Alcott "What have you done in the world, what have you written?" the answer of Alcott, "If Pythagoras came to Concord whom would he ask to see?" was a diagnosis of the whole nineteenth century. It was a very short sentence, but it was a sentence to found a college with, to build libraries out of, to make a whole modern world read, to fill the weary and heedless heart of it—for a thousand years.
We have plenty of provision made for books in civilisation, but if civilisation should ever have another man in the course of time who knows how to read a book, it would not know what to do with him. No provision is made for such a man. We have nothing but libraries—monstrous libraries to lose him in. The books take up nearly all the room in civilisation, and civilisation takes up the rest. The man is not allowed to peep in civilisation. He is too busy in being ordered around by it to know that he would like to. It does not occur to him that he ought to be allowed time in it to know who he is, before he dies. The typical civilised man is an exhausted, spiritually hysterical man because he has no idea of what it means, or can be made to mean to a man, to face calmly with his whole life a great book, a few minutes every day, to rest back on his ideals in it, to keep office hours with his own soul.
The practical value of a book is the inherent energy and quietness of the ideals in it—the immemorial way ideals have—have always had—of working themselves out in a man, of doing the work of the man and of doing their own work at the same time.
Inasmuch as ideals are what all real books are written with and read with, and inasmuch as ideals are the only known way a human being has of resting, in this present world, it would be hard to think of any book that would be more to the point in this modern civilisation than a book that shall tell men how to read to live,—how to touch their ideals swiftly every day. Any book that should do this for us would touch life at more points and flow out on men's minds in more directions than any other that could be conceived. It would contribute as the June day, or as the night for sleep, to all men's lives, to all of the problems of all of the world at once. It would be a night latch—to the ideal.
Whatever the remedy may be said to be, one thing is certainly true with regard to our reading habits in modern times. Men who are habitually shamefaced or absent-minded before the ideal—that is, before the actual nature of things—cannot expect to be real readers of books. They can only be what most men are nowadays, merely busy and effeminate, running-and-reading sort of men—rushing about propping up the universe. Men who cannot trust the ideal—the nature of things,—and who think they can do better, are naturally kept very busy, and as they take no time to rest back on their ideals they are naturally very tired. The result stares at us on every hand. Whether in religion, art, education, or public affairs, we do not stop to find our ideals for the problems that confront us. We do not even look at them. Our modern problems are all Jerichos to us—most of them paper ones. We arrange symposiums and processions around them and shout at them and march up and down before them. Modern prophecy is the blare of the trumpet. Modern thought is a crowd hurrying to and fro. Civilisation is the dust we scuffle in each other's eyes.
When the peace and strength of spirit with which the walls of temples are builded no longer dwell in them, the stones crumble. Temples are built of eon-gathered and eon-rested stones. Infinite nights and days are wrought in them, and leisure and splendour wait upon them, and visits of suns and stars, and when leisure and splendour are no more in human beings' lives, and visits of suns and stars are as though they were not, in our civilisation, the walls of it shall crumble upon us. If fulness and leisure and power of living are no more with us, nothing shall save us. Walls of encyclopaedias—not even walls of Bibles shall save us, nor miles of Carnegie-library. Empty and hasty and cowardly living does not get itself protected from the laws of nature by tons of paper and ink. The only way out for civilisation is through the practical men in it—men who grapple daily with ideals, who keep office hours with their souls, who keep hold of life with books, who take enough time out of hurrahing civilisation along—to live.
Civilisation has been long in building and its splendour still hangs over us, but Parthenons do not stand when Parthenons are no longer being lived in Greek men's souls. Only those who have Coliseums in them can keep Coliseums around them. The Ideal has its own way. It has it with the very stones. It was an Ideal, a vanished Ideal, that made a moonlight scene for tourists out of the Coliseum—out of the Dead Soul of Rome.
There seem to be but two fundamental characteristic sensibilities left alive in the typical, callously-civilised man. One of these sensibilities is the sense of motion and the other is the sense of mass. If he cannot be appealed to through one of these senses, it is of little use to appeal to him at all. In proportion as he is civilised, the civilised man can be depended on for two things. He can always be touched by a hurry of any kind, and he never fails to be moved by a crowd. If he can have hurry and crowd together, he is capable of almost anything. These two sensibilities, the sense of motion and the sense of mass, are all that is left of the original, lusty, tasting and seeing and feeling human being who took possession of the earth. And even in the case of comparatively rudimentary and somewhat stupid senses like these, the sense of motion, with the average civilised man, is so blunt that he needs to be rushed along at seventy miles an hour to have the feeling that he is moving, and his sense of mass is so degenerate that he needs to live with hundreds of thousands of people next door to know that he is not alone. He is seen in his most natural state,—this civilised being,—with most of his civilisation around him, in the seat of an elevated railway train, with a crowded newspaper before his eyes, and another crowded newspaper in his lap, and crowds of people reading crowded newspapers standing round him in the aisles; but he can never be said to be seen at his best, in a spectacle like this, until the spectacle moves, until it is felt rushing over the sky of the street, puffing through space; in which delectable pell-mell and carnival of hurry—hiss in front of it, shriek under it, and dust behind it—he finds, to all appearances at least, the meaning of this present world and the hope of the next. Hurry and crowd have kissed each other and his soul rests. "If Abraham sitting in his tent door waiting for angels had been visited by a spectacle like this and invited to live in it all his days, would he not have climbed into it cheerfully enough?" asks the modern man. Living in a tent would have been out of the question, and waiting for angels—waiting for anything, in fact—forever impossible.
Whatever else may be said of Abraham, his waiting for angels was the making of him, and the making of all that is good in what has followed since. The man who hangs on a strap—up in the morning and down at night, hurrying between the crowd he sleeps with and the crowd he works with, to the crowd that hurries no more,—even this man, such as he is, with all his civilisation roaring about him, would have been impossible if Abraham in the stately and quiet days had not waited at his tent door for angels to begin a civilisation with, or if he had been the kind of Abraham that expected that angels would come hurrying and scurrying after one in a spectacle like this. "What has a man," says Blank in his Angels of the Nineteenth Century,—"What has a man who consents to be a knee-bumping, elbow-jamming, foothold-struggling strap-hanger—an abject commuter all his days (for no better reason than that he is not well enough to keep still and that there is not enough of him to be alone)—to do with angels—or to do with anything, except to get done with it as fast as he can?" So say we all of us, hanging on straps to say it, swaying and swinging to oblivion. "Is there no power," says Blank, "in heaven above or earth beneath that will help us to stop?"
If a civilisation is founded on two senses—the sense of motion and the sense of mass,—one need not go far to find the essential traits of its literature and its daily reading habit. There are two things that such a civilisation makes sure of in all its concerns—hurry and crowd. Hence the spectacle before us—the literary rush and mobs of books.
The Literary Rush
The present writer, being occasionally addicted (like the reader of this book) to a seemly desire to have the opinions of some one besides the author represented, has fallen into the way of having interviews held with himself from time to time, which are afterwards published at his own request. These interviews appear in the public prints as being between a Mysterious Person and The Presiding Genius of the State of Massachusetts. The author can only earnestly hope that in thus generously providing for an opposing point of view, in taking, as it were, the words of the enemy upon his lips, he will lose the sympathy of the reader. The Mysterious Person is in colloquy with The Presiding Genius of the State of Massachusetts. As The P. G. S. of M. lives relentlessly at his elbow—dogs every day of his life,—it is hoped that the reader will make allowance for a certain impatient familiarity in the tone of The Mysterious Person toward so considerable a personage as The Presiding Genius of the State of Massachusetts—which we can only profoundly regret.
The Mysterious Person: "There is no escaping from it. Reading-madness is a thing we all are breathing in to-day whether we will or no, and it is not only in the air, but it is worse than in the air. It is underneath the foundations of the things in which we live and on which we stand. It has infected the very character of the natural world, and the movement of the planets, and the whirl of the globe beneath our feet. Without its little paling of books about it, there is hardly a thing that is left in this modern world a man can go to for its own sake. Except by stepping off the globe, perhaps, now and then—practically arranging a world of one's own, and breaking with one's kind,—the life that a man must live to-day can only be described as a kind of eternal parting with himself. There is getting to be no possible way for a man to preserve his five spiritual senses—even his five physical ones—and be a member, in good and regular standing, of civilisation at the same time.
"If civilisation and human nature are to continue to be allowed to exist together there is but one way out, apparently—an extra planet for all of us, one for a man to live on and the other for him to be civilised on."
P. G. S. of M.: "But——"
"As long as we, who are the men and women of the world, are willing to continue our present fashion of giving up living in order to get a living, one planet will never be large enough for us. If we can only get our living in one place and have it to live with in another, the question is, To whom does this present planet belong—the people who spend their days in living into it and enjoying it, or the people who never take time to notice the planet, who do not seem to know that they are living on a planet at all?"
P. G. S. of M.: "But——"
"I may not be very well informed on very many things, but I am very sure of one of them," said The Mysterious Person, "and that is, that this present planet—this one we are living on now—belongs by all that is fair and just to those who are really living on it, and that it should be saved and kept as a sacred and protected place—a place where men shall be able to belong to the taste and colour and meaning of things and to God and to themselves. If people want another planet—a planet to belong to Society on,—let them go out and get it.
"Look at our literature—current literature. It is a mere headlong, helpless literary rush from beginning to end. All that one can extract from it is getting to be a kind of general sound of going. We began gently enough. We began with the annual. We had Poor Richard's Almanac. Then we had the quarterly. A monthly was reasonable enough in course of time; so we had monthlies. Then the semi-monthly came to ease our literary nerves; and now the weekly magazine stumbles, rapt and wistful, on the heels of men of genius. It makes contracts for prophecy. Unborn poems are sold in the open market. The latest thoughts that thinkers have, the trend of the thoughts they are going to have—the public makes demand for these. It gets them. Then it cries 'More! More!' Where is the writer who does not think with the printing-press hot upon his track, and the sound of the pulp-mill making paper for his poems, and the buzz of editors, instead of the music of the spheres? Think of the destruction to American forests, the bare and glaring hills that face us day and night, all for a literature like this—thousands of square miles of it, spread before our faces, morning after morning, week after week, through all this broad and glorious land! Seventy million souls—brothers of yours and mine—walking through prairies of pictures Sunday after Sunday, flickered at by head-lines, deceived by adjectives, each with his long day's work, column after column, sentence after sentence, plodding—plodding—plodding down to ——. My geography may be wrong; the general direction is right."
"But don't you believe in newspapers?"
"Why, yes, in the abstract; newspapers. But we do not have any news nowadays. It is not news to know a thing before it's happened, nor is it news to know what might happen, or why it might happen, or why it might not happen. To be told that it doesn't make any difference whether it happens at all, would be news, perhaps, to many people—such news as there is; but it is hardly worth while to pay three cents to be sure of that. An intelligent man can be sure of it for nothing. He has been sure of it every morning for years. It's the gist of most of the newspapers he reads. From the point of view of what can be called truly vital information, in any larger sense, the only news a daily paper has is the date at the top of the page. If a man once makes sure of that, if he feels from the bottom of his heart what really good news it is that one more day is come in a world as beautiful as this,—the rest of it——"
P. G. S. of M.: "But——"
"The rest of it, if it's true, is hardly worth knowing; and if it's worth knowing, it can be found better in books; and if it's not true—'Every man his own liar' is my motto. He might as well have the pleasure of it, and he knows how much to believe. The same lunging, garrulous, blindly busy habit is the law of all we do. Take our literary critical journals. If a critic can not tell what he sees at once, he must tell what he fails to see at once. The point is not his seeing or not seeing, nor anybody's seeing or not seeing. The point is the imperative 'at once.' Literature is getting to be the filling of orders—time-limited orders. Criticism is out of a car window. Book reviews are telegraphed across the sea (Tennyson's memoirs). The —— (Daily) —— (a spectacle for Homer!) begins a magazine to 'review in three weeks every book of permanent value that is published'—one of the gravest and most significant blows at literature—one of the gravest and most significant signs of the condition of letters to-day—that could be conceived! Three weeks, man! As if a 'book of permanent value' had ever been recognised, as yet, in three years, or reviewed in thirty years (in any proper sense), or mastered in three hundred years—with all the hurrying of this hurrying world! We have no book-reviewers. Why should we? Criticism begins where a man's soul leaves off. It comes from brilliantly-defective minds,—so far as one can see,—from men of attractively imperfect sympathies. Nordau, working himself into a mighty wrath because mystery is left out of his soul, gathering adjectives about his loins, stalks this little fluttered modern world, puts his huge, fumbling, hippopotamus hoof upon the Blessed Damozel, goes crashing through the press. He is greeted with a shudder of delight. Even Matthew Arnold, a man who had a way of seeing things almost, sometimes, criticises Emerson for lack of unity, because the unity was on so large a scale that Arnold's imagination could not see it; and now the chirrup from afar, rising from the east and the west, 'Why doesn't George Meredith?' etc. People want him to put guide-posts in his books, apparently, or before his sentences: 'TO ——' or 'TEN MILES TO THE NEAREST VERB'—the inevitable fate of any writer, man or woman, who dares to ask, in this present day, that his reader shall stop to think. If a man cannot read as he runs, he does not read a book at all. The result is, he ought to run; that is natural enough; and the faster he runs, in most books, the better."
At this point The Mysterious Person reached out his long arm from his easy-chair to some papers that were lying near. I knew too well what it meant. He began to read. (He is always breaking over into manuscript when he talks.)
"We are forgetting to see. Looking is a lost art. With our poor, wistful, straining eyes, we hurry along the days that slowly, out of the rest of heaven, move their stillness across this little world. The more we hurry, the more we read. Night and noon and morning the panorama passes before our eyes. By tables, on cars, and in the street we see them—readers, readers everywhere, drinking their blindness in. Life is a blur of printed paper. We see no more the things themselves. We see about them. We lose the power to see the things themselves. We see in sentences. The linotype looks for us. We know the world in columns. The sounds of the street are muffled to us. In papers up to our ears, we whirl along our endless tracks. The faces that pass are phantoms. In our little woodcut head-line dream we go ceaseless on, turning leaves,—days and weeks and months of leaves,—wherever we go—years of leaves. Boys who never have seen the sky above them, young men who have never seen it in a face, old men who have never looked out at sea across a crowd, nor guessed the horizons there—dead men, the flicker of life in their hands, not yet beneath the roofs of graves—all turning leaves."
The Mysterious Person stopped. Nobody said anything. It is the better way, generally, with The Mysterious Person. We were beginning to feel as if he were through, when his eye fell on a copy of The ——, lying on the floor. It was open at an unlucky page.
"Look at that!" said he. He handed the paper to The P. G. S. of M., pointing with his finger, rather excitedly. The P. G. S. of M. looked at it—read it through. Then he put it down; The Mysterious Person went on.
"Do you not know what it means when you, a civilised, cultivated, converted human being, can stand face to face with a list—a list like that—a list headed 'BOOKS OF THE WEEK'—when, unblinking and shameless, and without a cry of protest, you actually read it through, without seeing, or seeming to see, for a single moment that right there—right there in that list—the fact that there is such a list—your civilisation is on trial for its life—that any society or nation or century that is shallow enough to publish as many books as that has yet to face the most awful, the most unprecedented, the most headlong-coming crisis in the history of the human race?"
The Mysterious Person made a pause—the pause of settling things. [There are people who seem to think that the only really adequate way to settle a thing, in this world, is for them to ask a question about it.]
At all events The Mysterious Person having asked a question at this point, everybody might as well have the benefit of it.
In the meantime, it is to be hoped that in the next chapter The Presiding Genius of the State of Massachusetts, or somebody—will get a word in.
Parenthesis To the Gentle Reader
This was a footnote at first. It is placed at the top of the page in the hope that it will point at itself more and let the worst out at once. I want to say I—a little—in this book.
I do not propose to do it very often. Indeed I am not sure just now, that I shall be able to do it at all, but I would like to have the feeling as I go along that arrangements have been made for it, and that it is all understood, and that if I am fairly good about it—ring a little bell or something—and warn people, I am going to be allowed—right here in my own book at least—to say I when I want to.
I is the way I feel on the inside about this subject. Anybody can see it. And I want to be honest, in the first place, and in the second place (like a good many other people) I never have had what could be called a real good chance to say I in this world, and I feel that if I had—somehow, it would cure me.
I have tried other ways. I have tried calling myself he. I have stated my experiences in principles—called myself it, and in the first part of this book I have already fallen into the way—page after page—of borrowing other people, when all the time I knew perfectly well (and everybody) that I preferred myself. At all events this calling one's self names—now one and now another,—working one's way incognito, all the way through one's own book, is not making me as modest as I had hoped. There seems to be nothing for it—with some of us, but to work through to modesty the other way—backward—I it out.
There is one other reason. This Mysterious Person I have arranged with in these opening chapters, to say I for me, does not seem to me to be doing it very well. I think any one—any fairly observing person—would admit that I could do it better, and if it's going to be done at all, why should a mere spiritual machine—a kind of moral phonograph like this Mysterious Person—be put forward to take the ignominy of it? I have set my "I" up before me and duly cross-examined it. I have said to it, "Either you are good enough to say I in a book or you are not," and my "I" has replied to me, "If I am not, I want everybody to know why and if I am—am——." Well of course he is not, and we will all help him to know why. We will do as we would be done by. If there is ever going to be any possible comfort in this world for me, in not being what I ought to be, it is the thought that I am not the only one that knows it. At all events, this feeling that the worst is known, even if one takes, as I am doing now, a planet for a confessional, gives one a luxurious sense—a sense of combined safety and irresponsibility which would not be exchanged for a world. Every book should have I-places in it—breathing-holes—places where one's soul can come up to the surface and look out through the ice and say things. I do not wish to seem superior and I will admit that I am as respectable as anybody in most places, but I do think that if half the time I am devoting, and am going to devote, to appearing as modest as people expect in this world, could be devoted to really doing something in it, my little modesty—such as it is—would not be missed. At all events I am persuaded that anything—almost anything—would be better than this eternal keeping up appearances of all being a little less interested in ourselves than we are, which is what Literature and Society are for, mostly. We all do it, more or less. And yet if there were only a few scattered-along places, public soul-open places to rest in, and be honest in—(in art-parlours and teas and things)—wouldn't we see people rushing to them? I would give the world sometimes to believe that it would pay to be as honest with some people as with a piece of paper or with a book.
I dare say I am all wrong in striking out and flourishing about in a chapter like this, and in threatening to have more like them, but there is one comfort I lay to my soul in doing it. If there is one thing rather than another a book is for (one's own book) it is, that it furnishes the one good, fair, safe place for a man to talk about himself in, because it is the only place that any one—absolutely any one,—at any moment, can shut him up.
This is not saying that I am going to do it. My courage will go from me (for saying I, I mean). Or I shall not be humble enough or something and it all will pass away. I am going to do it now, a little, but I cannot guarantee it. All of a sudden, no telling when or why, I shall feel that Mysterious Person with all his worldly trappings hanging around me again and before I know it, before you know it, Gentle Reader, I with all my I (or i) shall be swallowed up. Next time I appear, you shall see me, decorous, trim, and in the third person, my literary white tie on, snooping along through these sentences one after the other, crossing my I's out, wishing I had never been born.
* * * * *
Postscript. I cannot help recording at this point, for the benefit of reckless persons, how saying I in a book feels. It feels a good deal like a very small boy in a very high swing—a kind of flashing-of-everything through-nothing feeling, but it cannot be undone now, and so if you please, Gentle Reader, and if everybody will hold their breath, I am going to hold on tight and do it.
More Parenthesis—But More to the Point
I have gotten into a way lately, while I am just living along, of going out and taking a good square turn every now and then, in front of myself. It is not altogether an agreeable experience, but there seems to be a window in every man's nature on purpose for it—arranged and located on purpose for it, and I find on the whole that going out around one's window, once in so often, and standing awhile has advantages. The general idea is to stand perfectly still for a little time, in a kind of general, public, disinterested way, and then suddenly, when one is off one's guard and not looking, so to speak, take a peek backwards into one's self.
I am aware that it does not follow, because I have just come out and have been looking into my window, that I have a right to hold up any person or persons who may be going by in this book, and ask them to look in too, but at the same time I cannot conceal—do not wish to conceal, even if I could—that there have been times, standing in front of my window and looking in, when what I have seen there has seemed to me to assume a national significance.
There are millions of other windows like it. It is one of the daily sorrows of my life that the people who own them do not seem to know it—most of them—except perhaps in a vague, hurried pained way. Sometimes I feel like calling out to them as I stand by my window—see them go hurrying by on The Great Street: "Say there, Stranger! Halloa, Stranger! Want to see yourself? Come right over here and look at me!"
Nobody believes it, of course. It's a good deal like standing and waving one's arms in the Midway—being an egotist,—but I must say, I have never got a man yet—got him in out of the rush, I mean, right up in front of my window—got him once stooped down and really looking in there, but he admitted there was something in it.
Thus does it come to pass—this gentle swelling. Let me be a warning to you, Gentle Reader, when you once get to philosophising yourself over (along the line of your faults) into the disputed territory of the First Person Singular. I am not asking you to try to believe my little philosophy of types. I am trying to, in my humble way, to be sure, but I would rather, on the whole, let it go. It is not so much my philosophy I rest my case on, as my sub-philosophy or religion—viz., I like it and believe in it—saying I. (Thank Heaven that, bad as it is, I have struck bottom at last!) The best I can do under the circumstances, I suppose, is to beg (in a perfectly blank way) forgiveness—forgiveness of any and every kind from everybody, if in this and the following chapters I fall sometimes to talking of people—people at large—under the general head of myself.
* * * * *
I was born to read. I spent all my early years, as I remember them, with books,—peering softly about in them. My whole being was hushed and trustful and expectant at the sight of a printed page. I lived in the presence of books, with all my thoughts lying open about me; a kind of still, radiant mood of welcome seemed to lie upon them. When I looked at a shelf of books I felt the whole world flocking to me.
I have been civilised now, I should say, twenty, or possibly twenty-five, years. At least every one supposes I am civilised, and my whole being has changed. I cannot so much as look upon a great many books in a library or any other heaped-up place, without feeling bleak and heartless. I never read if I can help it. My whole attitude toward current literature is grouty and snappish, a kind of perpetual interrupted "What are you ringing my door-bell now for?" attitude. I am a disagreeable character. I spend at least one half my time, I should judge, keeping things off, in defending my character. Then I spend the other half in wondering if, after all, it was worth it. What I see in my window has changed. When I used to go out around and look into it, in the old days, to see what I was like, I was a sunny, open valley—streams and roads and everything running down into it, and opening out of it, and when I go out suddenly now, and turn around in front of myself and look in—I am a mountain pass. I sift my friends—up a trail. The few friends that come, come a little out of breath (God bless them!), and a book cannot so much as get to me except on a mule's back.
It is by no means an ideal arrangement—a mountain pass, but it is better than always sitting in one's study in civilisation, where every passer-by, pamphlet, boy in the street, thinks he might just as well come up and ring one's door-bell awhile. All modern books are book agents at heart, around getting subscriptions for themselves. If a man wants to be sociable or literary nowadays, he can only do it by being a more or less disagreeable character, and if he wishes to be a beautiful character, he must go off and do it by himself.
This is a mere choice in suicides.
The question that presses upon me is: Whose fault is it that a poor wistful, incomplete, human being, born into this huge dilemma of a world, can only keep on having a soul in it, by keeping it (that is, his soul) tossed back and forth—now in one place where souls are lost, and now in another? Is it your fault, or mine, Gentle Reader, that we are obliged to live in this undignified, obstreperous fashion in what is called civilisation? I cannot believe it. Nearly all the best people one knows can be seen sitting in civilisation on the edge of their chairs, or hurrying along with their souls in satchels.
There is but one conclusion. Civilisation is not what it is advertised to be. Every time I see a fresh missionary down at the steamer wharf, as I do sometimes, starting away for other lands, loaded up with our Institutions to the eyes, Church in one hand and Schoolhouse in the other, trim, happy, and smiling over them, at everybody, I feel like stepping up to him and saying, what seem to me, a few appropriate words. I seldom do it, but the other day when I happened to be down at the Umbria dock about sailing-time, I came across one (a foreign missionary, I mean) pleasant, thoughtless, and benevolent-looking, standing there all by himself by the steamer-rail, and I thought I would try speaking to him.
"Where are you going to be putting—those?" I said, pointing to a lot of funny little churches and funny little schoolhouses he was holding in both hands.
"From Greenland's icy mountains to India's coral strand," he said.
I looked at them a minute. "You don't think, do you?" I said—"You don't really think you had better wait over a little—bring them back and let us—finish them for you, do you? one or two—samples?" I said.
He looked at me with what seemed to me at first, a kind of blurred, helpless look. I soon saw that he was pitying me and I promptly stepped down to the dining-saloon and tried to appreciate two or three tons of flowers.
I do not wish to say a word against missionaries. They are merely apt to be somewhat heedless, morally-hurried persons, rushing about the world turning people (as they think) right side up everywhere, without really noticing them much, but I do think that a great deliberate corporate body like The American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions ought to be more optimistic about the Church—wait and work for it a little more, expect a little more of it.
It seems to me that it ought to be far less pessimistic than it is, also, about what we can do in the way of schools and social life in civilisation and about civilisation's way of doing business. Is our little knack of Christianity (I find myself wondering) quite worthy of all this attention it is getting from The American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions? Why should it approve of civilisation with a rush? Does any one really suppose that it is really time to pat it on the back—yet?—to spend a million dollars a year—patting it on the back?
I merely throw out the question.
More Literary Rush
We had been talking along, in our Club, as usual, for some time, on the general subject of the world—fixing the blame for things. We had come to the point where it was nearly all fixed (most of it on other people) when I thought I might as well put forward my little theory that nearly everything that was the matter, could be traced to the people who "belong to Society."
Then The P. G. S. of M. (who is always shoving a dictionary around in front of him when he talks) spoke up and said:
"But who belongs to Society?"
"All persons who read what they are told to and who call where they can't help it. What this world needs just now," I went on, looking The P. G. S. of M. as much in the eye as I could, "is emancipation. It needs a prophet—a man who can gather about him a few brave-hearted, intelligently ignorant men, who shall go about with their beautiful feet on the mountains, telling the good tidings of how many things there are we do not need to know. The prejudice against being ignorant is largely because people have not learned how to do it. The wrong people have taken hold of it."
I cannot remember the exact words of what was said after this, but I said that it seemed to me that most people were afraid not to know everything. Not knowing too much is a natural gift, and unless a man can make his ignorance contagious—inspire people with the books he dares not read—of course the only thing he can do is to give up and read everything, and belong to Society. He certainly cannot belong to himself unless he protects himself with well-selected, carefully guarded, daring ignorance. Think of the books—the books that are dictated to us—the books that will not let a man go,—and behind every book a hundred intelligent men and women—one's friends, too—one's own kin——
P. G. S. of M.: "But the cultured man must——"
The cultured man is the man who can tell me what he does not know, with such grace that I feel ashamed of knowing it.
Now there's M——, for example. Other people seem to read to talk, but I never see him across a drawing-room without an impulse of barbarism, and I always get him off into a corner as soon as I can, if only to rest myself—to feel that I have a right not to read everything. He always proves to me something that I can get along without. He is full of the most choice and picturesque bits of ignorance. He is creatively ignorant. He displaces a book every time I see him—which is a deal better in these days than writing one. A man should be measured by his book-displacement. He goes about with his thinking face, and a kind of nimbus over him, of never needing to read at all. He has nothing whatever to give but himself, but I had rather have one of his questions about a book I had read, than all the other opinions and subtle distinctions in the room—or the book itself.
P. G. S. of M. "But the cultured man must——"
NOT. It is the very essence of a cultured man that when he hears the word "must" it is on his own lips. It is the very essence of his culture that he says it to himself. His culture is his belonging to himself, and his belonging to himself is the first condition of his being worth giving to other people. One longs for Elia. People know too much, and there doesn't seem to be a man living who can charm them from the error of their way. Knowledge takes the place of everything else, and all one can do in this present day as he reads the reviews and goes to his club, is to look forward with a tired heart to the prophecy of Scripture, "Knowledge shall pass away."
Where do we see the old and sweet content of loving a thing for itself? Now, there are the flowers. The only way to delight in a flower at your feet in these days is to watch with it all alone, or keep still about it. The moment you speak of it, it becomes botany. It's a rare man who will not tell you all he knows about it. Love isn't worth anything without a classic name. It's a wonder we have any flowers left. Half the charm of a flower to me is that it looks demure and talks perfume and keeps its name so gently to itself. The man who always enjoys views by picking out the places he knows, is a symbol of all our reading habits and of our national relation to books. One can glory in a great cliff down in the depths of his heart, but if you mention it, it is geology, and an argument. Even the birds sing zoologically, and as for the sky, it has become a mere blue-and-gold science, and all the wonder seems to be confined to one's not knowing the names of the planets. I was brought up wistfully on
Twinkle, twinkle, little star, How I wonder what you are.
But now it is become:
Twinkle, twinkle, little star, Teacher's told me what you are.
Even babies won't wonder very soon. That is to say, they won't wonder out loud. Nobody does. Another of my poems was:
Where did you come from, baby dear? Out of the everywhere into here.
I thought of it the other day when I stepped into the library with the list of books I had to have an opinion about before Mrs. W——'s Thursday Afternoon, I felt like a literary infant.
Where did you come from, baby fair? Out of the here into everywhere.
And the bookcases stared at me.
It is a serious question whether the average American youth is ever given a chance to thirst for knowledge. He thirsts for ignorance instead. From the very first he is hemmed in by knowledge. The kindergarten with its suave relentlessness, its perfunctory cheerfulness, closes in upon the life of every child with himself. The dear old-fashioned breathing spell he used to have after getting here—whither has it gone? The rough, strong, ruthless, unseemly, grown-up world crowds to the very edge of every beginning life. It has no patience with trailing clouds of glory. Flocks of infants every year—new-comers to this planet—who can but watch them sadly, huddled closer and closer to the little strip of wonder that is left near the land from which they came? No lingering away from us. No infinite holiday. Childhood walks a precipice crowded to the brink of birth. We tabulate its moods. We register its learning inch by inch. We draw its poor little premature soul out of its body breath by breath. Infants are well informed now. The suckling has nerves. A few days more he will be like all the rest of us. It will be:
Poem: "When I Was Weaned."
"My First Tooth: A Study."
The Presiding Genius of the State of Massachusetts, with his dazed, kind look, looked up and said: "I fear, my dear fellow, there is no place for you in the world."
Thanks. One of the delights of going fishing or hunting is, that one learns how small "a place in the world" is—comes across so many accidentally preserved characters—preserved by not having a place in the world—persons that are interesting to be with—persons you can tell things.
The real object—it seems to me—in meeting another human being is complement—fitting into each other's ignorances. Sometimes it seems as if it were only where there is something to be caught or shot, or where there is plenty of room, that the highest and most sociable and useful forms of ignorance were allowed to mature.
One can still find such fascinating prejudices, such frank enthusiasms of ignorance, where there's good fishing; and then, in the stray hamlets, there is the grave whimsicalness and the calm superior air of austerity to cultured people.
Ah, let me live in the Maine woods or wander by the brooks of Virginia, and rest my soul in the delights—in the pomposity—of ignorance—ignorance in its pride and glory and courage and lovableness! I never come back from a vacation without a dream of what I might have been, if I had only dared to know a little less; and even now I sometimes feel I have ignorance enough, if like Elia, for instance, I only knew how to use it, but I cannot as much as get over being ashamed of it. I am nearly gone. I have little left but the gift of being bored. That is something—but hardly a day passes without my slurring over a guilty place in conversation, without my hiding my ignorance under a bushel, where I can go later and take a look at it by myself. Then I know all about it next time and sink lower and lower. A man can do nothing alone. Of course, ignorance must be natural and not acquired in order to have the true ring and afford the most relief in the world; but every wide-awake village that has thoughtful people enough—people who are educated up to it—ought to organise an Ignoramus Club to defend the town from papers and books——.
It was at about this point that The Presiding Genius of the State of Massachusetts took up the subject, and after modulating a little and then modulating a little more, he was soon listening to himself about a book we had not read, and I sat in my chair and wrote out this.
The Bugbear of Being Well Informed—A Practical Suggestion
1. This Club shall be known as the Ignoramus Club of ——.
4. Every member shall be pledged not to read the latest book until people have stopped expecting it.
5. The Club shall have a Standing Committee that shall report at every meeting on New Things That People Do Not Need to Know.
6. It shall have a Public Library Committee, appointed every year, to look over the books in regular order and report on Old Things That People Do Not Need to Know. (Committee instructed to keep the library as small as possible.)
8. No member (vacations excepted) shall read any book that he would not read twice. In case he does, he shall be obliged to read it twice or pay a fine (three times the price of book, net).
11. The Club shall meet weekly.
12. Any person of suitable age shall be eligible for membership in the Club, who, after a written examination in his deficiencies, shall appear, in the opinion of the Examining Board, to have selected his ignorance thoughtfully, conscientiously, and for the protection of his mind.
13. All persons thus approved shall be voted upon at the next regular meeting of the Club—the vote to be taken by ballot (any candidate who has not read When Knighthood Was in Flower, or Audrey, or David Harum—by acclamation).
Perhaps I have quoted from the by-laws sufficiently to give an idea of the spirit and aim of the Club. I append the order of meeting:
1. Called to order.
2. Reports of Committees.
3. General Confession (what members have read during the week).
5. Review: Books I Have Escaped.
6. Essay: Things Plato Did Not Need to Know.
7. Omniscience. Helpful Hints. Remedies.
8. The Description Evil; followed by an illustration.
9. Not Travelling on the Nile: By One Who Has Been There.
10. Our Village Street: Stereopticon.
11. What Not to Know about Birds.
12. Myself through an Opera-Glass.
13. Sonnet: Botany.
14. Essay: Proper Treatment of Paupers, Insane, and Instructive People.
15. The Fad for Facts.
16. How to Organise a Club against Clubs.
17. Paper: How to Humble Him Who Asks, "Have You Read——?"
18. Essay, by youngest member: Infinity. An Appreciation.
19. Review: The Heavens in a Nutshell.
20. Review. Wild Animals I Do Not Want to Know.
21. Exercise in Silence. (Ten Minutes. Entire Club.)
22. Essay (Ten Minutes): Encyclopaedia Britannica, Summary.
23. Exercise in Wondering about Something. (Selected. Ten Minutes. Entire Club.)
24. Debate: Which Is More Deadly—the Pen or the Sword?
25. Things Said To-Night That We Must Forget.
26. ADJOURNMENT. (Each member required to walk home alone looking at the stars.)
I have sometimes thought I would like to go off to some great, wide, bare, splendid place—nothing but Time and Room in it—and read awhile. I would want it built in the same general style and with the same general effect as the universe, but a universe in which everything lets one alone, in which everything just goes quietly on in its great still round, letting itself be looked at—no more said about it, nothing to be done about it. No exclamations required. No one standing around explaining things or showing how they appreciated them.
Then after I had looked about a little, seen that everything was safe and according to specifications, I think the first thing I would do would be to sit down and see if I could not read a great book—the way I used to read a great book, before I belonged to civilisation, read it until I felt my soul growing softly toward it, reaching up to the day and to the night with it.
I have always kept on hoping that I would be allowed, in spite of being somewhat mixed up with civilisation, to be a normal man sometime. It has always seemed to me that the normal man—the highly organised man in all ages, is the man who takes the universe primarily as a spectacle. This is his main use for it. The object of his life is to get a good look at it before he dies—to be the kind of man who can get a good look at it. How any one can go through a whole life—sixty or seventy years of it—with a splendour like this arching over him morning, noon, and night, flying beneath his feet, blooming out at him on every side, and not spend nearly all his time (after the bare necessaries of life) in taking it in, listening and tasting and looking in it, is one of the seven wonders of the world. I never look out of my factory window in civilisation, see a sunset or shore of the universe,—am reminded again that there is a universe—but I wonder at myself and wonder at It. I try to put civilisation and the universe together. I cannot do it. It's as if we were afraid to be caught looking at it—most of us—spending the time to look at it, or as if we were ashamed before the universe itself—running furiously to and fro in it, lest it should look at us.
It is the first trait of a great book, it seems to me, that it makes all other books—little hurrying, petulant books—wait. A kind of immeasurable elemental hunger comes to a man out of it. Somehow I feel I have not had it out with a great book if I have not faced other great things with it. I want to face storms with it, hours of weariness and miles of walking with it. It seems to ask me to. It seems to bring with it something which makes me want to stop my mere reading-and-doing kind of life, my ink-and-paper imitation kind of life, and come out and be a companion with the silent shining, with the eternal going on of things. It seems to be written in every writing that is worth a man's while that it can not—that it shall not—be read by itself. It is written that a man shall work to read, that he must win some great delight to do his reading with. Many and many a winter day I have tramped with four lines down to the edge of the night, to overtake my soul—to read four lines with. I have faced a wind for hours—been bitterly cold with it—before the utmost joy of the book I had lost would come back to me. I find that when I am being normal (vacations mostly) I scarcely know what it is to give myself over to another mind for more than an hour or so at a time. If a chapter has anything in it, I want to do something with it, go out and believe it, live with it, exercise it awhile. I am not only bored with a book when it does not interest me. I am bored with it when it does. I want to interrupt it, take it outdoors, see what the hills and clouds think, try it on, test it, see if it is good enough—see if it can come down upon me as rain or sunlight or other real things and blow upon me as the wind. It does not belong to me until it has found its way through all the weathers within and the weathers without, until it drifts with me through moods, events, sensations, and days and nights, faces and sunsets, and the light of stars,—until it is a part of life itself. I find there is no other or shorter or easier way for me to do with a great book than to greet it as it seems to ask to be greeted, as if it were a world that had come to me and sought me out—wanted me to live in it. Hundreds and hundreds of times, when I am being civilised, have I not tried to do otherwise? Have I not stopped my poor pale, hurried, busy soul (like a kind of spectre flying past me) before a great book and tried to get it to speak to it, and it would not? It requires a world—a great book does—as a kind of ticket of admission, and what have I to do, when I am being civilised, with a world—the one that's running still and godlike over me? Do I not for days and weeks at a time go about in it, guilty, shut-in, and foolish under it, slinking about—its emptied miracles all around me, mean, joyless, anxious, unable to look the littlest flower in the face—unable——. "Ah, God!" my soul cries out within me. Are not all these things mine? Do they not belong with me and I with them? And I go racing about, making things up in their presence, plodding for shadows, cutting out paper dolls to live with. All the time this earnest, splendid, wasted heaven shining over me—doing nothing with it, expecting nothing of it—a little more warmth out of it perhaps, a little more light not to see in——. Who am I that the grasses should whisper to me, that the winds should blow upon me? Now and then there are days that come, when I see a flower—when I really see a flower—and my soul cries out to it.
Now and then there are days too, when I see a great book, a book that has the universe wrought in it. I find my soul feeling it vaguely, creeping toward it. I wonder if I dare to read it. I remember how I used to read it. I all but pray to it. I sit in my factory window and try sometimes. But it is all far away—at least as long as I stay in my window. It's all about some one else—a kind of splendid wistful walking in a dream. It does not really belong to me to live in a great book—a book with the universe in it. Sometimes it almost seems to. But it barely, faintly belongs to me. It is as if the sky came to me, and stooped down over me, and then went softly away in my sleep.
The Dead Level of Intelligence
Your hostess introduces you to a man in a drawing-room. "Mr. C—— belongs to a Browning Club, too," she says.
What are you going to do about it? Are you going to talk about Browning?
Not if Browning is one of your alive places. You will reconnoitre first—James Whitcomb Riley or Ella Wheeler Wilcox. There is no telling where The Enemy will bring you up, if you do not. He may tell you something about Browning you never knew—something you have always wanted to know,—but you will be hurt that he knew it. He may be the original Grammarian of "The Grammarian's Funeral" (whom Robert Browning took—and knew perfectly well that he took at the one poetic moment of his life), but his belonging to a Browning Club—The Enemy, that is—does not mean anything to you or to any one else nowadays—either about Browning or about himself.
There was a time once, when, if a man revealed in conversation, that he was familiar with poetic structure in John Keats, it meant something about the man—his temperament, his producing or delighting power. It means now, that he has taken a course in poetics in college, or teaches English in a high school, and is carrying deadly information about with him wherever he goes. It does not mean that he has a spark of the Keats spirit in him, or that he could have endured being in the same room with Keats, or Keats could have endured being in the same room with him, for fifteen minutes.
If there is one inconvenience rather than another in being born in the latter half of the nineteenth century, it is the almost constant compulsion one is under in it, of finding people out—making a distinction between the people who know a beautiful thing and are worth while, and the boors of culture—the people who know all about it. One sees on every hand to-day persons occupying positions of importance who have been taken through all the motions of education, from the bottom to the top, but who always belong to the intellectual lower classes whatever their positions may be, because they are not masters. They are clumsy and futile with knowledge. Their culture has not been made over into them—selves. They have acquired it largely under mob-influence (the dead level of intelligence), and all that they can do with it, not wanting it, is to be teachery with it—force it on other people who do not want it.
Whether in the origin, processes, or results of their learning, these people have all the attributes of a mob. Their influence and force in civilisation is a mob influence, and it operates in the old and classic fashion of mobs upon all who oppose it.
It constitutes at present the most important and securely intrenched intimidating force that modern society presents against the actual culture of the world, whether in the schools or out of them. Its voice is in every street, and its shout of derision may be heard in almost every walk of life against all who refuse to conform to it. There are but very few who refuse. Millions of human beings, young and old, in meek and willing rows are seen on every side, standing before It—THE DEAD LEVEL,—anxious to do anything to be graded up to it, or to be graded down to it—offering their heads to be taken off, their necks to be stretched, or their waists—willing to live footless all their days—anything—anything whatever, bless their hearts! to know that they are on the Level, the Dead Level, the precise and exact Dead Level of Intelligence.
The fact that this mob-power keeps its hold by using books instead of bricks is merely a matter of form. It occupies most of the strategic positions just now in the highways of learning, and it does all the things that mobs do, and does them in the way that mobs do them. It has broken into the gardens, into the arts, the resting-places of nations, and with its factories to learn to love in, its treadmills to learn to sing in, it girdles its belt of drudgery around the world and carries bricks and mortar to the clouds. It shouts to every human being across the spaces—the outdoors of life: "Who goes there? Come thou with us. Dig thou with us. Root or die!"
Every vagrant joy-maker and world-builder the modern era boasts—genius, lover, singer, artist, has had to have his struggle with the hod-carriers of culture, and if a lover of books has not enough love in him to refuse to be coerced into joining the huge Intimidator, the aggregation of the Reading Labour Unions of the world, which rules the world, there is little hope for him. All true books draw quietly away from him. Their spirit is a spirit he cannot know.
It would be hard to find a more significant fact with regard to the ruling culture of modern life than the almost total displacement of temperament in it,—its blank, staring inexpressiveness. We have lived our lives so long under the domination of the "Cultured-man-must" theory of education—the industry of being well informed has gained such headway with us, that out of all of the crowds of the civilised we prefer to live with to-day, one must go very far to find a cultivated man who has not violated himself in his knowledge, who has not given up his last chance at distinction—his last chance to have his knowledge fit him closely and express him and belong to him.
The time was, when knowledge was made to fit people like their clothes. But now that we have come to the point where we pride ourselves on educating people in rows and civilising them in the bulk, "If a man has the privilege of being born by himself, of beginning his life by himself, it is as much as he can expect," says the typical Board of Education. The result is, so far as his being educated is concerned, the average man looks back to his first birthday as his last chance of being treated—as God made him,—a special creation by himself. "The Almighty may deal with a man, when He makes him, as a special creation by himself. He may manage to do it afterward. We cannot," says The Board, succinctly, drawing its salary; "It increases the tax rate."
The problem is dealt with simply enough. There is just so much cloth to be had and just so many young and two-legged persons to be covered with it—and that is the end of it. The growing child walks down the years—turns every corner of life—with Vistas of Ready-Made Clothing hanging before him, closing behind him. Unless he shall fit himself to these clothes—he is given to understand—down the pitying, staring world he shall go, naked, all his days, like a dream in the night.
It is a general principle that a nation's life can be said to be truly a civilised life, in proportion as it is expressive, and in proportion as all the persons in it, in the things they know and in the things they do, are engaged in expressing what they are.
A generation may be said to stand forth in history, to be a great and memorable generation in art and letters, in material and spiritual creation, in proportion as the knowledge of that generation was fitted to the people who wore it and the things they were doing in it, and the things they were born to do.
If it were not contradicted by almost every attribute of what is being called an age of special and general culture, it would seem to be the first axiom of all culture that knowledge can only be made to be true knowledge, by being made to fit people, and to express them as their clothes fit them and express them.
But we do not want knowledge in our civilisation to fit people as their clothes fit them. We do not even want their clothes to fit them. The people themselves do not want it. Our modern life is an elaborate and organised endeavour, on the part of almost every person in it, to escape from being fitted, either in knowledge or in anything else. The first symptom of civilisation—of the fact that a man is becoming civilised—is that he wishes to appear to belong where he does not. It is looked upon as the spirit of the age. He wishes to be learned, that no one may find out how little he knows. He wishes to be religious, that no one may see how wicked he is. He wishes to be respectable, that no one may know that he does not respect himself. The result mocks at us from every corner in life. Society is a struggle to get into the wrong clothes. Culture is a struggle to learn the things that belong to some one else. Black Mollie (who is the cook next door) presented her betrothed last week—a stable hand on the farm—with an eight-dollar manicure set. She did not mean to sum up the condition of culture in the United States in this simple and tender act. But she did.
Michael O'Hennessy, who lives under the hill, sums it up also. He has just bought a brougham in which he and Mrs. O'H. can be seen almost any pleasant Sunday driving in the Park. It is not to be denied that Michael O'Hennessy, sitting in his brougham, is a genuinely happy-looking object. But it is not the brougham itself that Michael enjoys. What he enjoys is the fact that he has bought the brougham, and that the brougham belongs to some one else. Mrs. John Brown-Smith, who presides at our tubs from week to week, and who comes to us in a brilliant silk waist (removed for business), has just bought a piano to play Hold the Fort on, with one finger, when the neighbours are passing by—a fact which is not without national significance, which sheds light upon schools and upon college catalogues and learning-shows, and upon educational conditions through the whole United States.
It would be a great pity if a man could not know the things that have always belonged before, to other men to know, and it is the essence of culture that he should, but his appearing to know things that belong to some one else—his desire to appear to know them—heaps up darkness. The more things there are a man knows without knowing the inside of them—the spirit of them—the more kinds of an ignoramus he is. It is not enough to say that the learned man (learned in this way) is merely ignorant. His ignorance is placed where it counts the most,—generally,—at the fountain heads of society, and he radiates ignorance.
There seem to be three objections to the Dead Level of Intelligence,—getting people at all hazards, alive or dead, to know certain things. First, the things that a person who learns in this way appears to know, are blighted by his appearing to know them. Second, he keeps other people who might know them from wanting to. Third, he poisons his own life, by appearing to know—by even desiring to appear to know—what is not in him to know. He takes away the last hope he can ever have of really knowing the thing he appears to know, and, unless he is careful, the last hope he can ever have of really knowing anything. He destroys the thing a man does his knowing with. It is not the least pathetic phase of the great industry of being well informed, that thousands of men and women may be seen on every hand, giving up their lives that they may appear to live, and giving up knowledge that they may appear to know, taking pains for vacuums. Success in appearing to know is success in locking one's self outside of knowledge, and all that can be said of the most learned man that lives—if he is learned in this way—is that he knows more things that he does not know, about more things, than any man in the world. He runs the gamut of ignorance.
In the meantime, as long as the industry of being well informed is the main ideal of living in the world, as long as every man's life, chasing the shadow of some other man's life, goes hurrying by, grasping at ignorance, there is nothing we can do—most of us—as educators, but to rescue a youth now and then from the rush and wait for results, both good and evil, to work themselves out. Those of us who respect every man's life, and delight in it and in the dignity of the things that belong to it, would like to do many things. We should be particularly glad to join hands in the "practical" things that are being hurried into the hurry around us. But they do not seem to us practical. The only practical thing we know of that can be done with a man who does not respect himself, is to get him to. It is true, no doubt, that we cannot respect another man's life for him, but we are profoundly convinced that we cannot do anything more practical for such a man's life than respecting it until he respects it himself, and we are convinced also that until he does respect it himself, respecting it for him is the only thing that any one else can do—the beginning and end of all action for him and of all knowledge. Democracy to-day in education—as in everything else—is facing its supreme opportunity. Going about in the world respecting men until they respect themselves is almost the only practical way there is of serving them.
We find it necessary to believe that any man in this present day who shall be inspired to respect his life, who shall refuse to take to himself the things that do not belong to his life, who shall break with the appearance of things, who shall rejoice in the things that are really real to him—there shall be no withstanding him. The strength of the universe shall be in him. He shall be glorious with it. The man who lives down through the knowledge that he has, has all the secret of all knowledge that he does not have. The spirit that all truths are known with, becomes his spirit. The essential mastery over all real things and over all real men is his possession forever.
When this vital and delighted knowledge—knowledge that is based on facts—one's own self-respecting experience with facts, shall begin again to be the habit of the educated life, the days of the Dead Level of Intelligence shall be numbered. Men are going to be the embodiment of the truths they know—some-time—as they have been in the past. When the world is filled once more with men who know what they know, learning will cease to be a theory about a theory of life, and children will acquire truths as helplessly and inescapably as they acquire parents. Truths will be learned through the types of men the truths have made. A man was meant to learn truths by gazing up and down lives—out of his own life.
When these principles are brought home to educators—when they are practised in some degree by the people, instead of merely, as they have always been before, by the leaders of the people, the world of knowledge shall be a new world. All knowledge shall be human, incarnate, expressive, artistic. Whole systems of knowledge shall come to us by seeing one another's faces on the street.
The Art of Reading as One Likes
Most of us are apt to discover by the time we are too old to get over it, that we are born with a natural gift for being interested in ourselves. We realise in a general way, that our lives are not very important—that they are being lived on a comparatively obscure but comfortable little planet, on a side street in space—but no matter how much we study astronomy, nor how fully we are made to feel how many other worlds there are for people to live on, and how many other people have lived on this one, we are still interested in ourselves.
The fact that the universe is very large is neither here nor there to us, in a certain sense. It is a mere matter of size. A man has to live on it. If he had to live on all of it, it would be different. It naturally comes to pass that when a human being once discovers that he is born in a universe like this, his first business in it is to find out the relation of the nearest, most sympathetic part of it to himself.
After the usual first successful experiment a child makes in making connection with the universe, the next thing he learns is how much of the universe there is that is not good to eat. He does not quite understand it at first—the unswallowableness of things. He soon comes to the conclusion that, although it is worth while as a general principle, in dealing with a universe, to try to make the connection, as a rule, with one's mouth, it cannot be expected to succeed except part of the time. He looks for another connection. He learns that some things in this world are merely made to feel, and drop on the floor. He discovers each of his senses by trying to make some other sense work. If his mouth waters for the moon, and he tries to smack his lips on a lullaby, who shall smile at him, poor little fellow, making his sturdy lunges at this huge, impenetrable world? He is making his connection and getting his hold on his world of colour and sense and sound, with infinitely more truth and patience and precision and delight than nine out of ten of his elders are doing or have ever been able to do, in the world of books.
The books that were written to be breathed—gravely chewed upon by the literary infants of this modern day,—who can number them?—books that were made to live in—vast, open clearings in the thicket of life—chapters like tents to dwell in under the wide heaven, visited like railway stations by excursion trains of readers,—books that were made to look down from—serene mountain heights criticised because factories are not founded on them—in every reading-room hundreds of people (who has not seen them?), looking up inspirations in encyclopaedias, poring over poems for facts, looking in the clouds for seeds, digging in the ground for sunsets; and everywhere through all the world, the whole huddling, crowding mob of those who read, hastening on its endless paper-paved streets, from the pyramids of Egypt and the gates of Greece, to Pater Noster Row and the Old Corner Book Store—nearly all of them trying to make the wrong connections with the right things or the right connections with things they have no connection with, and only now and then a straggler lagging behind perhaps, at some left-over bookstall, who truly knows how to read, or some beautiful, over-grown child let loose in a library—making connections for himself, who knows the uttermost joy of a book.
In seeking for a fundamental principle to proceed upon in the reading of books, it seems only reasonable to assert that the printed universe is governed by the same laws as the real one. If a child is to have his senses about him—his five reading senses—he must learn them in exactly the way he learns his five living senses. The most significant fact about the way a child learns the five senses he has to live with is, that no one can teach them to him. We do not even try to. There are still—thanks to a most merciful Heaven—five things left in the poor, experimented-on, battered, modern child, that a board of education cannot get at. For the first few months of his life, at least, it is generally conceded, the modern infant has his education—that is, his making connection with things—entirely in his own hands. That he learns more these first few months of his life when his education is in his own hands, than he learns in all the later days when he is surrounded by those who hope they are teaching him something, it may not be fair to say; but while it cannot be said that he learns more perhaps, what he does learn, he learns better, and more scientifically, than he is ever allowed to learn with ordinary parents and ordinary teachers and text-books in the years that come afterward. With most of us, this first year or so, we are obliged to confess, was the chance of our lives. Some of us have lived long enough to suspect that if we have ever really learned anything at all we must have learned it then.
The whole problem of bringing to pass in others and of maintaining in ourselves a vital and beautiful relation to the world of books, turns entirely upon such success as we may have in calling back or keeping up in our attitude toward books, the attitude of the new-born child when he wakes in the sunshine of the earth, and little by little on the edge of the infinite, groping and slow, begins to make his connections with the universe. It cannot be over-emphasised that this new-born child makes these connections for himself, that the entire value of having these connections made is in the fact that he makes them for himself. As between the books in a library that ought to be read, and a new life standing in it, that ought to read them, the sacred thing is not the books the child ought to read. The sacred thing is the way the child feels about the books; and unless the new life, like the needle of a magnet trembling there under the whole wide heaven of them all, is allowed to turn and poise itself by laws of attraction and repulsion forever left out of our hands, the magnet is ruined. It is made a dead thing. It makes no difference how many similar books may be placed within range of the dead thing afterward, nor how many good reasons there may be for the dead thing's being attracted to them, the poise of the magnet toward a book, which is the sole secret of any power that a book can have, is trained and disciplined out of it. The poise of the magnet, the magnet's poising itself, is inspiration, and inspiration is what a book is for.
If John Milton had had any idea when he wrote the little book called Paradise Lost that it was going to be used mostly during the nineteenth century to batter children's minds with, it is doubtful if he would ever have had the heart to write it. It does not damage a book very much to let it lie on a wooden shelf little longer than it ought to. But to come crashing down into the exquisite filaments of a human brain with it, to use it to keep a brain from continuing to be a brain—that is, an organ with all its reading senses acting and reacting warm and living in it, is a very serious matter. It always ends in the same way, this modern brutality with books. Even Bibles cannot stand it. Human nature stands it least of all. That books of all things in this world, made to open men's instincts with, should be so generally used to shut them up with, is one of the saddest signs we have of the caricature of culture that is having its way in our modern world. It is getting so that the only way the average dinned-at, educated modern boy, shut in with masterpieces, can really get to read is in some still overlooked moment when people are too tired of him to do him good. Then softly, perhaps guiltily, left all by himself with a book, he stumbles all of a sudden on his soul—steals out and loves something. It may not be the best, but listening to the singing of the crickets is more worth while than seeming to listen to the music of the spheres. It leads to the music of the spheres. All agencies, persons, institutions, or customs that interfere with this sensitive, self-discovering moment when a human spirit makes its connection in life with its ideal, that interfere with its being a genuine, instinctive, free and beautiful connection, living and growing daily of itself,—all influences that tend to make it a formal connection or a merely decorous or borrowed one, whether they act in the name of culture or religion or the state, are the profoundest, most subtle, and most unconquerable enemies of culture in the world.
It is not necessary to contend for the doctrine of reading as one likes—using the word "likes" in the sense of direction and temperament—in its larger and more permanent sense. It is but necessary to call attention to the fact that the universe of books is such a very large and various universe, a universe in which so much that one likes can be brought to bear at any given point, that reading as one likes is almost always safe in it. There is always more of what one likes than one can possibly read. It is impossible to like any one thing deeply without discovering a hundred other things to like with it. One is infallibly led out. If one touches the universe vitally at one point, all the rest of the universe flocks to it. It is the way a universe is made.
Almost anything can be accomplished with a child who has a habit of being eager with books, who respects them enough, and who respects himself enough, to leave books alone when he cannot be eager with them. Eagerness in reading counts as much as it does in living. A live reader who reads the wrong books is more promising than a dead one who reads the right ones. Being alive is the point. Anything can be done with life. It is the Seed of Infinity.
While much might be said for the topical or purely scientific method in learning how to read, it certainly is not claiming too much for the human, artistic, or personal point of view in reading, that it comes first in the order of time in a developing life and first in the order of strategic importance. Topical or scientific reading cannot be fruitful; it cannot even be scientific, in the larger sense, except as, in its own time and in its own way, it selects itself in due time in a boy's life, buds out, and is allowed to branch out, from his own inner personal reading.
As the first and most important and most far-reaching of the arts of reading is the Art of Reading as One Likes, the principles, inspirations, and difficulties of reading as one likes are the first to be considered in the following chapters.
The fact that the art of reading as one likes is the most difficult, perhaps the most impossible, of all the arts in modern times, constitutes one of those serio-comic problems of civilisation—a problem which civilisation itself, with all its swagger of science, its literary braggadocio, its Library Cure, with all its Board Schools, Commissioners of Education and specialists, and bishops and newsboys, all hard at work upon it, is only beginning to realise.
The Second Interference: The Disgrace of the Imagination
On Wondering Why One Was Born
The real trouble with most of the attempts that teachers and parents make, to teach children a vital relation to books, is that they do not believe in the books and that they do not believe in the children.
It is almost impossible to find a child who, in one direction or another, the first few years of his life, is not creative. It is almost impossible to find a parent or a teacher who does not discourage this creativeness. The discouragement begins in a small way, at first, in the average family, but as the more creative a child becomes the more inconvenient he is, as a general rule, every time a boy is caught being creative, something has to be done to him about it.
It is a part of the nature of creativeness that it involves being creative a large part of the time in the wrong direction. Half-proud and half-stupefied parents, failing to see that the mischief in a boy is the entire basis of his education, the mainspring of his life, not being able to break the mainspring themselves, frequently hire teachers to help them. The teacher who can break a mainspring first and keep it from getting mended, is often the most esteemed in the community. Those who have broken the most, "secure results." The spectacle of the mechanical, barren, conventional society so common in the present day to all who love their kind is a sign there is no withstanding. It is a spectacle we can only stand and watch—some of us,—the huge, dreary kinetoscope of it, grinding its cogs and wheels, and swinging its weary faces past our eyes. The most common sight in it and the one that hurts the hardest, is the boy who could be made into a man out of the parts of him that his parents and teachers are trying to throw away. The faults of the average child, as things are going just now, would be the making of him, if he could be placed in seeing hands. It may not be possible to educate a boy by using what has been left out of him, but it is more than possible to begin his education by using what ought to have been left out of him. So long as parents and teachers are either too dull or too busy to experiment with mischief, to be willing to pay for a child's originality what originality costs, only the most hopeless children can be expected to amount to anything. If we fail to see that originality is worth paying for, that the risk involved in a child's not being creative is infinitely more serious than the risk involved in his being creative in the wrong direction, there is little either for us or for our children to hope for, as the years go on, except to grow duller together. We do not like this growing duller together very well, perhaps, but we have the feeling at least that we have been educated, and when our children become at last as little interested in the workings of their minds, as parents and teachers are in theirs, we have the feeling that they also have been educated. We are not unwilling to admit, in a somewhat useless, kindly, generalising fashion, that vital and beautiful children delight in things, in proportion as they discover them, or are allowed to make them up, but we do not propose in the meantime to have our own children any more vital and beautiful than we can help. In four or five years they discover that a home is a place where the more one thinks of things, the more unhappy he is. In four or five years more they learn that a school is a place where children are expected not to use their brains while they are being cultivated. As long as he is at his mother's breast the typical American child finds that he is admired for thinking of things. When he runs around the house he finds gradually that he is admired very much less for thinking of things. At school he is disciplined for it. In a library, if he has an uncommonly active mind, and takes the liberty of being as alive there, as he is outdoors, if he roams through the books, vaults over their fences, climbs up their mountains, and eats of their fruit, and dreams by their streams, or is caught camping out in their woods, he is made an example of. He is treated as a tramp and an idler, and if he cannot be held down with a dictionary he is looked upon as not worth educating. If his parents decide he shall be educated anyway, dead or alive, or in spite of his being alive, the more he is educated the more he wonders why he was born and the more his teachers from behind their dictionaries, and the other boys from underneath their dictionaries, wonder why he was born. While it may be a general principle that the longer a boy wonders why he was born in conditions like these, and the longer his teachers and parents wonder, the more there is of him, it may be observed that a general principle is not of very much comfort to the boy while the process of wondering is going on. There seems to be no escape from the process, and if, while he is being educated, he is not allowed to use himself, he can hardly be blamed for spending a good deal of his time in wondering why he is not some one else. In a half-seeing, half-blinded fashion he struggles on. If he is obstinate enough, he manages to struggle through with his eyes shut. Sometimes he belongs to a higher kind, and opens his eyes and struggles.
With the average boy the struggle with the School and the Church is less vigorous than the struggle at home. It is more hopeless. A mother is a comparatively simple affair. One can either manage a mother or be managed. It is merely a matter of time. It is soon settled. There is something there. She is not boundless, intangible. The School and the Church are different. With the first fresh breaths of the world tingling in him, the youth stands before them. They are entirely new to him. They are huge, immeasurable, unaccountable. They loom over him—a part of the structure of the universe itself. A mother can meet one in a door. The problem is concentrated. The Church stretches beyond the sunrise. The School is part of the horizon of the earth, and what after all is his own life and who is he that he should take account of it? Out of space—out of time—out of history they come to him—the Church and the School. They are the assembling of all mankind around his soul. Each with its Cone of Ether, its desire to control the breath of his life, its determination to do his breathing for him, to push the Cone down over him, looms above him and above all in sight, before he speaks—before he is able to speak.
It is soon over. He lies passive and insensible at last,—as convenient as though he were dead, and the Church and the School operate upon him. They remove as many of his natural organs as they can, put in Presbyterian ones perhaps, or School-Board ones instead. Those that cannot be removed are numbed. When the time is fulfilled and the youth is cured of enough life at last to like living with the dead, and when it is thought he is enough like every one else to do, he is given his degree and sewed up.
After the sewing up his history is better imagined than described. Not being interesting to himself, he is not apt to be very interesting to any one else, and because of his lack of interest in himself he is called the average man.
 A Typical Case: "The brain was cut away neatly and dressed. A healthy yearling calf was tied down, her skull cut away, and a lobe of brain removed and fitted into the cavity in L's head. The wound was dressed and trephined, and the results awaited. The calf's head was fixed up with half a brain in it. Both the man and the calf have progressed satisfactorily, and the man is nearly as well as before the operation."—Daily Paper.
The main distinction of every greater or more extraordinary book is that it has been written by an extraordinary man—a natural or wild man, a man of genius, who has never been operated on. The main distinction of the man of talent is that he has somehow managed to escape a complete operation. It is a matter of common observation in reading biography that in proportion as men have had lasting power in the world there has been something irregular in their education. These irregularities, whether they happen to be due to overwhelming circumstance or to overwhelming temperament, seem to sum themselves up in one fundamental and comprehensive irregularity that penetrates them all—namely, every powerful mind, in proportion to its power, either in school or out of it or in spite of it, has educated itself. The ability that many men have used to avoid being educated is exactly the same ability they have used afterward to move the world with. In proportion as they have moved the world, they are found to have kept the lead in their education from their earliest years, to have had a habit of initiative as well as hospitality, to have maintained a creative, selective, active attitude toward all persons and toward all books that have been brought within range of their lives.
The Top of the Bureau Principle
The experience of being robbed of a story we are about to read, by the good friend who cannot help telling how it comes out, is an occasional experience in the lives of older people, but it sums up the main sensation of life in the career of a child. The whole existence of a boy may be said to be a daily—almost hourly—struggle to escape from being told things.