The influence of literature upon a country is well-nigh incalculable. The Druid warriors were incited to deeds of desperate valor by the songs of their bards; and in modern times victories are achieved by the writers of books no less important than many won on tented fields. The literature of a nation molds the thoughts of a whole people, guides their actions, and impresses its indelible mark upon the lives and conduct of its citizens. Who can estimate the effect of Voltaire’s writings on the French people? The results for which many philanthropists toiled in vain were achieved by the works of Dickens. The power of books and literature is no less marked in the individual than in the mass. To the weak, and to the strong in their times of weakness, books are inspiring friends and teachers. Against the feebleness of individual efforts they proclaim the victory of faith and patience, and against the uncertainties and discouragement of one day’s work they set forth the richer and more complete life that results from perseverance in right actions. It sets the mind more and more in harmony with the noblest aims, and holds before it a crown of honor and power.
There is a certain monotony in daily life, and there are those whose aims are high, but who lack the inherent strength to stand true to them amid adverse influences, and so gradually drop out of the ever-thinning ranks of those who would wrest from Fame her richest trophies. They are conquered by routine, and disheartened by the discipline and labor that guard the prizes of life. Even to the resolute, persevering ones there are hours of weakness and weariness. To all such literature comes with its helping hand in hours of discouragement. It revives hope in the minds of those almost discouraged, and brings the comforts of philosophy to the cast-down. Books are a guide to youth and an inspiration for age. They support us under solitude, and keep us from becoming a burden to ourselves. They lessen our cares, compose our passions, and lay our disappointments asleep. When weary of the living, we may, by their aid, repair to the dead, who have nothing of peevishness, pride, or design in their conversation.
In books we live continually in the decisive moments of history, and in the deepest experience of individual lives. The flowers which we cull painfully and at long intervals in our personal history blossom in profusion here, and the air is full of fragrance which touches our own life only in its happier times. In our libraries we meet great minds on an equality, and feel at ease with them. We come to know them better, perhaps, than those who bear their names and sit at their tables. The reserve that makes so many fine natures difficult of access is here entirely lost. No carelessness of manner, no poverty of speech or unfortunate personal peculiarity, mars the intercourse of author and reader. It is a relation in which the exchange of thought is undisturbed by outward conditions. We lose our narrow selves in the broader life that is open to us. We forget the hindrance and limitation of our own work in the full comprehension of that stronger life that can not be bound nor confined, but grows in all soils, and climbs heavenward under every sky.
Literature is the soul of action, the only sensible articulate voice of the accomplished facts of the past. The men of antiquity are dead; their cities are ruins; their temples are dust; their fleets and armies have disappeared; yet all these exist in magic preservation in the literature which they have bequeathed to us, and their manners and their deeds are as familiar to us as the events of yesterday. Papers and books are really the teachers, guides, and lawgivers of the world to-day. Their influence is very much like that of a companion to whom we are attached. Hence it is of more consequence to know what class to avoid than what to choose; for good books are as scarce as good companions, and in both instances all we can learn from bad ones is that so much time has been worse than thrown away.
We should choose our books as we do our friends, for their sterling and intrinsic merit, not for the accidental circumstances in their favor. For, with books as with men, it seldom happens that their performances are fully equal to their pretensions, nor their capital to their credit. As we should always seek the companionship of the best class of people, so we should always seek the companionship of the best books. He that will have no books but such as are scarce evinces about as correct a taste in literature as he would do in friendship who should have no friends but those whom the rest of the world have discarded. Some books we should make our constant companions and associates; others we should receive only as occasional acquaintances and visitors. Some we should take with us wherever we go; others we should leave behind us forever. Some, of gilded outsides, are full of depravity, and we should shun them as we would the actual vices which they represent. Some books we should keep in our hands and lay on our hearts, while the best we could dispose of others would be to throw them in the fire.
You may judge a man more truly by the books and papers that he reads than by the company which he keeps, for his associates are in a measure imposed upon him; but his reading is the result of choice; and the man who chooses a certain class of books and papers unconsciously becomes more colored in their views, more rooted in their opinions, and the mind becomes trained to their way of thinking. All the life and feeling of a young girl fascinated by some glowing love romance is colored and shaped by the page she reads. If it is false and weak and foolish, she is false and weak and foolish too; but if it is true and tender and inspiring, then something of its truth and tenderness and inspiration will grow into her soul, and will become a part of her very self. The boy who reads of deeds of manliness, of bravery and noble doing, feels the spirit of emulation grow within him, and the seed is planted which will bring forth fruit of heroic endeavor and exalted life.
In literature our tastes will be discovered by what we give, our judgment by that which we withhold. That writer does the most who gives his readers the most knowledge and takes from them the least time, for that period of existence is alone deserving the name of life which is rationally employed. Those books are most profitable to read which make the readers think most. Diminutive books, like diminutive men and women, may be of greater value than they seem to be; but great tomes are greatly dreaded. It is a saying that “books file away the mind.” Much reading is certainly not profitable without much meditation, and many vigorous and profound thinkers have read comparatively little, though it must be admitted most great minds have been very devout and ardent readers. There is scarcely any thing that is not to be found in books, but it does not follow that we shall find every thing in them unless we handle them with great care.
Wonderful literature springs from the depths and fullness of intellectual and moral life, from the energy of thought and feeling. It deals with questions of life in a plain, practical manner. It holds up the past for your inspection. It brings to light the secrets of nature. It enables us to discover the infinity of things, the immensity of nature, the wonders of the heavens, the earth, and the seas. Works of fiction are the ornamental parts of literature and learning. They are agreeable embellishments of the edifice, but poor foundations for it to rest upon. The literature of the day is largely composed of newspapers and periodicals. No one can too highly appreciate the magic power of the press or too highly depreciate its abuse. Newspapers have become the great highway of that intelligence which exerts a controlling power over a nation, catering the everyday food of the mind. Show us an intelligent family of boys and girls, and we will show you a family where newspapers and periodicals are plenty. Nobody who has been without these private tutors can know their educating power for good or evil. Think of the innumerable topics of discussion which they suggest at the table; the important public measures with which the children thus early become acquainted; of the great philanthropic issues to which, unconsciously perhaps, their attention is called, and the general spirit of intelligence which is elicited by these quiet visitors. This vast world moves along lines of thought and sentiment and principles, and the press gives to these wings to fly and tongues to speak.