John Wilkes Booth - Reader of Novels

The great profusion of children's books protracts the imbecility of childhood. They arrest the understanding, instead of advancing it. They give forwardness without strength. They hinder the mind from making vigorous shoots, teach it to stoop when it should soar, and contract when it should expand...

Youth almost habitually seek amusement. The youthful intellect requires relaxation from a close attention to literary acquisitions: and to relieve the wearisomeness of such attention, books of amusement are generally sought, and read with avidity... Important then is it, that impressions made during the tender impressible years of childhood and youth, should be such as shall tend to prepare, rather than unfit the mind for respectability, real enjoyment, and permanent usefulness in riper years...

Rarely will a youth engage with assiduity, or even without disgust, in a study requiring mental exertion, immediately after his mind has been relaxed and debilitated; his taste, if not his heart corrupted; and his soul kindled into ardour at scenes of imagined bliss, which probably he will never realize, but which will only prepare his mind for bitter disappointment.

ON NOVEL READING (from The Guardian; or Youth's Religious Instructor, 1820, pp. 46-49) via www.merrycoz.org/books/NOVELS01.HTM

You can find the most fascinating stuff on the internet. Don't get me wrong - it's a soul-sucking beast which will eventually destroy us all, but in the meantime OMGBUNNIES!!! 

OMG Bunnies

One of the coolest finds of the past 30 or 40 decades is www.merrycoz.org, a bewildering treasury of rare 19th Century writing edited, organized, and editorialized with love by the site's creator, Pat Pflieger.

The mother lode is the collection of rare 19th Century literature for young people - including contemporaneous commentary on what they should and should not be reading:

Novel-readers spend many a precious hour in dreaming out clumsy little romances of their own, in which they themselves are the beautiful ladies and the gallant gentlemen who achieve impossibilities, suffer unutterable woe for a season, and at last anchor in a boundless ocean of connubial bliss. Nor does it require much previous mental cultivation to enable one to indulge in these visionary joys. The school-boy and school-girl, the apprentice, the seamstress, the girl in the kitchen, can conjure up rosy dreams as readily as other people; and perhaps more readily, as it requires but little reading of the sort to render them impatient of their lot in life, and set them to imagine something that looks higher and better.

In fact, the Cinderella of the old nursery story is the true type of thousands of our novel-readers... Ella, sitting among her native cinders, is a very prosaic individual, addicted to exceedingly prosaic employments, and fulfilling a destiny far removed from sublimated romance. But touched by the wand of the good Fairy, Ella is transfigured, her coarse garments are robes of magnificence, the mice are prancing steeds, the pumpkin is a coach, and she rides in state, the admiration of all beholders, and weds the prince triumphantly. 

The modern Ella, sitting among the cinders, has indeed no good Fairy to confer sudden splendors upon her; but her place is well supplied by sundry periodicals, designed for just this style of readers. And so Ella invests her six cents weekly, and reads, and dreams. According to the flesh, she bears an honest, humble name, busies herself with a cooking stove, or a noisy sewing-machine, and with all her matrimonial anglings, perhaps has never a nibble. In her other capacity she is the Countess of Moonshine, who dwells in a Castle of Spain, wears a coronet of diamonds, and to whom ardent lords and smitten princes make love in loftiest eloquence; and she is blest.

But, as Napoleon once observed, there is only a step between the sublime and the ridiculous. At any moment the coach of state may relapse into its original squash, the prancing horses again become mice, the costly array turn once more to rags; and the Countess, sweeping in her trailing robes through the glittering crowd of admiring lords and envious ladies, subside into her former simple self, with the hideous onions to be peeled, or the clattering machine to be kept in motion.

 NOVELS AND NOVEL-READING, by Rev. J. T. Crane (from Popular Amusements. Cincinnati: Walden & Stowe, 1869; pp. 121-152) via www.merrycoz.org/books/CRANE.HTM

Gotta watch those crazy novel-readers; next thing you know, they're going to reach higher than their station in life. In his defense, the good Reverend Crane also condemns dancing, card-playing, and baseball - so maybe he wasn't all bad. He was incidentally the father of Stephen Crane - you know, the... um... novelist. What fun family dinners THOSE must have been!

Drunkard's ProgressThe implications in terms of women's issues, social class expectations, the tensions between faith and fancy, are all enormous, and too complex to even begin to tackle here (by which I mean, I have no idea what half the things I just said actually mean). Most often, fiction was compared to alcohol - fine in moderation, and if it were of the highest sort, but quick to overtake one's tastes and one's good sense until everything of value was destroyed by the devil in paperback.

I don't believe in the "Elvis Fallacy", an argument that goes something like this:

(1) People used to be offended by Elvis's music and the pelvic motions he stole from Forrest Gump,

(2) Most people now consider Elvis harmless and figure people were overreacting, therefore

(3) Nothing a public figure does, no matter how explicit or horrifying, should be challenged or called offensive, because... Elvis!

Nevertheless, it's worth considering some of the hand-wringing and soul-lamenting going on in these passages regarding reading that would today be considered rather tame compared to a truly violent, godless, porn-romps like The Hunger Games or The Fault In Our Stars.

Besides, novels killed President Lincoln: 

In the foul stroke that laid low the honored head of our late president we witness the force and emphasis of a stage-actor's education superadded to the morals of slavery. Crime is fearful enough when its blame is chargeable to a bad enterprise, and can be distributed among a million men, but it grows more fearful when a single villain leaps ahead of his class and concentrates all their wickedness into one enormity of his own.

The education of John Wilkes Booth had fitted him to act the part of murderer of our President. It had familiarized him with every species of tragedy till a murder meant nothing more to him than a move on a checker-board...

Does any young man feel as if he would like to be educated to do as daringly and dexterously as did Booth? Let him keep on, then, reading the bloody tales of the weekly story papers, or the flashy, ten cent, yellow-covered literature sold in almost every book store. He will soon learn how to be a hero of the approved romantic type. But, young friend, if you have any regard for your character, your future standing in society, the credit of your families, your own peace and the welfare of your souls, let such reading alone! Why should you suffer yourself to trace hour after hour the foul workings of human revenge, jealousy, malice and corruption, because some writer has woven them into intoxicating fiction? God has better pastime for you; better literature than that for your leisure hours. There is no aliment for the mind in that reading. Rather never read a printed line. Such material stimulates only the bad in your nature.

BOOTH AND BAD LITERATURE (from The Youth's Companion, May 11, 1865, p. 74) via www.merrycoz.org/yc/BADLIT.HTM

There's a pretty tasty bit that follows about the difference between offal-fed meat and meat fed on solid corn, but I worried it might lose something on the modern audience. "You are what you read" seems to capture it pretty well, though.

Space InvadersI was warned in my youth about my demonic rock'n'roll albums (I burned more classic vinyl in good faith than I can afford to replace on a public school teacher's salary), the perils of playing Dungeons & Dragons (yeah, yeah - big shock that I was a nerd, I'm sure), and later the violence promoted by video games (if aliens ever line up suicidally to drop down on me one at a time, I am SO ready), movies, the interweb, the 'rap' music, etc.  

Now the same fervency goes into fears that our kids will never learn to read or write because of texting, will never learn to listen or focus because of their phones, will never learn to properly use a telegraph machine or address an envelope because of their, um... lack of a need to ever, ever do those things. Ever. Still, we're supposed to be worried - panicked, even. 

And I won't lie - some of my students don't inspire me daily. We may need to learn Mandarin or Russian before I can die peacefully via ruling of some ACA Death Panel. I don't understand the things they've made popular in modern music, movies, or the YouTube. And tights aren't pants. 

But many of them do inspire me, and encourage me, and amaze me, with their wit, their drive, their insight, their souls, and their aspirations and ideals. A ridiculous number of them have every intention of going out and changing the world in ways both large and small, and several of them just might. They understand the difficulties and requisite suffering required to accomplish such things, but figure they'll find a way through or around whatever comes up.

Crazy dreamers, those kids. Must be reading too many novels.

This post is a reworking/repost of previous content. Don't worry - you won't be charged for this one. 

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