The Reading of Books Nowadays


LOOKING backward to the days of my youth in the late sixties and early seventies, however my memory may be dimmed by the mists of the intervening years, I seem to recall those days as a very earnest time in comparison with the present. The automobile, making it possible to go quickly to distant places, on pleasure bent, and thus to while away many precious hours, had not yet come, even though Mother Shipton’s prophecy, alleged to have been made in 1448, — ‘Carriages without horses shall go,’— had foretold its advent. ‘Canned music,’ as it has been called in the apt and hurried modern slang, was unthought of, and the motion picture, with its new, amusing, and interesting ways of wasting time, had not yet occurred, even as a possibility, to inventive minds.

Of course we had some amusements. Baseball was a real game instead of a business. We played croquet, which I remember as a most uninteresting game. We shot, usually very badly, at archery, and the young people occasionally went to dances, but the delirium of the tango and the maxixe was, of course, unknown at our staid parties, where due decorum usually reigned. Also, on great occasions we visited the theatre, now in danger of being superseded, I am told, by the ‘movies’ of the better class; but generally, — after the children’s pantomime period, which was a sort of forerunner of the modern circus and included many of its trick performances, — in order to see Shakespearean reproductions, or some play believed to be ‘improving’ or educational in its tendencies.

So we young people lived in those days, as I recollect it, in a vast seriousness. Our first years at school were not made easy and joyous to us by the modern methods of the kindergarten and other similar systems of acquiring knowledge without effort, and we thereby escaped the effects of the fallacy that learning and education can be attained without pains and concentration of the mind. We were constantly drilled at school in mental arithmetic and other studies of a kind not much relished, I am told, by the youth of to-day and unfashionable with modern educators of young children; and at home we were urged, in season and out, as we then thought, to improve our minds, to contemplate serious things, and especially and most frequently, to read good books, particularly those books which required effort for their understanding and mastery.

In the period after I left school to enter business, the young people with whom I most associated were reading such books as Darwin’s Origin of Species, Proctor’s Other Worlds than Ours, Green’s Short History of England, and many others of a similar character, and we discussed these among ourselves, and bought them, or had them given to us for our libraries — which it was the fashion of the time to encourage young people to accumulate. I remember having been particularly proud when I had acquired a score of such books, all of which I knew intimately by constant re-reading; and I can well say with an old author whose identity is lost in anonymity, ‘I have ever gained the most profit, and the most pleasure also, from the books which have made me think the most; and, when the difficulties have once been overcome, these are the books which have struck the deepest root, not only in my memory and understanding, but likewise in my affections.’


That this was not an experience confined to any particular group of young people is plain, I think, when the very large sales and wide distribution of books of a serious, or apparently serious, appeal at about that time is considered.

Beginning about the middle of the last century we find works on popular science, such as Hugh Miller’s Footprints of the Creator and The Testimony of the Rocks, in great demand; these were to be found in every household, as was also Martin Tupper’s Proverbial Philosophy, which had an extraordinarily wide sale, over five hundred thousand copies having been sold in the United States alone. Works on philosophy and religion were also in vogue, among them Christianity the Logic of Creation, by Henry James the father, which was widely read.

There was a very large demand, a little later on, for works of real scientific interest and value, and often the supply of books by Darwin, Spencer, Huxley, Tyndall, and kindred writers, was insufficient to meet the call for them, both at the libraries and in the bookstores. In this same period, too, there was a considerable interest in the philosophy of Carlyle, Emerson, and Holmes, and the rationalism of Lecky. In poetry, the religio-philosophical verse of Tennyson, Longfellow, Whittier, and Browning, the pagan pessimism of Swinburne and the naturalism of Whitman were in demand. Somewhat after this period I remember an extraordinary interest on the part of the reading public in Kidd’s Social Evolution and Henry Drummond’s Natural Law in the Spiritual World, of both of which more than one hundred thousand copies were sold within a few months of publication. Other well-known and widely circulated works of this time were John Fiske’s Idea of God and Cosmic Evolution, Marx’s Capital, and Henry George’s Progress and Poverty.

In our great and complex modern communities the observations of a single individual can be of very little value, owing to the limited possibilities of observing any large percentage of our multitudinous population with its many varying characteristics; but it seems to be true, in general, that the observer, at any rate in our great cities, sees among the young people of to-day, in whatever class his observations extend, almost unlimited opportunities for amusement and pastime. Among the young people with whom I am most familiar, tennis and golf, swimming and sailing, automobiling and attending the professional, or semi-professional, games and matches, in what many of them call ‘the good old summertime,’ the tango and maxixe, teas and bridge, the opera and theatre (in winter), seem so to fill their time that there is little left for serious pursuits. Even necessary duties and the care of health apparently get slight attention in the rush for exciting amusements. Education, by some still considered desirable, is acquired with much aid, by special tutoring, which has become a regular game of preparation for passing examinations and which usually imparts no knowledge whatever of the subject of study beyond that which is necessary to pass, by rote, the usual examination paper.

In other classes of the community I am told that the league baseball games, and the cheap dance-halls, and the ‘Ten, twent, thirt ’ movies, form the amusement and almost the sole topics of conversation.

If this indictment is true of any large proportion of our young people of today, — and for the reasons already stated it may do injustice to our seriousminded young people who, undoubtedly, are to be found in large numbers in all classes of our communities, — they need not necessarily be too severely censured. Golf and tennis are certainly healthand joy-giving employments which may be infinitely preferable to a too serious study of books, even though, as Clarendon truly says, ‘He who loves not books before he comes to thirty years of age, will hardly love them enough afterward to understand them.’ And the modern dance craze, to which I have referred, has affected not only the younger people but many of their elders also. One circle of about fifty couples, whose average age was fiftyfive, met twice each week during the past winter in one of our large cities, to learn the modern dances. One of the members of this class, aged sixty-five, recently explained to me his want of knowledge of a serious work which had been under discussion, and his failure to keep abreast of the current thought of the time, by saying that he danced twice a week until three A.M. and was too tired to read in the remaining time that he could spare from the labors of his profession.

Yet this tendency of the times for mere amusement, which my observation seems to show as prevailing among the younger element to-day, must inevitably be the result of the greatly increased opportunities for excitement and pastime in modern life, which foster what has been aptly termed the butterfly habit of mind. This is born in early years of the ‘play method’ of teaching in school, and strengthened by the habits of a society which votes continued serious conversation a bore. That this tendency is shown through all classes and ages in the community may be gathered by consulting the reports of books taken from our principal public libraries; the Newark Public Library, probably the most representative in the New York metropolitan district, in a recent year showing that fiction, which led by far all other classes of literature, was circulated to the number of 117,394 volumes, a larger figure than that recording the circulation of all other classes of books.

If we could obtain the figures from the circulating libraries in our cities, the preponderance of the reading of fiction would be much more manifest; the greater part of these circulating libraries, which are now to be found in great numbers in all our large cities, existing only for the purpose of circulating current novels, often of the ‘six-bestseller’ type. The librarians now tell us that there is a very considerable falling off in circulation of all classes of books at present, and they attribute this to the counter-attraction of the ‘movies.’


Farmers are not the only class in the community prone to grumble at existing conditions. A few days ago, at one of the clubs in New York, much affected by authors and consequently also greatly frequented by publishers, a well-known member of the latter profession was heard to complain that the selling of books to the public had been curtailed in turn by the multiplication of cheap magazines, by the increasing use of the automobile, by the invention of the Victrola and other mechanical producers of music, by the invention of the motion-picture film, and, iast but not least, by the new fashion of dances which absorbed, he said, the attention and time of young and old alike. I was reminded of the saying of an old-time New Englander that ‘Life was just one durn thing after another.’ It was the favorite remark of one of the principal printers at Cambridge, who used to set up and print most of the important books at the time when that part of New England held, by undisputed right, the literary leadership of the country, and who, undoubtedly, had troubles of his own in dealing with the authors of his time.

Whether the reasons given by my brother publisher for the falling off of interest on the part of the public in the publication of books were well and properly ascribed, it would be difficult to say. Many other causes are doubtless contributory to a fact which is only too patent to all who are engaged in the publishing and selling of books. Even at the public libraries throughout the country, where books, of course, cost the readers nothing, the circulation of books is, as I have said, steadily falling off.

Hardly as this state of things has borne on the publishers themselves, — more than one of the large, honored, and long-established houses of twenty years or so having been brought to the verge of bankruptcy by the changed conditions of the trade to which they have been unable to adjust themselves, — it has borne with even greater hardship on the authors. Especially has it been disastrous to authors of the more serious books of recent literature, whose earnings are often insufficient to pay for the typewriting of their manuscripts. This fact has become so widely known as to discourage the production of works of interest and value to the community, so that no surprise is expressed when our Ambassador to Great Britain, himself formerly an author, and more recently a member of a well-known publishing firm, is reported recently to have advised writers ‘against such a precarious career.’

‘ Gambling,’ he is said to have added, ‘ is more likely to yield a steady income.’

Works of scientific interest similar to those to which I referred in the earlier part of this article have very few examples in the literature of the day, and even the best of the volumes of this sort which now appear, find apparently few readers. A recent example which at once occurs to me is Sollas’s Ancient Hunters, a book of great value and almost fascinating interest, of which a large edition was sold, almost at once, in London. It has been distributed here in the number of less than two hundred copies, and Professor Scott’s monumental work on American Mammals has had almost as few readers.

The Atlantic Monthly, which has had such an honored career in the encouragement and production of good literature, and the editors of which seem to find genuine satisfaction in making good books known to its readers, published not long ago an article on the works of H. Fielding-Hall, which referred especially to his The Soul of a People. I read the paper with much interest, this work having long been favorite reading of my own. To my surprise I found, on making inquiry a few days ago, that the sale of the book had been limited to a few, a very few, hundred copies.

Why is it that the American people, rich beyond the peoples of other nations, with boundless facilities for education offered at a far less cost than in most other countries, fail to encourage by purchase and use the best works of our modern writers? Why is it that works such as those mentioned above can find only a few hundred purchasers in a wealthy and well-educated community of one hundred million souls? Why is it that works of serious and universal interest such as Thayer’s Life and Times of Cavour and Theodore Roosevelt’s Autobiography, to name no others, should fail to find a sale large enough in numbers to supply each public library in the country with even a single copy?

We cannot, in these cases, fix the responsibility on an excessive price for the books, because in several of the instances named the total number of copies sold is not sufficient to supply even a single copy to one in ten of the public libraries, where at least it is to be hoped that the price is not the prime factor in selection and purchase. Must we then blame the public for its apparent complete indifference to the best thought of the time in literature and in science? Is my publishing friend right in attributing this indifference to a too great enjoyment of the material opportunities for pastime of this age of mechanical wonder and advancement? Or have the scare headlines of modern journalism and the short, scrappy, but interesting methods of the cheap magazines so enhanced the ‘butterfly’ habit of mind that we are no longer capable of continued concentration, and have lost the power of reading books requiring serious attention?

The author too often believes that the publisher is to blame for the failure of his book to sell, and the friends of the author, members of the reading public, usually tell him that they have never seen the book advertised and that, anyhow, the high price at which (because of the small demand) it must be sold, prevents its sale. All publishers do not resent criticism; most of the fraternity, I believe, recognize the inadequacy of methods of book-distribution, and are, in their efforts to improve them, constantly trying experiments which they, usually vainly, believe will open to their wares the door which will induce the vast multitude of the general public to buy them.

Having so frequently heard publishers criticized in the strain referred to in the preceding paragraph, I recently tried the experiment of selecting about forty volumes of recent issue on serious subjects, and taking care to choose only those which had proved popular in the expensive first editions, I published them at fifty cents each. To meet the complaints in their entirety I devoted the sum of ten thousand dollars to advertising these cheap editions in periodicals of the widest general circulation; one of the journals used, I remember, claimed a circulation of nearly two million copies, and charged accordingly. The results of this experiment were not fortunate. The books in the cheap editions sold in less numbers in most cases than in the original more expensive editions, and the direct returns, in sales of books, amounted to three hundred dollars, or three per cent of the amount of the advertising bills.

This experiment and some of the other facts in regard to the sale of books cited in this article do not, of course, prove that there is not a large and eager public for the best works of modern literature, but they do lead, in the mind of one observer at least, to the query as to whether books in these days have not lost the preëminence they formerly enjoyed as the principal, and for many people the only, means of whiling away pleasantly, or instructively, the unoccupied hours of life.


In my younger days, as I have pointed out, and up to a time which may be roughly estimated at twenty or thirty years ago, we had three main resources for the spending of idle hours, and these, in their order of importance, were reading, the art of conversation, and letterwriting. Most people who remember the letters of this earlier period will remember them as giving, with charm and style, descriptions of the life and the news of the day. The necessity for such letter-writing, removed by an overzealous and much too evident daily and hourly press, has passed away, and with it has passed one of the chief resources of our earlier years. The art of conversation, a constant resource and delight of older generations, and of which Emerson says, ‘Wise, cultivated, genial conversation is the last flower of civilization, and the best result which life has to offer us,’ has also passed away, or at any rate, is no longer understood as it formerly was, and there are certainly no adepts in its practice now to be found. Can it be true that reading also is to go out of fashion, that books will no longer be bought or read, and that their place is to be taken by other means of passing the time similar to those to which I have elsewhere referred?

The value, to the mind and character, of the reading of good books cannot be overestimated. The reading of such books as I have mentioned, and others of a similar sort, as the occupation of my earlier years, was a liberal education in my case, and has stood me in better stead than my other educational opportunities of the school and college; and if it is true that we are in danger of losing our taste for serious reading, as many of the facts of our times seem to prove, we should bestir ourselves to avert, in time, what must otherwise prove a terrible misfortune, not only to ourselves, but to the character and intelligence of those who come after us.

It is evident that the dangers of the growth of a distaste for reading are attracting the attention of the foremost of our educational authorities. In many parts of the country already something is being done to endeavor to train our young people in the reading of books which require thought and concentration for their proper understanding; but because so much of the reading material now placed before the younger generation is doubtful, not to say trashy, in character, the movement needs enlargement and discriminating supervision, in order that it may gain the proper momentum to make it a part of the daily life of the children, and also in order that the taste for good reading may be developed early.

In this connection I am reminded too of the widely followed plan of including the reading of English classics as a part of the regular work in the secondary schools, a movement admirable in itself but not without its dangers to the cause of good reading, in that it does not seem to encourage that love of reading which is the one greatly desired end to be attained. One, at least, of my acquaintances has confided to me that he attributed his antipathy to the reading of good books to having been obliged to read such works as a task in the schoolroom.

In response to a former article in the Atlantic Monthly on the circulation of books, I received a large number of letters, many of them containing suggestions which were both timely and helpful, and some of which I have, indeed, made use of in one way or another. It may be, if I have rightly stated the problem of serious reading in this paper, that I may again receive similar assistance in helping to solve it.

Of one thing I feel quite certain, that the reading of good literature is necessary to the growth of the mind and the strengthening of character, especially in young people, and that there is no resource for all periods of life so helpful, so satisfying, and so enduring as a love of good books. Channing well says: ‘God be thanked for books. They are the voices of the distant and the dead, and make us heirs

of the spiritual life of past ages. Books are the true levelers. They give to all who will faithfully use them the society, the spiritual presence, of the best and greatest of our race.’