[Note: This is taken from Hamilton Wright Mabie's Books and Culture.]
The importance of reading habitually the best books becomes apparent when one remembers that taste depends very largely on the standards with which we are familiar, and that the ability to enjoy the best and only the best is conditioned upon intimate acquaintance with the best. The man who is thrown into constant association with inferior work either revolts against his surroundings or suffers a disintegration of aim and standard, which perceptibly lowers the plane on which he lives. In either case the power of enjoyment from contact with a genuine piece of creative work is sensibly diminished, and may be finally lost. The delicacy of the mind is both precious and perishable; it can be preserved only by associations which confirm and satisfy it. For this reason, among others, the best books are the only books which a man bent on culture should read; inferior books not only waste his time, but they dull the edge of his perception and diminish his capacity for delight.
This delight, born afresh of every new contact of the mind with a real book, furnishes indubitable evidence that the reader has the feeling for literature,—a possession much rarer than is commonly supposed. It is no injustice to say that the majority of those who read have no feeling for literature; their interest is awakened or sustained not by the literary quality of a book, but by some element of brightness or novelty, or by the charm of narrative. Reading which finds its reward in these things is entirely legitimate, but it is not the kind of reading which secures culture. It adds largely to one's stock of information, and it refreshes the mind by introducing new objects of interest; but it does not minister directly to the refining and maturing of the nature. The same book may be read in entirely different ways and with entirely different results. One may, for instance, read Shakespeare's historical plays simply for the story element which runs through them, and for the interest which the skilful use of that element excites; and in such a reading there will be distinct gain for the reader. This is the way in which a healthy boy generally reads these plays for the first time. From such a reading one will get information and refreshment; more than one English statesman has confessed that he owed his knowledge of certain periods of English history largely to Shakespeare. On the other hand, one may read these plays for the joy of the art that is in them, and for the enrichment which comes from contact with the deep and tumultuous life which throbs through them; and this is the kind of reading which produces culture, the reading which means enlargement and ripening.
The feeling for literature, like the feeling for art in general, is not only susceptible of cultivation, but very quickly responds to appeals which are made to it by noble or beautiful objects. It is essentially a feeling, but it is a feeling which depends very largely on intelligence; it is strengthened and made sensitive and responsive by constant contact with those objects which call it out. No rules can be laid down for its development save the very simple rule to read only and always those books which are literature. It is impossible to give specific directions for the cultivation of the feeling for Nature. It is not to be gotten out of text-books of any kind; it is not to be found in botanies or geologies or works on zoology; it is to be gotten only out of familiarity with Nature herself. Daily fellowship with landscapes, trees, skies, birds, with an open mind and in a receptive mood, soon develops in one a kind of spiritual sense which takes cognizance of things not seen before and adds a new joy and resource to life. In like manner the feeling for literature is quickened and nourished by intimate acquaintance with books of beauty and power. Such an intimacy makes the sense of delight more keen, preserves it against influences which tend to deaden it, and makes the taste more sure and trustworthy. A man who has long had acquaintance with the best in any department of art comes to have, almost unconsciously to himself, an instinctive power of discerning good work from bad, of recognizing on the instant the sound and true method and style, and of feeling a fresh and constant delight in such work. His education comes not by didactic, but by vital methods.
The art quality in a book is as difficult to analyze as the feeling for it; not because it is intangible or indefinite, but because it is so subtly diffused. It is difficult to analyze because it is the breath of life in the book, and life always evades us, no matter how keen and exhaustive our search may be. Most of us are so entirely out of touch with the spirit of art in this busy new world that we are not quite convinced of its reality. We know that it is decorative, and that a certain pleasure flows from it; but we are skeptical of its significance in the life of the race, of its deep necessity in the development of that life, and of its supreme educational value. And our skepticism, it must be frankly said, like most skepticism, grows out of our ignorance. True art has nothing in common with the popular conception of its nature and uses. Instead of being decorative, it is organic; when men arrive at a certain stage of ripeness and power they express themselves through its forms as naturally as the tree puts forth its flowers. Nothing which lies within the range of human achievement is more real or inevitable. This expression is neither mechanical nor artificial; it is made under certain inflexible laws, but they are the laws of the human spirit, not the rules of a craft; they are rooted in that deeper psychology which deals with man as an organic whole and not as a bundle of separate faculties.
It was once pointed out to Tennyson that he had scrupulously conformed, in a certain poem, to a number of rules of versification and to certain principles in the use of different sound values. "Yes," answered the poet in substance, "I carefully observed all those rules and was entirely unconscious of them!" There was no contradiction between the Laureate's practice of his craft and the technical rules which govern it. The poet's instinct kept him in harmony with those essential and vital principles of language of which the formal rules are simply didactic statements.
Art, it need hardly be said, is never artifice; intelligence and calculation enter into the work of the artist, but in the last analysis it is the free and noble expression of his own personality. It expresses what is deepest and most significant in him, and expresses it in a final rather than a provisional form. The secret of the reality and power of art lies in the fact that it is the culmination and summing up of a process of observation, experience, and feeling; it is the deposit of whatever is richest and most enduring in the life of a man or a race. It is a finality both of experience and of thought; it contains the ultimate and the widest conception of man's nature and life, or of the meaning and reality of Nature, which an age or a race reaches. It is the supreme flowering of the genius of a race or an age. It has, therefore, the highest educational value. For the very highest products of man's life in this world are his ideas and ideals; they grow out of his highest nature; they react on his character; they are the precious deposit of all that he has thought, felt, suffered, and done in word and work, in feeling and action. The richest educational material upon which modern men are nourished are these ultimate conclusions and convictions of the Hebrew, the Greek, and the Roman. These ultimate inferences, these final interpretations of their own natures and of the world about them, contain not only the thought of these races, but their life as well. They have, therefore, a vital quality which not only assures their own immortality, but has the power of transmission to others. These ultimate results of experience are embodied in art, and especially in literature; and that which makes them art is this very vitality. For this reason art is absolutely essential for culture; it has the power of enriching and expanding the natures which come in contact with it by transmitting to them the highest results of the life of the past, by sharing with them the ripeness and maturity of the human spirit in its universal experience.
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