Side Talks with Girls/Chapter 9

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MY dearest comrade, my chosen friend is the girl who loves to read. I am thankful that there are so many of her. Her voice comes crying from the wilderness, "What shall I read?" And I, sitting among my books, feel that in my own way I must answer her question. But first I want to tell her how to read. She must not attempt a book that does not interest her. It may be true that she has taken it up because she has expected it to improve her, but that will never happen unless heart and brain alike are working on the thoughts bound between the covers. Mere reading by the eyes is of no value, we may read page after page and then put the book down and find that we know nothing whatever about it.

The book that is a friend to me may be a stupid, tiresome acquaintance to another, therefore no one person can say what will interest the other. In the last few years there have been innumerable lists of the hundred best books, and I feel that I may say that they are as useless as a worn-out blotter, for they only express the opinion of one person. So I will not tell my girls what books they ought to read, but I will tell them of the books I love, and which I hope they will learn to love.


Even if one could live the time allotted to the good man it would be impossible to read everything. The girl who is reading for a special purpose is, I may mention, not the girl to whom I am talking. My girl is the one who, busy either in the home or outside of it, is able to devote only a certain time to reading, and wants to get pleasure and benefit from books.

The girl who is able to speak French and German, and to read both easily, very contemptuously says, "Never read a translation." Now she is wrong. To-day there are extremely good translations of foreign authors in the market, and it would be very unwise to lose the reading of a good book because you have to take it in English rather than in its native tongue. Read books that are adapted to your moods; take a merry book when you are sad, but make it one of those merry books in which the wit does not sting and hurt the heart, and be very careful to avoid those most undesirable books that presume to jest at sacred things.


First of all thinkingly. I know there is no such word in the dictionary, but what I say covers what I mean ; let your eyes, mind, and heart become absorbed until you feel that you are of the people about whom you are reading, or else that you are arguing with the author as to his opinions. Don't be afraid to be ignorant. And the very first word which is not absolutely clear to you attach to your vocabulary by looking it out in the dictionary. Learn also to forget—to forget the wrong that you may have stumbled across and to forget the book that has made you unhappy. Last year when I was ill I had a book experience that taught me much. A friend came in and brought a book, which at that time was being talked about and reviewed, and in which she thought I would be interested. I read it through very carefully—with this result, that every pain I had grew worse, the entire world seemed against me, there was a black cloud across the sun, all the people were unhappy, and there was no promise of improvement in the future.

The next day some old novels were brought to me, and when the friend who had brought the black book came to me she said, "How much better you look! I am sure you liked that book," and I answered, "No, take it away. If I could I would burn every copy of it. If I look better to-day it is because I am living in the days of chivalry; I am seeing the romance of the French court; I am bowing down before Louis XIV., and I am happy to read about the daring deeds of the Mousquetaires, and how their cry was always 'For the king and for the ladies.'"

"Oh," she said, "you are only reading a novel." And I then confess to stealing a quotation from Jane Austen:

"'Only a novel,'" I said; "'it is only "Cecilia," or "Camilla," or "Belinda," or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineations of its variety, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor are conveyed to the world in the best language.'"


For the girl who loves to read I do not advise all translations, but there are very many which are good. If you are interested in France you can choose all the novels of the elder Dumas; that wonderful story of life, "'93," written by Victor Hugo, and also "Les Misérables." Then you may take up Daudet's earlier novels and get a glimpse of life during the time of Louis Napoleon. France will become so close to you that just here will fit in Dickens's "Tale of Two Cities," and then while your heart is full of the heroism of a man, you will elect to read a new and very full life of the martyrdom of Marie Antoinette. It is a new life of the queen written by Maxime de La Rocheterie. There you will not only find descriptions of the beautiful women of that day, but you will see pictures of all those who were famous either by their virtue or by their wickedness. A book with pictures is always doubly interesting, and I fancy my girls are like me in that respect. To gain a better knowledge of the women of the French courts read all the books written by Imbert de St. Armand. He begins by writing about the women of the Valois, and goes right through to the time when Josephine won friends for Napoleon by her sweetness and her loyalty, and even later. Having got so far you may choose Carlyle's "French Revolution," but if you find it stupid drop it, for if it tires you it will be of no use to you.

"Ah," says my girl, "you are mixing novels and history, Ruth Ashmore."

So I am, but that is the way I believe in reading. When you read let it be first of all for pleasure and then for profit.


If you want to visit Italy, the home of art, the land of beauty, the country that is like a wondrous old book, you must get the novels of Italian life written by Marion Crawford; they will show you pictures of the Italy of to-day, and in them you will also find descriptions of famous pictures and palaces that will make you hunt for yourself the books that will touch upon the subjects in which you have grown to have an interest. You will read Mrs. Piozzi's "Glimpses of Italian Society in the Eighteenth Century." You will find yourself searching out for the lives of the popes, and of the pagans as well, until some day you will discover that you want to possess, that you may look at it often, the book of that Christian Pagan, "The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius."

Russia, with its mystery and awfulness, is a country that you long to know about. Then you must take up "The Midnight Sun; or, The Tsar and the Nihilist," by Buckley. You will read Kennan on Siberia, and Stepniak, as he writes about the Russian peasantry; then you will give a jump away back and read the life of Catherine the Great, and so will understand why Russia has become what it is. I do not advise you to read the Russian novels of to-day.

England is so near to us, and her books are so many, that no girl will have trouble in finding them, but as she reads English history let her take with it Agnes Strickland's "Lives of the Queens of England," those poems of Austin Dobson's that belong to certain eras, and the comedies and tragedies not only of Shakespeare, but of those old writers who to-day furnish ideas for modern playwrights.


But some of you have so little time that you cannot read any histories but must find relaxation in the good novel alone. By the good novel I mean the one that, written in good English, tells an interesting story, has a distinct plot, and ends happily. The novel is the comedy of the library; it should bring pleasure; it may cause tears, but as the tears course down your cheek they should mark the place where the dimple is to form for the laughter. First of all Thackeray, and then Dickens. When you read "Henry Esmond" and the "Virginians" you will get a good picture of life in America when it was called "the Colonies." When you read "The Newcomes" you will meet and be thankful for the acquaintance of one of God's noblemen—a Christian gentleman. You will like "John Halifax, Gentleman." You will probably drift to the books of Walter Besant, the man who draws pictures of life as it is to-day and life as it ought to be. And then if you want a weird but intensely interesting book, you may take Crawford's "Witch of Prague," and for a while every-day life will go from you and you will be living in a city that is always old and which will never grow new.`


If you like adventure read the books of Rider Haggard, and follow them up, if you possibly can, with a history and a geography. If you like stories that hinge around a crime and show how by tiny clews and great ingenuity the criminal is discovered and the innocent proved free of sin, read the translated books of Gaboriau, of Boisgobey, and of that clever English writer, A. Conan Doyle. If you want an absolutely merry time take up the books of the man to whom I owe a never-ending debt of gratitude for the pleasure he has given me. I mean Jerome K. Jerome. After you have laughed at the adventures of the "Three Men in a Boat," delighted in the pranks of that wise dog Montmorenci, you will discover that in with the story you have read is a wonderful description of historic England as it is found going up the Thames. And when you take up the "History of a Pilgrimage" you will find you are reading not only one of the most beautiful descriptions of the Passion Play, but the tender story of the Man who came and died for you and for me—died in suffering and in shame. If you love short stories read "Marse Chan and Other Stories," by Thomas Nelson Page. Take "Gallegher" and "Van Bibber," by Richard Harding Davis, and when you have finished reading them you will save up your money to buy those two books, because you will want to enroll them among your friends. Kipling? Well, yes. Certainly "Plain Tales from the Hills." And for a good picture of Indian life, "The Potter's Thumb," by Mrs. Steel. Then, too, you must, for the sake of the fun, as well as the pictures of old New York, read all of Janvier's, beginning with his inimitable "Color Studies."


You will tell me that you have read all the standard poets. If you have lingered with delight over "Childe Harold" you should read Moore's "Life of Byron." With Shelley's poems you should combine the story of his life as written by his dear friend Trevelyan, who is buried close beside him in the English cemetery at Rome.

Do you see how I want you to read? I want you to make one book connect with another until you have gained a thorough knowledge of the writer, his environment, and his friends, and have seen the reason for the existence of his works. You should read Austin Dobson, and Sir Edwin Arnold, choosing especially his shorter poems, and Thomas Bailey Aldrich. You will probably have a marked copy of Owen Meredith's "Lucile," and I hope, my dear girl, one also of that greatest poem ever written by a woman, "Aurora Leigh." You will learn to love Tom Hood. Whittier will appeal to your quiet hours, and so will Adelaide Procter. There is a writer of to-day who is a never-ceasing pleasure to me, and I think he will be to you. Through long nights of sleeplessness I have had his poems and his stories read to me, and one night when nothing would quiet pain, it was forgotten for a few minutes as I listened to the description of "The Hush-a-by Lady from Lullaby Street." That this writer is an American and of to-day makes me glad, and I am sure it will you. Of course, you know I mean Eugene Field. His "Little Book of Profitable Tales" and its companion, the "Little Book of Western Verse," will bring happiness and pleasure even where there is despair and pain.


I think we have to find out each for himself the books that appeal to our souls. I am not a great believer in the so-called religious books. I can recommend only those I know about. First of all the Bible, then Thomas à Kempis, then the old-fashioned "Hymns, Ancient and Modern," and Mrs. Ewing's stories. With these an old copy of "Solomon's Prayer for Wisdom," and beside it, printed on a piece of parchment, Cardinal Newman's great prayer in verse, "Lead, Kindly Light."

I hope that this little talk about books will make my girls more interested in them and more anxious to make their acquaintance. They are friends that never fail us; they never deceive, they never gossip, nor can we ever find them lacking in any of the virtues. Just as long as there are books in the world we can live in the very finest society; we can be worldly and courteous with Lord Chesterfield; we can be gay at Little Trianon with Marie Antoinette; we can be powerful and rule Russia with the great Catherine; we can be diplomatic with Richelieu, and best of all we can live in our books that old, old story of hope, of suffering, and of love, the story which has been the key-note to every book that ever was written. The best way I can end this little talk is by quoting Mrs. Browning:

"We get no good
By being ungenerous, even to a book,
And calculating profits—so much help
By so much reading. It is rather when
We gloriously forget ourselves, and plunge
Soul-forward, headlong, into a book's profound,
Impassioned for its beauty and salt of truth—
'Tis then we get the right good from a book."