The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/Number 3/Literary Notices

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DR. ASA GRAY'S _Botanical Series_, New York, Ivison & Phinney, consisting of--

I. _How Plants Grow_, etc., _with a Popular Flora,_ etc. 16mo. pp. 233.

II. _First Lessons in Botany and Vegetable Physiology._ 8vo. pp. 236.

III. _Introduction to Structural and Systematic Botany and Vegetable Physiology._ 8vo. pp. 555.

IV. _Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States, including Virginia, Kentucky,_ etc. 8vo. pp. 636.

V. Same as IV., with the _Mosses and Liverworts_ added, illustrated by Engravings, pp. 739.

VI. Same as IV., with II. bound up with it. pp. 872.

The first-named of these books is a new candidate for public favor; the others are revised and improved editions of books which have already been favorably received. We have sometimes thought that the popularity of a school-book is in inverse proportion to its merits, and are glad to learn that five editions of Dr. Gray's "Structural and Systematic Botany" are witnesses against the truth of this assumption. No man can deny that Dr. Gray's books are all of the highest order of merit. The accuracy and extent of his scholarship are manifest on every page,--a scholarship consisting not merely in an extensive acquaintance with the works of other botanists, but in a careful confirmation of their results, and in additions to their knowledge, by an observation of Nature for himself. His clearness of style is an equally valuable characteristic, making the reader sure that he understands Dr. Gray, and that Dr. Gray understands the subject. In the "Manual" this clearness of style extends to the judicious selection of distinctive marks, whereby allied species may be distinguished from each other. Even the most difficult genera of golden-rods, asters, and grasses become intelligible in this manual; and many a less difficult genus which puzzled our boyhood, with Beck's, Eaton's, and Pursh's manuals, became so plain in Gray, that we cannot now imagine where was the difficulty. The extent of the field which Gray's Manual covers prevents him, of course, from giving such lifelike descriptions of plants as may be found in Dr. Bigelow's "Plants of Boston and its Vicinity," or such minute word-daguerreotypes as those in Mr. Emerson's "Trees of Massachusetts,"--books which no New England student of botany can afford to be without; but, on the other hand, the description of each species, aided by typographical devices of Italics, etc., is sufficient for any intelligent observer to identify a specimen. The exquisite engravings, illustrating the genera of Ferns, Hepaticæ, and Mosses, are also a great assistance.

The volume which we have marked III. is the fifth revised edition of the "Botanical Text-Book." It contains a complete, although concise, sketch of Structural Botany and Vegetable Physiology, and a birds'-eye view of the whole vegetable kingdom in its subdivision into families, illustrated by over thirteen hundred engravings on wood. It has become a standard of botany, wherever our language is read.

For those who do not wish to pursue the study so far, the "First Lessons" is one of the most happily arranged and happily written scientific text-books ever published, and is illustrated by three hundred and sixty well-executed wood-cuts. This takes scholars of thirteen or fourteen years of age far enough into the recesses of the science for them to see its beauties, and to learn the passwords which shall admit them to all its hidden and inexhaustible treasures. It goes over substantially the same ground that is covered by the volume we have marked III., but in simpler language and with much less detail; and closes with clear practical directions how to collect specimens and make an herbarium.

The first book is intended for children of ten or twelve years old, at home or in school. We hail it as a remarkably successful effort of a truly learned man to write a book actually adapted to young children. While all teachers, and writers upon education, insist on the importance of having a child's first impressions such as shall not need to be afterwards corrected, and such as shall attract the child towards the study to which it is introduced, our elementary books have usually sinned in one or both these points. They are either dry and repulsive, or else vague and incorrect;--frequently have both faults. But the child is here told "how plants grow" in a very pleasant manner, with neat and pretty pictures to illustrate the words, by one whose thorough knowledge and perspicuity of style prevent him from ever giving a wrong impression. The "Popular Flora" which is appended, contains a description of about one hundred families of the most common cultivated and wild plants, and of the most familiar genera and species in each family. The English names are in all cases put in the foreground in bold type,--while the Latin names stand modestly back, half hidden in parentheses and Italics; and these English names are in general very well selected,--although we think that when two or three English names are given to one plant, or one name to several plants, Dr. Gray ought to indicate which name he prefers. He allows "Dogwood" to stand without rebuke for the poison sumac, as well as for the flowering cornel; and gives "Winterberry" and "Black Alder" without comment to _Prinos verticellata_. A word of preference on his part might do something towards reforming and simplifying the popular nomenclature, and this child's manual is the place to utter that word. We think also that in a second edition of this Popular Flora it would be well to give a _popular_ description of a few of the most beautiful flowers belonging to those families which are too difficult for the child properly to analyze. Thus, Arethusa, Cypripedium, Pogonia, Calopogon, Spiranthes, Festuca, Osmunda, Onoclea, Lycopodium, Polytrichum, Bryum, Marchantia, Usnea, Parmelia, Cladonia, Agaricus, Chondrus, and perhaps a few other genera, furnish plants so familiar and so striking that a child will be sure to inquire concerning them, and a general description could easily be framed in a few words which could not mislead him concerning them.

In writing for children, Dr. Gray seems to have put on a new nature, in which we have a much fuller sympathy with him than we have ever had in reading his larger books. We do not like that cold English common sense which seems reluctant to admit any truth in the higher regions of thought; and we confess, that, until we had read this little child's book, "How Plants Grow," we had always suspected Dr. Gray of leaning towards that old error, so finely exposed by Agassiz in zoölogy, of considering genera, families, etc., as divisions made by human skill, for human convenience,--instead of as divisions belonging to the Creator's plan, as yet but partially understood by human students.

We hope that the appearance of this masterly little book, so finely adapted to the child's understanding, may have the effect of introducing botany into the common schools. The natural taste of children for flowers indicates clearly the propriety and utility of giving them lessons upon botany in their earliest years. Go into any of our New England country-schools at this season of the year, and you will find a bouquet of wild flowers on the teacher's desk. Take it up and separate it,--show each flower to the school, tell its name, and its relationship to other and more familiar cultivated flowers, the characteristic sensible properties of its family, etc.,--and you will find the younger scholars your most attentive listeners. And if any practical man ask, What is the use of the younger scholars learning anything about wild flowers, which the cultivation of the country may soon render extinct, and which are but weeds at best?--there are two sufficient answers ready: first, that all truth is divine, and that the workmanship of infinite skill is beautiful and worthy of the eyes which may behold it; secondly, that no mental discipline is better adapted for the young mind than this learning how to distinguish plants. No more striking deficiency is observable, in most men, than the lack of a power to observe closely and with accuracy. The general inaccuracy of testimony, usually ascribed to inaccuracy of memory, is in fact to be attributed to inaccuracy of observation. In like manner, a large proportion of popular errors of judgment spring from an imperfect perception of the data on which the true conclusions should be founded. The best remedy for this lack of clear perceptions would evidently be the cultivation of those habits of close observation and nice discrimination necessary in a successful naturalist.