I collect old books. I despise e-books for their practicality and lack of texture and beauty. Cover art and binding, smell and feel, are all a part of a book’s message for me. As a father, I have wanted to surround my kids not just with books, but the allure of a library that beckons them to a grand adventure. When my kids walk into my study, I want them to feel like the Pevensy children walking into the Professor’s study in The Chronicles of Narnia. Mark Twain nailed it:
“In a good bookroom you feel in some mysterious way that you are absorbing the wisdom contained in all the books through your skin, without even opening them.”
A prized 10-volume set published in 1909 captures my both my aesthetic taste and my desire to inspire my children with a literary imagination and love for great stories. Journeys Through Bookland edited by Charles Herbert Sylvester is beautifully bound with magnificent illustrations and the perfect front cover for my pirate-loving, seafaring first born. Every time I open a volume I’m transported to a different time and place.
This week as the snow fell, I opened again to the introduction to the series. There’s a beautiful essay on the high calling of every parent and teacher to build up and lay a foundation for “character, power and success” in our children, and the central role of reading to our children in that process.
In this genuinely alarming point in human civilization when technological advances are outpacing moral reflection and “screen time” is replacing quiet hours of stirring the imagination in a cozy book nook, I want to invite you to consider this invitation from the past. This was written in a different time (1909), and has a traditional, patriarchal ring to it. Nevertheless, the message and call upon parents and teachers remains timeless. Enjoy!
EVERYONE who associates with children becomes deeply interested in them. Their helplessness during their early years appeals warmly to sympathy; their acute desire to learn and their responsiveness to suggestion make teaching a delight; their loyalty and devotion warm the heart and inspire the wish to do the things that count for most. Everything combines to increase a sense of responsibility and to make the elders active in bringing to bear those influences that make for character, power and success.
Every worthy teacher in every school gives more than her salary commands and puts heart power into every act. By example and precept the lessons are taught and growth follows in response to cultivation. But the schools are handicapped by lack of time for much personal care, by lack of facilities for the best of instruction and by the multiplicity of things that must be done. Under the best conditions a teacher has but a small part of a child’s time and then instruction must be given usually to classes and not to individuals. Outside of school for a considerable time each day the child falls under the influence of playmates who may or may not be helpful, but the greater part of every twenty-four hours belongs to the home.
Parents, guardians, brothers and sisters, servants, consciously or unconsciously, wisely or unwisely, are teaching all the time. It is from this great complex of influences that every child builds his character and lays the foundation of whatever success he afterwards achieves.
Undoubtedly the home is the greatest single influence and that is strongest during the early years. Before a boy is seven the elements of his character begin to form; by the time he is fourteen his future usually can be predicted, and after he is twenty, few real changes are brought about in the character of the man. The schools can do little more than plant the seeds of culture; in the family must the young plants be watered, nourished and trained. Then will the growth be symmetrical and beautiful.
When the school and the home work together, when parents and teacher are in hearty sympathy, the great work is easily accomplished. But this harmony in interest is difficult to secure. In the first place it is not possible frequently for parents and teachers to become acquainted; usually is it impossible for them to know one another intimately. Here there are two forces, each ignorant of the other, but both trying for a common end. Again, parents in many, many instances are not acquainted with the schools nor with the methods of instruction which are followed therein. What is done by one may be undone by the other. If there could be a common ground of meeting, much labor would be saved and greater harmony of effort established.
When fathers and mothers are willing to take time enough from their other duties to show that sympathetic interest in juvenile tasks which is the greatest stimulus to intelligent effort, when they wish to know what work each child is doing and where in each text book his lessons are, when the multiplication table and the story of Cinderella are of as much importance as the price of meat or the profit on a yard of silk, then will the parents and the teachers come together in whatever field appears mutually acceptable.
Everybody reads, and reading is now the greatest single influence upon humanity. The day of the orator has passed, the day of print has long been upon us. No adult remains long uninfluenced by what he reads persistently, and every child receives more impressions from his reading than from all other sources put together.
Someone has shown forcibly by a graphic diagram the ideas we are most anxious to establish. In this diagram of Forces in Education, the circle represents the sum total of all those influences which tend to make the mind and character of the growing child. That half of the circle to the right of the heavy line represents the forces of the school; the half to the left, the forces that come into play outside the teacher’s domain.
In school are the various studies taught; reading, writing, language, nature, geography, history, arithmetic. Other things such as morals, manners, hygiene, etc., come in for their share of force in the division “Miscellaneous.” Out of school the child’s work influences him; his playmates affect him more; the example and instruction of his parents form his habits, thought and character to a still greater extent; but more than any one, as much as the three combined, does his home reading shape his destiny.
That this last statement is no exaggeration is proved by the testimony of many a wise and thoughtful man, by the observation of teachers everywhere. When a child has learned to read, he possesses the instrument of highest culture, but at the same time the instrument of greater danger. Bad books or bad methods of reading good books lead the reader’s mind astray or stimulate a destructive imagination that affects character forever; but good books and right methods of reading make the soul sensitive to right and wrong, improve the mind, inspire to higher ideals and lead to loftier effort.
Here is the one fertile field wherein teacher, parent and every other person interested in the welfare of children and youth may meet and work together in the noblest cause God ever gave us the grace to see.
“I have a notion,” said Benjamin Harrison, “that children are about the only people we can do anything for. When we get to be men and women we are either spoiled or improved. The work is done.” One of the best things we can do is to create a taste for good reading and cultivate a habit of reading in the right manner. It is an easy and a delightful task.
How many parents do it? Let them live with their children in the realm the little ones love. Let them read the fairy tales, the myths, the stories, the history that childhood appreciates, not in a spirit of criticism or in the role of a dictator but as a child of a little larger growth, a man or woman with a youthful mind.
How many teachers assist? By so teaching that reading becomes an inspiration in itself; that only mastery contents; that beauty, high sentiment, lofty ideals may be found and followed; by making the reading recitation the one delightful hour of the day.
If any mature person at home can spend each week a few hours in reading and talking with the children about what has been read he will be surprised to find how lightly the time passes and how quickly his own cares and anxieties are dissipated. He will find greater delight than he has ever known in the society of his equals; and the younger ones, whose minds glow with helpful curiosity and absorbing interest will be kept to that extent from the street and its attractions, while at the same time they are learning those things that count for most in life’s great battle.
Let no one feel in the least uncertain of his power to interest and delight. Let him have no hesitation in joining in with the children, in meeting them on their level and in sharing thought and feeling with them. By being a child himself he most easily makes of himself a wise and inspiring leader.
You can access this entire set online for free thanks to the Gutenberg Project, though I recommend you save up and purchase the real deal and put them on a shelf somewhere.