Practical Hints from a Father to His Daughter

William Sprague, 1835


General Reading


In the course of your education, and after it is completed, you will occasionally find leisure to devote to miscellaneous reading. As this is one of the principal means by which you will become acquainted with the sentiments of others, you will readily perceive that it cannot but exert, either for good or evil, an important influence on your character. It is the design of this chapter to furnish you some hints which may assist you to regulate this employment so that it shall be at once the most useful and the most agreeable.

And the first suggestion which I would offer on this subject is, that all your reading should be, as far as possible, with some definite object, other than merely to occupy your time. If you have no object in view you may be sure that you will accomplish none! And thus your reading will be at best a mere waste of time, and not improbably, will be fraught with intellectual or moral evil. When you take up a book, decide if you can, from its title, or its table of contents, what good purpose you can accomplish by reading it; what faculties of your mind it will be likely to improve; or what moral dispositions to refine or elevate; and having settled this point, if the book is worthy of your attention, you can hardly fail to be benefitted by reading it.

Another remark closely connected with the preceding, is, that you should never allow yourself to read without reflection. There is no habit more easily acquired, than that of occupying the eye merely upon a page, and leaving the mind to its own wanderings! And there is scarcely any habit, which in the end, more completely unstrings the intellect, and renders it incapable of commanding its own powers. The legitimate design of reading is, not to supersede but to assist reflection; not to put the faculties to sleep but to brighten them by active exercise.

Different books, it is acknowledged, require different degrees of mental exertion; but you may take it for granted, that a book which is not worth the labor of some thought is not worth the labor of reading. Whatever book you may have in hand, let your mind be just as intensely employed as is necessary to enable you to realize the full advantage of reading it; that is, to enable you to comprehend its full meaning, and to give it, so far as may be desirable or practical, a lodgment in your memory.

If you find your thoughts, at any time wandering obstinately from your author, and if no effort will bring them under your control, so that you can read to advantage, (and such cases will sometimes occur from mere physical derangement,) better lay aside your book than to continue reading in this attitude of mental vacancy. You will be none the wiser for what you read and you may be forming an intellectual habit which will diminish your power of acquiring wisdom in more favorable circumstances.

It follows, from the remark just made, that you should be on your guard against reading too much. There is such a thing as a diseased intellectual appetite, which craves an excess of food, and is only satisfied with devouring everything that comes in its way. But to indulge such an appetite, were just as preposterous as to think of nourishing the body by taking a quantity of food, which should altogether exceed the digestive powers of the system. If you would read to advantage you must incorporate what you read with your own thoughts, and gather from it materials for future reflection. But this you can never do, if your whole time be occupied in reading, or if you take up one volume after another, in such rapid succession that your mind can retain no distinct impression of the contents of any of them.

Some of the minds which have shone most brilliantly, have been but little occupied with books being far more conversant with their own thoughts, than the thoughts of others. Remember that a few books carefully read, and thoroughly digested, and used as helps to intellectual exertion will be of far more use to you than scores of volumes which are gone through with little thought, and the contents of which, either instantly pass out of the mind or remain in it, an undigested mass of materials.

But while you should avoid reading too much, it is desirable, that of the books which you do read you should form a habit of selecting, and treasuring up those parts which are most important. You cannot expect to retain the whole of any book; and if you should attempt it, you would probably lose the whole by tasking your memory so severely; but even if it were possible, it would ordinarily be to no good purpose; as there is much in almost every book, which might be in your mind without at all increasing your stock of useful knowledge.

That you may possess the substance of what you read, make it a point to review your author before you lay him aside, and form an analysis, at least in your own mind, of all that you have been reading. It will be well, too, if you commit to paper a general outline of every important book you read; or at least, that you make references on a blank page, to those parts to which you may afterwards wish to recur. Some such expedient as this, will be of great use in assisting your recollection; and will help you to retain stores of knowledge which would otherwise be inevitably lost from your memory.

You will, moreover, find great advantage in having the different departments of literature and science, with which you are conversant, so far systematized in your mind, that you will be able to refer every book that you read to some one of them. In this way, your mind will become an intellectual store-house, accommodated to the reception of every kind of useful materials; and its various apartments arranged with so much skill and order, that you will never be at a loss where to deposit any new article of knowledge, or where to find any you had previously deposited.

On the other hand, if you read without any regard to order, as it respects your previous acquisitions, the impressions which are made upon your mind will be vague and indistinct; and after a little while the severest efforts will be ineffectual to recall them.

Having thrown out these few hints in respect to the manner of your reading, allow me now to add some brief suggestions in respect to the selection of books.

And, first of all, let me say to you never allow yourself, from any consideration, to read books of immoral tendency. A bad book, like a bad friend, may exert an influence which an established habit of virtue will scarcely be able to resist. And where a corrupt association is once formed in the mind, it is exceedingly difficult to destroy it it remains there, a leprous spot. What though a book of this character may fall into your hands, which is rendered peculiarly attractive by a refined and fascinating style? You are to bear in mind, that these literary embellishments can no more disarm false principles of their fatal tendency than poison can lose its virulence by being mingled with honey! Nay, these very attractions give to bad books much of their dangerous influence; for while they recommend them to the attention of the incautious and inexperienced, they too often serve as a channel through which the most deadly impressions are conveyed to the mind. And if the reading of such books were the only way in which you could gain the refinement of literature, then I would say, better remain in ignorance forever than hazard the wreck of your moral principles, or admit into your heart the elements of destruction.

But while you carefully avoid all works, which are fitted, in any degree, to corrupt the principles, or sully the purity of the mind I would have you select those, which, on the whole, are best adapted to increase your stock of useful knowledge and practical wisdom. In the wide range of elegant literature, there is a great variety of authors, which will at once enlighten your understanding, improve your taste, and exert an influence upon your heart, favorable to virtue and piety.

It is an error, against which you should be on your guard in the selection of your reading, to confine yourself exclusively to books of a particular kind. The effect of this would be to corrupt your taste, to destroy the proportion which exists among the various powers of your mind, and, as the case may be, to expose you to serious inconvenience and chagrin.

That you may avoid this evil, endeavor to be conversant with those authors who have been most conspicuous in the various departments of literature. Such a course will be likely to give you a correct taste, at the same time that it will impart a general consistency and vigor to your intellectual character.

Though I have no wish that you should be an enthusiast with regard to poetry, I would still have you, in some degree, familiar with the best poets both of ancient and modern date. The immortal works of Milton, Cowper, and Thomson, may be read with great advantage to the heart as well as the understanding. But there are others, usually associated in the same cluster of poetical genius, who, however exquisite their poetry, cannot be safely recommended as guides to youthful virtue. Much of the modern poetry, I am sorry to say, is chargeable with the same immoral tendency.

Byron, with a genius to which few, whether of ancient or modern days, can lay claim has clouded his brilliant and beautiful conceptions with the dark hue of infidelity and moral death; and so long as his writings last, they must stand as a monument of a noble intellect prostituted to the worst of all purposes that of corrupting and destroying his fellow men.

Moore, with less of genius than Byron, has written, for the most part, for no better purpose; and it were far worse than a waste of time to employ yourself upon his productions. Even the poetry of Walter Scott, though it has much in it to delight the imagination, is greatly deficient in moral sentiment, and seems scarcely fitted for any higher purposes than to furnish a light kind of amusement. James Montgomery belongs to an entirely different class; or rather he stands nearly alone; and I have no hesitation in assigning to him a pre-eminence among the poets of the present day. With an invention uncommonly fertile in whatever is chaste and beautiful, he unites a deep and strong pious sensibility; and in reading his poetry, you see not less of the Christian, than of the poet. You feel that your imagination, and all your powers, are in communion with an exalted genius, while you seem to breathe a pure moral atmosphere, and to have your soul attracted towards a region of perfect purity. So too I might speak of Mrs. Hemans, whose poetry is the subject of much and deserved praise; and of many others, of various degrees of merit, all of whom are unexceptionable in their moral tendency.

But it is unnecessary that I should enlarge on this subject, as I have no doubt that, with the hints already given, I may safely leave it to your own taste and judgment.

As for dramatic writers, I cannot say that I am desirous that you should cultivate a taste for them. The plays of Shakespeare are incomparably the finest specimen of dramatic genius, which the English language preserves; and it cannot be denied that they exhibit human life and manners with great power, and beauty, and effect; but it is equally unquestionable that there is much in them to call into exercise the worst passions of human nature, to tarnish the purity of the mind, and to beget a kind of profane familiarity with things of high and sacred import. Addison, Young, and a few others have written plays, which may perhaps be considered unexceptionable; but I must confess, I would feel no regret, if you should think it best to dispense with this class of authors altogether.

But there is no species of reading to which young girls are usually more inclined, or from which they are so much in danger, as that of novels. I will not say that there are no works of this kind which indicate a tone of correct moral feeling, and which are of unexceptionable moral tendency. Nor will I take it upon me to pass severe judgment upon many people of great excellence, who have indulged in this kind of reading, on the ground that it furnishes many important lessons in respect to the operations of the human heart.

But I must say, after an attentive consideration of this subject, and withal, after having once held a somewhat different opinion that I do not wish you ever to read a novel. For admit that the novels of Richardson and some of the modern novels of Scott, and a few others, abound with critical views of human nature, and contain many specimens of eloquent writing; and in their direct moral influence may be regarded as harmless I cannot doubt that the time which you would occupy in reading them might be employed to better purpose in studying the actual realities of life, as they are exhibited by the biographer or the historian. And moreover, there is danger, if you begin to read works of fiction, with an intention to read but few, and to confine yourself to the better class that your relish for these productions will increase, until you can scarcely feel at home unless the pages of a novel are spread out before you; and what is still more to be dreaded, that you will read indiscriminately, the most corrupt as well as the least exceptionable.

You may rest assured that a character, formed under the influence of novel reading is miserably fitted for any of the purposes of practical life. The imagination being hereby wrought into a feverish state, gains the ascendency over the judgment, and a thousand bright visions rise up before the mind which experience proves to be unreal. This species of reading moreover inspires a disgust for the sober and practical realities in which we have to mingle; and what is worse than all it often closes every avenue through which the solemn truths of true religion can be conveyed to the heart.

I say then, as you would avoid forming a character which combines all the elements of insipidity, corruption, and moral death beware of the reading of novels! Many a young girl has been obliged to trace to this cause, the destruction of her principles, her character, and ultimately her life! And if she have escaped these greater evils she is still unfitted for solid intellectual enjoyment, and for a life of practical usefulness.

I would have you bestow considerable attention on the periodical publications of the day, though you ought here, as much as in any department of literature to read with discrimination. Of these publications you need not be told that there is every variety, from the dignified quarterly, that exercises an almost unlimited sway in the region of taste and letters down to the contemptible catch-penny paper, that lives by circulating slander and falsehood.

It would be well, if your circumstances would permit, that you should accustom yourself regularly to read some of the best Reviews. But in reading these publications, even the best of them, you ought not tamely to surrender your own judgment of an author, to the dictation of these literary censors; but to let their opinion pass for only what it is worth; and if it have been formed under the influence of partiality, or prejudice, to let it pass for nothing.

Of religious periodicals it may be well for you to select one from each of the most important classes; as for instance, one that is devoted to theological review and discussion, one to missionary news, etc, etc. By selecting your reading of this kind with care, and keeping yourself within certain limits you will gain far more information, and with much less labor, than if you were to devour, indiscriminately, every periodical that should fall in your way.

You will find it a useful employment occasionally, to read judicious books of travels. It happens, unfortunately, that most works of this kind seem to have been written with too little regard to truth; and instead of having the sober results of actual experience, we have had the wild, and wonderful, and sometimes, ridiculous sallies of the writer's imagination. There is probably no species of writing, in respect to which you ought to make more abatement from glaring and marvelous statements, than this; not only because authors of this kind, from their rapid observations, are often liable to mistake but because certainty has such an advantage over conjecture, that they are under a strong temptation not only to speak but to speak positively, where it would be honest for them to confess that they know nothing. We are perfectly aware how much the character of our own country has been traduced, and held up to ridicule, by travelers from abroad; and it is fair to conclude that much that professes to be the record of travels in other countries, is equally at war with truth and justice.

Biography is a species of reading which is well fitted to amuse, while it instructs you. It brings out before you the human character, and often in circumstances of the deepest interest; and holds up a mirror in which you may see the operations of your own heart. I regret to say that well executed and attractive works of this kind, are far less common in the English language than could be desired. Within a few years, however, the number has considerably increased, and there is reason to hope that this deficiency in our literature will, before long, be supplied.

Whenever you engage in this kind of reading, endeavor to turn it to some account in the improvement of your heart. Whatever excellence you discover in the character you are contemplating endeavor to make it your own. Whatever error you discover in the character fortify yourself against it with renewed vigilance whatever weakness, see whether it is not the besetting infirmity of your own nature. Whatever victory over temptation, whatever serenity amidst sorrow, whatever triumph in death let it lift your eye and your heart upward, for that Almighty grace by which those blessings are secured. The reading of biography in this way, I most cordially recommend, as it cannot fail to make you wiser and better.

I wish you to read attentively at least one system of Theology. You will also occasionally employ yourself in reading sermons. As your first object here, should be the improve your heart you should select those which are distinguished by an earnest and practical exhibition of divine truth. But it is perfectly consistent that you should combine, with the culture of your affections, the improvement of your mind. And for this purpose you should choose those which are composed with the best taste, and with the greatest degree of intellectual vigor. The sermons of Barrow and Jeremy Taylor, though they partake much of the spirit of the age in which they were written, are specimens of a vigorous and powerful eloquence, to which modern times have hardly furnished a parallel. The sermons of Archbishop Tillotson are fertile in weighty and impressive sentiment, and on subjects connected with natural religion, are exceeded by few in the language. Bishop Sherlock's sermons, though in some minor points, not exactly accordant with my own views of religious truth, are certainly a monument of an elegant and active mind, which posterity can never cease to admire. The sermons of the immortal Jonathan Edwards, though wholly destitute of ornament, are in the highest degree instructive, and contain perhaps the most powerful appeals to the heart and conscience, which are to be found out of the Bible. President Davies, Chalmers, Hall, etc. sermons have justly acquired a high celebrity for a dignified, forcible, and solemn exhibition of divine truth, and for a devotional fervor which cannot fail to impress the heart. The sermons of Robert Walker, are fine specimens of an evangelical spirit, and admirably adapted to promote the influence of practical religion. Jay's sermons are full of truth, and life, and beauty, and are fitted to be alike gratifying to a refined taste, and an elevated piety. The sermons of Dr. Chalmers can hardly fail to be read with interest, as the offspring of an inventive and powerful mind; and as containing a lucid exhibition of divine truth; though it were much to be desired that the style in which they are written had been less diffuse and involved. Robert Hall is, in my opinion, the first writer of sermons of the age. The irresistible force of his reasoning, the beauty and grandeur of his thoughts, and the dignified and graceful manner in which they are expressed, in connection with the truly evangelical spirit which pervades them render his sermons as perfect specimens of this kind of writing, perhaps, as the world may expect to see. I might extend this list almost indefinitely but I am willing to leave much to your own judgment; and those which have been mentioned are probably enough to occupy as much leisure as you will be able to give to this kind of reading.

I cannot conclude this chapter without urging you to a diligent and daily perusal of the Holy Scriptures. Remember that this is the great fountain of wisdom; that it contains an infallible record of the dispensations of God towards our world; that it faithfully exhibits the character of man, and opens up a way by which he may attain to a glorious destination!