The Young Man's Guide to the Harmonious
Development of Christian Character

by Harvey Newcomb, 1847


Reading occupies a very important place in education. It is one of the principal means of treasuring up knowledge. It is, therefore, highly necessary that a taste for reading should be early cultivated. But a mere taste for reading, uncontrolled by intelligent principle, is a dangerous appetite. It may lead to ruinous consequences. The habit of reading merely for amusement, is a dangerous habit. Reading for amusement furnishes a constant temptation for reading what is injurious. It promotes, also, an unprofitable manner of reading. Reading in a hasty and cursory manner, without exercising your own thoughts upon what you read, induces a bad habit of mind. To profit by reading depends, not so much on the quantity which is read, as upon the manner in which it is read. You may read a great deal, in a gormandizing way, as the glutton consumes food, and yet be none the better, but the worse for what you read.

If you would profit by reading, you must, in the first place, be careful what you read. There are a multitude of books, pamphlets, periodicals, and newspapers, in circulation at the present day, which cannot be read, especially by the young, without great injury, both to the mind and heart. If any one should propose to you to associate with men and women of the lowest and most abandoned character, you would shrink from the thought—you would be indignant at the proposition. But it is not the mere bodily presence of such characters that makes their society dangerous. It is the communion which you have with their minds and hearts, in their conduct and conversation. But a great portion of the popular literature of the day is written by such characters. By reading their writings, you come into communion with their minds and hearts, as much as if you were personally in their company. In their writings, the imaginations which fill their corrupt minds, and the false and dangerous principles which dwell in their depraved hearts, are transferred to paper, to corrupt the unwary reader. Here are, likewise, glowing descriptions of evil conduct, more fascinating to the youthful heart than the example itself would be, because the mischief is artfully concealed behind the drapery of fine literary taste, and beautiful language. There are, like-wise, many such writings, the productions of people of moral lives, but of corrupt principles, which are equally dangerous. You would not associate with a person whom you knew to be an unprincipled character, even though he might be outwardly moral. He would be the more dangerous, because you would be less on your guard. If it is dangerous to keep company with people of bad character or bad principles, it is much more so to keep company with bad books.

I have treated at large on the subject of novel-reading, and other objectionable writings, in my "Young Lady's Guide;" and to that I must refer you, for my reasons, more at length, for condemning such reading. I shall here only suggest, for the regulation of your reading, a few simple rules.

1. ALWAYS HAVE SOME DEFINITE OBJECT IN VIEW, IN YOUR READING. While pursuing your education, you will be so severely taxed with hard study, that reading merely for diversion or amusement does not furnish the relaxation which you need. It keeps the body idle and the mind still in exercise; whereas, the diversion which you need, is something that will exercise the body and relax the mind. If your object is diversion, then it is better to seek it in useful labor, sprightly amusements, or healthful walks. I can think of nothing more injurious to the young than spending the hours in which they are released from study, bending over novels, or the light literature of our trashy periodicals. Not only is the health seriously injured by such means, but the mind loses its vigor. The high stimulus applied to the imagination creates a kind of mental intoxication, which renders study insipid and irksome. But reading is an important part of education, and some time should be devoted to it. Instead of mere amusement, however, there are higher objects to be aimed at. These are:

1st, to store the mind with useful knowledge;

2d, to cultivate a correct taste;

3d, to make salutary impressions upon the heart.

For the first, you may read approved works on all the various branches of knowledge; as history, biography, travels, science, and Christian truth. For the second, you may read such works of imagination and literary taste as are perfectly free from objection, on the score of piety and morality—and these but sparingly at your age; for the third, such practical works of piety as you will find in the Sabbath school library. But, for all these purposes, the Bible is the great Book of books. It contains history, biography, poetry, travels, and doctrinal and practical essays. Any plan of reading will be essentially defective, which does not contemplate the daily reading of the Bible. You ought to calculate on reading it through, in course, every year of your life.

2. BE EXCEEDINGLY CAREFUL WHAT YOU READ. Do not take up a book, paper, or periodical, that happens to fall in your way, because you have nothing else to read. By so doing, you will expose yourself to great evils. But, though a book be not decidedly objectionable, it may not be worth reading. There are so many good books, at the present day, that it is not worth while to spend time over what is of little value; and it is better to read the Bible alone, than to spend time over a poor book. Avoid, especially, the fictitious stories that you will find in newspapers and popular magazines. They are generally the worst species of fiction, and tend strongly to induce a vitiated taste, and an appetite for novel-reading. If you once become accustomed to such reading, you will find it produce a kind of moral intoxication, so that you will feel as uneasy without it, as the drunkard without his cups, or the smoker without his pipe. It is much the safer way for young people to be wholly directed by their parents, (or their teachers, if away from home,) in the choice of their reading. Make it a rule never to read any book, pamphlet, or periodical, until you have first ascertained from your parents, teachers, or minister, that it is safe, and worth reading.

3. THINK AS YOU READ. Do not drink in the thoughts of others as you drink water; but examine them, and see whether they carry conviction to your own mind; and if they do, think them over, until they become incorporated with your own thoughts, part and parcel of your own mind. Lay up facts and principles in your memory. Let the beautiful thoughts and striking ideas that you discover be treasured up as so many gems and precious stones, to enrich and beautify your own mind. And let your heart be impressed and benefitted by the practical thoughts you find addressed to it.

4. REDEEM TIME FOR READING. Although it would be improper for you to take the time appropriated for study, or to rob yourself of needful diversion, yet you may, by careful economy, save some time every day for reading. A great deal of time is thrown away by the indulgence of dilatory habits, or consumed in a careless, sauntering vacancy. If you follow system, and have a time for everything, and endeavor to do everything with speedily, in its proper season, you will have time enough for everything that is necessary to be done.