Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Choice of Books — Junius F. Wells

2.19.12 | | 10 comments
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Junius F. Wells, c. 1905

While we’ve read other commentaries on what books we should choose to read (for example, George Reynolds on “outside literature”), Wells has some interesting insights into the question, and is, perhaps, the most mild advice from this period that I have read. Instead of prohibiting “light literature,” he optimistically suggests that reading enough literature will itself lead to better choices: “Let us, therefore, make friends of our books, and carefully peruse them for the good they will do us; this will lead us to judicious selections.”

In addition, Wells’ discussion of fiction is so reasonable, that I now assume that the attitude comes from the same attitude many have today when they look at genre fiction–especially the bodice ripper. But even here, Wells doesn’t oppose fiction completely: “We do not wish to oppose too strenuously the reading of light literature, it often presents most faithfully true pictures of life. But we are opposed to making it our principal intellectual food.”

Here is Wells’ argument:

Choice of Books

By Junius F. Wells

The companionship of a good book is almost as dear as that of a living friend; and not infrequently of far more benefit, particularly to those who exercise better judgment in the selection of books than in the choice of friends. As a general thing, however, one who is careful about what he reads and how he reads, will manifest corresponding discretion in making friends.

With the Latter-day Saints the only revealed restriction placed upon them, in the choice of literature, is to the effect that only good books containing knowledge should be read by them. It appears that the Lord gave the Saints instruction on this point in the early days of the Church, to settle the dubiety of some, who were just beginning to learn by revelation from the lips of the living oracles, and were afraid of contamination if they gave credence to the writings of worldly authors, who made no pretensions to inspiration.

While, in view of the enormous amount of worthless literature and of deceptive, corrupt and vicious matter found in books, there was and is good cause for fear of contamination, we are taught by the revelation that it is not in the economy of heaven to reject and make no use of that which has merit, is truthful, and will add to our fund of information, even though it may not be brought forth by the servants of the Lord. It has therefore been the policy of our people to encourage miscellaneous education as derived from the best text books used in the world; and to place in the hands of their children, books upon every subject that will instruct and entertain them.

That many however do not appreciate the worth of books, or their influence in a growing community seems at times very apparent, either in the entire absence of reading matter, or in the habitual use of nothing but the flimsiest sensational fiction.

We do not wish to oppose too strenuously the reading of light literature, it often presents most faithfully true pictures of life. But we are opposed to making it our principal intellectual food. The staff of intellectual life is fact, and only the healthful mind that so esteems it, is capable of justly weighing other reading matter, or deriving any benefit or real entertainment from it. Nothing conduces so much to reflection and the development of the mind as the simple statement of facts. What a world of thought is suggested in the scriptural quotation: “In the days of Peleg the earth was divided.” The history of the continents and of the oceans told in a single sentence.

Make fact the basis of our reading—there is none more profitable than scriptural—and we will find that the written words of inspired or studious men will afford us intelligence and useful knowledge that will be of benefit to us all our days. While if we only indulge our appetites for fiction, the best portion of our lives will flit away, leaving us no farther advanced than at first, and indeed worse off; for we will have lost memory, and even the every day objects and incidents of life will have passed from our recollection. There is no more common result of the novel reading habit than the destruction of memory.

Let us, therefore, make friends of our books, and carefully peruse them for the good they will do us; this will lead us to judicious selections. We will be as choice in our association with literature as with men, and it will not be long before the influence of such association will be manifest in improved tastes, manners and occupations.

Every young man should always be engaged reading one book, if he can devote but fifteen minutes at a time to its perusal, he will eventually finish it, and be ready for another. Their fifteen minute readings, say the great men of the present day, have been the most serviceable of any in their lives. There is no excuse for any one not reading for lack of time. A few moments devoted to an acquaintance on the street corner in idle chat is considered nothing. But what untold advantage they might be to us if devoted to our friend, the History, or the Biography at home.

Our Associations should exert a strong influence among the young ladies and gentlemen of the Territory, in regard to the kind of books that will do to read, and the reading habits of their members; make it fashionable to read good books, and the trashy nonsense that has found its way into many homes will vanish, giving place to volumes of worth that we will not be ashamed to introduce to living friends as the companions of our solitary hours.

From The Contributor,
December 1879, p. 60.

I like his comparison of books to friends and, at least after reading this, I do agree that we should use care in the books we select. Then he suggests that “…one who is careful about what he reads and how he reads, will manifest corresponding discretion in making friends.” At least to me, this hints that the choice of friends and of books is equally complex and problematic.

Also, Wells’ provides an interesting take on the history of Mormon literature:

“With the Latter-day Saints the only revealed restriction placed upon them, in the choice of literature, is to the effect that only good books containing knowledge should be read by them. It appears that the Lord gave the Saints instruction on this point in the early days of the Church, to settle the dubiety of some, who were just beginning to learn by revelation from the lips of the living oracles, and were afraid of contamination if they gave credence to the writings of worldly authors, who made no pretensions to inspiration.”

This fits well with my understanding (outlined in my short history of Mormon literature) that during the first five years or so Latter-day Saints avoided producing anything that might compete with scripture for the reader’s attention.

While I like Wells’ overall take, in at least one place I have to disagree. He says, “There is no more common result of the novel reading habit than the destruction of memory.” I’m not as convinced as he is that reading fiction actually destroys memory. Perhaps, at most, reading novels may make more recent short-term memory inaccessible, as our brains keep the more interesting novel accessible instead of the more pedestrian events of our daily lives?

But, best of all, Wells is a clear proponent of everyone reading: “Every young man should always be engaged reading one book” is a sentiment that will warm the heart of any bibliophile, to say nothing of every bookseller.

10 comments: “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Choice of Books — Junius F. Wells

  1. Wm

    Still too anti-fiction for my tastes. But some nice nuances there to be sure.

  2. Theric Jepson

    .

    This reminds me of my grandmother, a great lover of fiction, who, in her final decades, eschewed fiction, believing it was a sacrifice God had asked of her. But oh how she would relish the sight of a grandchild sitting in a corner devouring a good story!

  3. Jonathan Langford

    So what was Junius F. Wells’s calling at the time?

    I find it interesting that Wells supports the reading of nonfiction on the same grounds that I would cite to support reading high-quality fiction: that it teaches us about the world around us. So-called “facts” of nonfiction books, I would argue, change all the time, whereas insightful portrayals of human nature are more or less timeless. But then, we live in a time when we’ve seen scientific and historical ideas change in rapid and fundamental ways. (Did you know that the first geology books I read in my childhood predate the tectonic plate theory? And I just turned 50…)

    Looking at the paragraph where Wells makes his statement about the destruction of memory, I think he’s saying exactly what Kent suggests: that caught up in the more interesting world of the novel, we ignore or forget the more mundane realities of life. This is akin to the (more serious, in my view) criticism that people who invest too much energy in reading certain kinds of tales may become impatient with a life that fails to live up to their expectations. I’ve experienced that myself at times.

  4. Kent Larsen Post author

    Jonathan, at the time this was written, he was the President of the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association — the equivalent of the Young Men’s President today. Wells was the first YMMIA President, selected by Brigham Young in 1875. He was released in 1880 and replaced by Wilford Woodruff.

    He was also the founding editor and publisher of the Contributor, the magazine for the YMMIA, until 1892, when the magazine was sold to the Cannon family.

  5. Kent Larsen Post author

    Also, Jonathan (3), I thought the same thing about the reasoning for reading non-fiction — except that I took his emphasis elsewhere on “light literature” to mean that was what he objected to, instead of the “high-quality fiction” you talked about. [Or, I’m reading into what he is saying my own views.]

    And I have to admit, I don’t think it is a good idea to spend most of your time reading only low-quality escape literature (although I did and do my fair share of that on occasion). Balance in what you read is a good thing.

    [FWIW, I also turned 50 within the last year — but I don’t remember reading geology books that predated tectonic plate theory. The ones I read — probably in my teens, but perhaps at the 9-12 age level also — definitely talked about plate theory. But then, I suppose a lot has to do with what you had available to you while growing up.]

  6. Jonathan Langford

    Back when I was quite young (10 or younger), I went through a period when I thought rocks were cool and wanted to be a geologist. None of the books I read then referenced tectonic plate movement as an explanation for geological processes — including a hand-me-down college geology textbook I got from my “Big Brother” in fourth or fifth grade, which I think had to have been from a class he took not too long before.

    Looking on Wikipedia, it looks like some of the key evidence favoring tectonic plate theory was published in the late 1960s. I’m under the impression (though I can’t validate it) that then through the early 1970s was when geologists en masse were adopting tectonic plate theory as a fundamental way of understanding their field. (Up to then, it had been one of a number of theories out there, slowly gaining ground but not dominant.) So a lot of books in circulation in the early 1970s might not yet have reflected that change. At least, so I hypothesize, based on the evidence of my own (fallible) memory and inevitably limited exposure.

    The central point, in any event, remains (in my view) valid. A fundamental piece of how we understand one of our basic sciences (geology) wasn’t truly in place until the last 50 years. Extend it back another 10 years, and the same is true of biology, or at least genetics, with the discovery of DNA. And the same is probably true of many other fields I don’t know as much about.

    My basic point being that we have, I think, a much more dynamic view of science and its findings today than people 100 years ago typically had (cf. Thomas Kuhn). This might, I suppose, be one reason why modern Mormons in general are in some ways more hostile to science than early Mormons were: we belong to a culture that possibly has less faith in the stability of science and its findings.

    On the other hand, it occurs to me that the roots of the conflict between science and Mormonism date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, rooted in (a) Darwin, and (b) findings related to geological time and the age of the Earth. That was well before we started seeing science as more relative. Darn. Another theory down the drain…

  7. Lee Allred

    “And the same is probably true of many other fields I don’t know as much about.”

    Like the true nature of the planet Venus discovered by space probes, poor Venus demoted from the swamp-covered twin of Earth of classic sci-fi to a molten, acid-atmosphered hellhole?

    As to a conflict of science and Mormonism, I’d say our relationship is one less of hostility and more of a “looking askance at.” Certain scientific theories that drive some other religionists up the wall are taught without a ripple at BYU.

    (In fact, according to Wootton’s tracking data on Mormon scientists, Mormons are quite overrepresented in the field of Geology, btw, so the young Jonathan wasn’t alone in hearing the seductive siren call of rocks and stones.)

  8. Jonathan Langford

    Yup. And then the temperature of Venus was downgraded, as I recall, so that it’s still an acidic hellhole, but not as hot as it was for a while. Though I don’t know that I’d characterize that as a groundbreaking *theoretical* shift, but rather as a shift in our understanding of a particular object of scientific investigation. I’m sure there have been plenty of shifts in cosmology in the last 40 years, but I don’t know enough of the science and the scientific history to know what they are.

    I just happened to be reading in “Roadside Geology of Wisconsin” this morning (published in 2004) and found the following: “Since 1970, the theory of plate tectonics hasprovided a powerful unifying concept for understanding and explaining many geological phenomena” (p. 4). So that seems to validate the basic timeframe for widespread adoption that I mentioned above.

    I agree that “conflict between science and Mormonism” isn’t an entirely accurate way of stating it, since what I’m talking about has a lot to do with how individual members (sometimes including General Authorities, and often including BYU religion professors) interpret doctrine. Still, the conflict has been there, often on a cultural and sometimes on an institutional level. I wouldn’t say, for example, that evolution is taught “without a ripple” at BYU, even now — though it is taught. You’re right, though, that there’s a generally positive feeling toward science in general within the LDS community — combined with skepticism about scientific theories where they appear to contradict favored scriptural interpretations — which themselves have shifted in important ways over the years.

    Going back finally to poor old Junius, I think my point still holds that his advocacy of “fact” seems somewhat naive today. Looking again, I’d like to think, along with Kent, that this embraces “serious” literature as well as nonfiction, but don’t really see any evidence for that — except the implication that if some literature is characterized as “light,” there must be other literature that isn’t light. But as best I can see, he never talks explicitly about that. Kent, am I missing something?

  9. Lee Allred

    “…if some literature is characterized as ‘light,’ there must be other literature that isn’t light.”

    He ain’t heavy, he’s my novel. :)

    Seriously, though, the part of Brother Junius’ essay I find most troubling is this passage from the end:

    “Our Associations should exert a strong influence among the young ladies and gentlemen of the Territory, in regard to the kind of books that will do to read, and the reading habits of their members …”

    I’m quite dubious of the merits of having others pick my reading materials, even in the name of uplift and edification.

    Reading is a solitary virtue. A book I might find uplifting and insighful into the human spirit another might find to be nothing but pernicious trash. And vice versa.

    The recent “Unsure What to Say” here on AMV well depicts this.

    The best that a Mutual Improvement Association or a Retrenchment Society or a Polysophical Society can do is promote the _idea_ that there are books that are uplifting and edifying outside the bounds of DB and scripture and that there are likewise books that are naught but salacious and demeaning as well and that we as readers, and while we do have our free agency to read what we will, we need to not only learn to decern between the two, but learn that there is a need to do so.

  10. Kent Larsen Post author

    Jonathan (8) wrote: “Kent, am I missing something?”

    Nope. But I maintain my wishful thinking [GRIN]

    Lee, you are correct about the issue of others choosing our reading materials. Fortunately, the Church’s advice today seems to be mostly of that variety—strong cautions about what to read, but no lists. We’ve avoided the Catholic Church’s “index,” at least so far.

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