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.