About Books and Reading

Mar 30, 2010 | 0 comments

Helen Richardson Espy 1898

April 1898

My Own True Love:

In my reading I have, as you say, rather tended to that which is heart appealing, but it has been pure and elevating anyway.  Which is more than can be said for many of the “mind appealers” who seem to enjoy dragging one through the mire face downward.  Take Lytton for example.  His literary style and ability charm my mind.  On the other hand, the scenes he puts before me degrade all of God’s universe.  Some of the chapters in the book I am reading now, for instance, are no more than unhealthy dime novel scenes – detectives – knives – pistols – blood – harlots – thieves –murderers – knaves.  Igh!  I believe it would do me less  harm to have my heart touched a little bit.  Miss Mullock may bring a tear, or make the breath come a little faster, but one can close the book with purer, sweeter thoughts, a cleaner mind, and a heart full of a broader, tenderer affection for our fellow men, which is more than can be said for many of our “mind appealers.”  So to my mind, that which teaches the heart in a pure way, is of greater and better influence, than that which appeals to the mind only. There is much to think of now, and I want to keep my mind as pure as possible, selecting with great care all reading matter.

I believe I have read some book of every standard author, and it is hard to know what to find of equal merit, and I can not stand trash.  I simply exhausted dear Miss Mullock’s works – read them all, and did likewise with Bronte.  I wish you would suggest some author.  I have read Dickens, Scott, Thackery, Elliot, Collins, Holland, Black, Broton, Lyall, Lytton, Whitney, Harland, Bret Harte etc. etc. …

Of course, the essayists are elevating and I enjoy them from a literary standpoint immensely, but fear if I had to read them much at a time, the influence I would wish to exert for a taste in that line would be entirely overbalanced, as I would get so tired of it, that our child would be born with a dislike rather than for a taste in this direction.

You must think, dear, that your wife is rather illiterate not to be familiar with the men you mentioned – “Addison, Pope, Drummond, Emerson, Ruskin, Bacon, Milton, Dryden, Burke, Gibbon, Macaulay, Webster, Irving, DeQuincey, Byron, Carlyle, Lowell, Huxley.”

I will take them through: 1) Addison and 2) Pope, I have become familiar with though selective reading and the same with 3) Drummond.  4) Emerson I have read quite extensively – his essays, poems, and portions of his letters, and journal.  5) Ruskin and 6) Bacon I have not become intimate with.  The former I tried to enjoy but could not – will try again.  7)Milton is an old friend, of course I’ve read him.  8)Dryden is a comparative stranger.  9)Burke I do not know.  10)Gibbon is familiar.  I have read a great deal of him and considerable of his own work.  I waded through all of 11)Macaulay’s essays.  Have read 12) Webster’s best orations.  13)Irving is one who has taken a great deal of my attention.  14)DeQuincey is not a friend.  I have not read him.  You say read 15) Byron, just as if I had not!  16)Carlyle have also read quite a good deal.  Poor dear 17) Lowell has been ravenously devoured.  Never have dipped into the science so 18) Huxley is a stranger.  However, dear I shall do some reading along these lines…

These views on reading and books were written by my grandmother, Helen Richardson Espy, to her husband, my grandfather, whose work took him away from home for a time early in their marriage.  She was not yet twenty-two, was newly pregnant, and firmly believed that her thoughts and deeds would directly influence the character of their child.  She held firmly to that belief with each of her six subsequent pregnancies.

My grandparents considered books to be the most necessary of all cultural niceties that might be provided in their home.  In 1913 when a chimney fire destroyed most of the sitting room, it was refurbished with built-in bookcases and ever afterwards was referred to as “the library.”  The books that filled the shelves are there today – over 1,000 titles.  Frayed bindings and well-fingered pages attest to nearly a century of loving attention by five or six generations of Espys and their friends and neighbors.  Indeed, I remember many a rainy summer afternoon or winter evening of my childhood curled up in a rocking chair by the library fire reading “The Girl of the Limberlost” or “The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew” or the poetry of James Whitcomb Riley.

In later years, my grandmother lost her sight from the combined ravages of cataracts and glaucoma.  Still, her passion for reading did not abate.  Each afternoon she would fix herself a cup of tea and have “a little rest,” sitting in the Morris chair close to the woodstove where she would to listen to the “talking books” sent to her by the Library of Congress.  Some of my fondest memories of this gentle woman involve the discussions we had during my high school years about the books I was reading – books by Thomas B. Costaine, Lloyd C. Douglas, Pearl Buck, or Leon Uris.  All of which she had also read, of course.

Recently, I joined a book club — a first-ever experience for me.  The group confines its reading to mysteries — pretty lightweight stuff in comparison to my grandmother’s book list of one hundred years ago.  I wonder what she would think about our selections…

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