Thoughts on Choosing Literature from a 1903 Reader

Old booksI love old books. Although I strongly advocate reading whole works for high school literature, I find that old readers can be very useful in introducing an author and creating a taste for his or her work.

I was browsing through The Jones Fifth Reader by L.H. Jones, A.M., published in 1903, this morning, and I was struck by the high quality of the works it contains. I found the reasoning behind the choices in the author’s mission statement / preface. It’s quite unlike anything I’ve seen in modern texts, and well worth sharing. Enjoy!

“This book is intended as a basal reader for pupils of the sixth, seventh, and eight years in school. These years make up a period of high enthusiasms and noble impulses. During this period ideals of life and conduct are rapidly shaping themselves in the minds of the growing girls and boys. Susceptible as they are at this age to evil influences, they yet respond most readily to the call of higher motives. Noble, daring, and heroic action, when properly pictured to them, seems native to the human spirit.

To rouse and sustain these noble ambitions, to make the right in human action seem reasonable and desirable, to give that general intelligence which underlies helpful social cooperation, and, above all, to permeate this growing intelligence with a pure and deep love for our country and its institutions,– is a dominant purpose of this reader.

The selections are taken from the best literature of the English language. A wide range of themes gives breadth and scope to the imagination as well as a foundation for general intelligence as opposed to technical knowledge.

All sections of our common country are represented by the authors from whom selections have been made. Much fresh material has been taken from the writings of recent authors; but many of the older selections are used because of their standard quality and their permanent value in character development. In all cases due regard has been given to artistic excellence, without which, whatever its other merits, a piece of literature should find no place in a school reader.

In the selections made, as well as in the notes accompanying them, an effort has been made to direct the pupil’s attention to the literary whole of which the selection is a part. While, therefore, the portion used is in itself an artistic whole, conveying its special lesson, it is exhibited as apart of a larger whole, to which attention is thus called in this way the part read by the pupil instead of sating his mind, really rouses his interest in author and theme, and leads eventually in many cases to the reading of the entire work…”

The author goes on, but this was the part that particularly interested me.

I’ve read many modern anthologies, and it’s evident that their compilers don’t share the idealistic aims of Mr. Jones. Instead of presenting the best of literature to elevate the reader, and offering the “call of higher motives,” most of the modern readers I’ve read are loaded with fluff that lacks artistic merit or inspirational quality.

Fortunately, we have access to real books, unabridged and ready to be read, and we don’t have to rely entirely on secular motivation for elevation of the spirit. But it’s sad to think of a generation growing up in literary darkness– a generation whose imagination, rather than being fired by a desire for what is wholesome and noble, is wearied by increasing coarsness and sinking standards. We must keep the light on!

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.

This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!
Emily Dickinson

1 Response

  1. eraine says:

    Dear Janice,
    Hello! I had to come visit your website. How lovely and oh what a wealth of knowledge is here. The book lover in me was thrilled just reading the titles of the thirty unforgettable books you selected.
    God bless you!
    Elaine from Cindy’s Writers!

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