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A TASTE for good reading is an acquisition the worth of which is hardly to be overestimated; and yet a majority of children, even of those favored by circumstance, grow up without it. This defect is due partly to the fault or ignorance of parents and teachers; partly, also, to the want, in many cases, of the proper means of cultivation. For this taste, like most others, is usually not so much a gift of nature as a product of cultivation. A wide difference exists, indeed, in children in respect to their natural inclination for reading, but there are few in whom it cannot be more or less developed by careful and judicious training.
This training should begin very early. Even before the child has learned the alphabet, his mother's lullaby or his nurse's song may have begun the attuning of his ear to the melodies of verse, and the quickening of his mind with pleasant fancies. As he grows older, his first reading should be made attractive to him by its ease and entertainment.
The reading lesson should never be hard or dull; nor should it be made the occasion for instruction in any specific branch of knowledge. The essential thing is that in beginning to learn to read the child should like what he reads or hears read, and that the matter should be of a sort to fix itself in his mind without wearisome effort. He should be led on by pleasure from step to step.
His very first reading should mainly consist in what may cultivate his ear for the music of verse, and may rouse his fancy. And to this end nothing is better than the rhymes and jingles which have sung themselves, generation after generation, in the nursery or on the playground. "Mother Goose " is the best primer. No matter if the rhymes be nonsense verses; many a poet might learn the lesson of good versification from them, and the child in repeating them is acquiring the accent of emphasis and of rhythmical form. Moreover, the mere art of reading is the more readily learned, if the words first presented to the eye of the child are those which are already familiar to his ear.
The next step is easy, to the short stories which have been told since the world was young; old fables in which the teachings of long experience are embodied, legends, fairy tales, which form the traditional common stock of the fancies and sentiment of the race.
These naturally serve as the gate of entrance into the wide open fields of literature, especially into those of poetry. Poetry is one of the most efficient means of education of the moral sentiment, as well as of the intelligence. It is the source of the best culture. A man may know all science and yet remain uneducated. But let him truly possess himself of the work of any one of the great poets, and no matter what else he may fail to know, he is not without education.
The field of good literature is so vast that there is something in it for every intelligence. But the field of bad literature is not less broad, and is likely to be preferred by the common, uncultivated taste. To make good reading more attractive than bad, to give right direction to the choice, the growing intelligence of the child should be nourished with
selected portions of the best literature, the virtue of which has been approved by long consent. These selections, besides merit in point of literary form, should possess as general human interest as possible, and should be specially chosen with reference to the culture of the imagination.
The imagination is the supreme intellectual faculty, and yet it is of all the one which receives least attention in our common systems of education. The reason is not far to seek. The imagination is of all the faculties the most difficult to control, it is the most elusive of all, the most far-reaching in its relations, the rarest in its full power. But upon its healthy development depend not only the sound exercise of the faculties of observation and judgment, but also the command of the reason, the control of the will, and the quickening and growth of the moral sympathies. The means for its culture which good reading affords is the most generally available and one of the most efficient.
To provide this means is the chief end of the HEART OF OAK series of Reading Books. The selections which it contains form a body of reading, adapted to the progressive needs of childhood and youth, chosen from the masterpieces of the literature of the English-speaking race. For the most part they are pieces already familiar and long accepted as among the best, wherever the English language is spoken. The youth who shall become acquainted with the contents of these volumes will share in the common stock of the intellectual life of the race to which he belongs; and will have the door opened to him of all the vast and noble resources of that life.
The books are meant alike for the family and the school. The teacher who may use them in the schoolroom will find in
them a variety large enough for the different capacities and interests of his pupils, and will find nothing in them but what may be of service to himself also. Every competent teacher will already be possessed of much which they contain; but the worth of the masterpieces of any art increases with use and familiarity of association. They grow fresher by custom; and the love of them deepens in proportion to the time we have known them, and to the memories with which they have become invested.
In the use of these books in the education of children, it is desirable that much of the poetry which they contain should be committed to memory. To learn by heart the best poems is one of the best parts of the school education of the child. But it must be learning by heart; that is, not merely by rote as a task, but by heart as a pleasure. The exercise, however difficult at first, becomes easy with continual practice. At first the teacher must guard against exacting too much; weariness quickly leads to disgust; and the young scholar should be helped to find delight in work itself.
It will be plain to every teacher, after brief inspection, that these books differ widely from common School Readers. Their object is largely different. They are, in brief, meant not only as manuals for learning to read, but as helps to the cultivation of the taste, and to the healthy development of the imagination of those who use them, and thus to the formation and invigoration of the best elements of character.
C. E. N.