Thursday, August 14, 2008

Ignorance Is Not Innocence

One of the lists recently had a terrific discussion thread on about what makes for literary quality, and in the context of that topic, Tim's Mom shared this gem from CM's Volume 5. She shared it in the paraphrase, which she is proofreading-- I am quoting the original. I have emphasized the parts that stood out the most to me:

How many parents see to it that their sons and daughters read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest this one novel Pendennis before they go to college, or otherwise go out into life? It is stupid to disregard such a means of instruction; and yet, judicious parents either 'disapprove of novel reading for their young people' or let them read freely the insipid trash of the circulating library until they are unable to discern the flavour of a good book. 'But,' says a good mother, 'I disapprove of novels for another reason besides that they are a waste of time. I have striven to bring up my family in innocence, and wish to keep them still from that very knowledge of life which novels offer.' There is a good deal to be said for this point of view; but the decisions of life are not simple, and to taboo knowledge is not to secure innocence.

We must remember that ignorance is not innocence, and also that ignorance is the parent of insatiable curiosity. But I do not offer a plea for indiscriminate novel reading. Novels are divisible into two classes––sensational, and, to coin a word, reflectional. Narrations of hairbreadth escapes and bold adventures need not be what I should call sensational novels; but those which appeal, with whatever apparent innocence, to those physical sensations which are the begetters of lust,––the 'his lips met hers,' 'the touch of her hand thrilled him in every nerve' sort of thing which abounds in goody-goody storybooks, set apart in many families for Sunday reading, but the complete absence of which distinguishes our best English novels. To read that a girl has been betrayed by no means affects an innocent mind; but to allow oneself to thrill with the emotions which led to the betrayal is to get into the habit of emotional dram-drinking––a habit as enervating and as vitiating as that of the gin-shop. By the reflectional novel I mean, not that which makes reflections for us, after the manner of a popular lady-writer of the day. He who would save us the trouble of reflection ministers to the intellectual slothfulness which lies at the bottom of the poverty of our thoughts and the meanness of our lives. The reflectional novel is one which, like this of Pendennis, awakens reflection with every page we read; offers in every character and in every situation a criterion by which to try our random thoughts or our careless conduct. If we bear in mind that the obvious reflection proposed to us is as vicious in its way as the sensation suggested, we shall find that this test––the property of arousing reflection––eliminates all flimsy work, and confines us to the books of our great novelists.

This is especially apt for me because our local book club is set to discuss Volume 3 Chapters 15 and 16, on schoolbooks and how to use them. I have only read bits of Volume 5, and this chapter was not one of them!

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