The population of the civilised world to-day may be divided into two classes,—millionaires and those who would like to be millionaires. The rest are artists, poets, tramps, and babies—and do not count. Poets and artists do not count until after they are dead. Tramps are put in prison. Babies are expected to get over it. A few more summers, a few more winters—with short skirts or with down on their chins—they shall be seen burrowing with the rest of us.
One almost wonders sometimes, why it is that the sun keeps on year after year and day after day turning the globe around and around, heating it and lighting it and keeping things growing on it, when after all, when all is said and done (crowded with wonder and with things to live with, as it is), it is a comparatively empty globe. No one seems to be using it very much, or paying very much attention to it, or getting very much out of it. There are never more than a very few men on it at a time, who can be said to be really living on it. They are engaged in getting a living and in hoping that they are going to live sometime. They are also going to read sometime.
When one thinks of the wasted sunrises and sunsets—the great free show of heaven—the door open every night—of the little groups of people straggling into it—of the swarms of people hurrying back and forth before it, jostling their getting-a-living lives up and down before it, not knowing it is there,—one wonders why it is there. Why does it not fall upon us, or its lights go suddenly out upon us? We stand in the days and the nights like stalls—suns flying over our heads, stars singing through space beneath our feet. But we do not see. Every man’s head in a pocket,—boring for his living in a pocket—or being bored for his living in a pocket,—why should he see? True we are not without a philosophy for this—to look over the edge of our stalls with. “Getting a living is living,” we say. We whisper it to ourselves—in our pockets. Then we try to get it. When we get it, we try to believe it—and when we get it we do not believe anything. Let every man under the walled-in heaven, the iron heaven, speak for his own soul. No one else shall speak for him. We only know what we know—each of us in our own pockets. The great books tell us it has not always been an iron heaven or a walled-in heaven. But into the faces of the flocks of the children that come to us, year after year, we look, wondering. They shall not do anything but burrowing—most of them. Our very ideals are burrowings. So are our books. Religion burrows. It barely so much as looks at heaven. Why should a civilised man—a man who has a pocket in civilisation—a man who can burrow—look at heaven? It is the glimmering boundary line where burrowing leaves off. Time enough. In the meantime the shovel. Let the stars wheel. Do men look at stars with shovels?
The faults of our prevailing habits of reading are the faults of our lives. Any criticism of our habit of reading books to-day, which actually or even apparently confines itself to the point, is unsatisfactory. A criticism of the reading habit of a nation is a criticism of its civilisation. To sketch a scheme of defence for the modern human brain, from the kindergarten stage to Commencement day, is merely a way of bringing the subject of education up, and dropping it where it begins.
Even if the youth of the period, as a live, human, reading being (on the principles to be laid down in the following pages), is so fortunate as to succeed in escaping the dangers and temptations of the home—even if he contrives to run the gauntlet of the grammar school and the academy—even if, in the last, longest, and hardest pull of all, he succeeds in keeping a spontaneous habit with books in spite of a college course, the story is not over. Civilisation waits for him—all-enfolding, all-instructing civilisation, and he stands face to face—book in hand—with his last chance.
–Gerald Stanley Lee
from The Lost Art of Reading