The Reading of Books by Charles Thwing

The reading of books : its pleasures, profits, and perils / by Charles F. Thwing (1883)

At first glance, this is the sort of book that appeals to all fans of books: it is small, carefully bound, smells musty and is all about books and reading. Its initial chapter, “The Advantage of Reading,” is followed by chapters on specific types of books (Biography, History, Travel, Fiction, Historical Fiction and Poetry) and concludes with a carefully crafted list of books worthy of reading, in each category.

Upon closer inspection, I can’t decide whether I should admire Thwing for his unabashed views about reading (he praises biographies for their ability to “inspire men” and advises that crime and overly romantic novels should be shunned) or whether such views are indicative of a larger elitist view of (leisure) reading as the activity of the learned, a sign of a cultivated mind. He makes a definite distinction between the acceptable act of reading for amusement and the more dignified choice of reading for improvement of mental character, which makes me wonder how prevalent this view might be, and whether it .

I would like to make note of Thwing’s use of the expression “mental vigilance” (p.5) rather than the now-prevalent “attention” as one worthy of consideration. In my mind this phrase described quite well the idea of active reading. There is also a quote attributed to Burke, who apparently “read every book as if he would never see it again.” Again, I feel that pang of longing for reading in that fully involved way, something I have not experienced for many years.

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One response to “The Reading of Books by Charles Thwing

  1. Sven Birkerts, “The Gutenberg Elegies the fate of reading in an electronic age” might be worth investigating for your project. It was originally published in 1994, in more recent editions he has added a postscript…funny looking at it now his use of the phrase “electronic age” in the title seems rather quaint and naive.

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