If the wisdom of nations, which loves to find expression in the proverbs, teaches us that a man may be known by knowing the company that he frequents; we can say with the same assurance that his character and dispositions may be known from the books which he constantly reads. Of all friends, the most intimate are the books that we constantly read, hence there is nothing more important for a young person, as there is nothing that entails such grave consequences for the moral culture, than the selection of proper and suitable books. Because it is a noted fact that such readings exercise the deepest influence over the mind and heart, so much that all the resources which the ingeniousness of maternal love can employ against it avail nothing. God's minister in the pulpit of truth has no weight with those souls fascinated by the deceitful charms of a bad book, which addresses itself to their prejudices and passions. The charitable advice of the confessor in the tribunal of penance is futile against the intoxicating seductions of those romances whose only merit consists in flattering the most depraved inclinations of the human heart.
Indeed it is a subject both of surprise and sorrow to see an author of the most menial abilities lauded to the skies for a book still more abject than himself, a book teeming with error and immorality; while, very often, a discourse, a sermon or an instruction, whatever may be the authority that they receive either from the character of the person who pronounces them, or from the gravity of the circumstances in which he speaks, are heard with indifference. Good and evil, truth and error, are never so rapidly propagated, never so powerful in their action, never so certain in their effects as when they are communicated to us under the form of a book authorized by fashion or party spirit. Hence there is no greater responsibility before God than that which man assumes when he wields the pen in the name of humanity, whether for noble or selfish ends.
A book is a teacher whose doctrine is listened to with a willingness equal to its degree of conformity to the inclinations of our heart. It is a friend that gains our confidence, inasmuch as it flatters our prejudices and passions, and in which we find a reflection of our own thoughts, the echo of our most secret sentiments. You would not like to receive a stranger into your house without his being properly recommended, but you will readily receive a book on the strength of reports that are often deceitful.
The country is flooded with productions that sap the foundations of morality, and which bear that imprimatur given by a poisoned public opinion to such authors as pander to its craven spirit. The world judges with a depraved indulgence the book in which it finds its maxims approved and sanctioned, portraying the exact seducing picture of its vanities. The purest souls and, not unfrequently, serious minds are too often imposed upon by those popular prejudices, and, despite their good reason, yield to their influence by reading the flimsy productions of depraved minds, which, besides all the other injuries they cause, rob them of a most precious time. A book must be very bad before the world condemns it, so bad, in fact, that its own intrinsic filth disgusts the reader and seals its fate. But, there is another kind of literature favorably received by that portion of mankind called respectable, honest, and sometimes even severe, and whose authority is capable of making a grave impression on your mind.
It is, therefore, very important for you to know not only the signs by which to recognize a bad book, but also whom you should consult as judges in the matter. There can be no question here of those books professedly immoral, in which vice is eulogized and corrupt maxims sustained. Those books are not dangerous for you, because they will not fall under your hands, and even when they would you could not open one of them without flinging it away with horror; -- in this case the evil -- contains in itself its own remedy.
But there are books, less dangerous in appearance, in which the most delicate situations are represented, clothed in all the charms of style, well calculated, under their moral guise and serious bearing, to captivate the heart and imagination. Indeed to represent in lively colors the terrible effects of the passions, and the fatal consequences that a momentary excitement might entail is not of a nature to inspire a young lady with horror for vice and love for virtue. How is it possible that she will guard against the evil inclinations of the heart, when she is conscious of the danger in giving them free scope, and that a momentary forgetfulness is sometimes punished by a life-time of sorrow and bitterness? Such a culpable negligence might be accounted for, if there existed a necessary relation between the will and the imagination, by which the determinations of the former are necessarily dependant upon the impressions of the latter.
But such is not the case, for the imagination has a sphere of action very different from that of the intelligence or the will. It is an interior mirror which reflects back upon the soul images of things beheld by the senses and conceived by the intelligence, without regard to time or place. Positively no, would be the answer of a young lady of self-respect, whom we would ask if she would like to see with her own eyes all that is spoken of in the novel which she reads with so little caution! Your answer would be given in the same terms, should we ask you if she might read without impunity to virtue those intrigues, those scenes so engaging to curiosity, and which incite the reader to follow up the details of ineffectual struggles against passion. Could she, without blushing, listen to the passionate conversations of those who had lead each other to destruction, after having exhausted all the resources of heart and mind to render vice amiable, even when their fall would seem to be less the effect of a criminal will than the result of a kind of fatality? Your answer to all this would be emphatically, no!
But while young ladies will neither listen to nor look at scenes of this nature, many, alas! do not scruple to look at them in books, where they are much more dangerous, for being adorned with all the charms of style, and because the persons represented are made to speak and act in a much more luring manner than they do in reality. They devour with avidity those dangerous, and sometimes scurrilous pages; but while they chain their attention to the matter they are reading, their imagination gains the ascendancy over all the senses, and under their united action images are formed which leave a lasting impression on the mind -- images of misfortune that has befallen persons either through their own fault or the fault of others, and which, through sympathy, the human heart, whether wrong or right, is always ready to find a pretext to justify.
In reading of those misfortunes she may perhaps recognize the hand of divine vengeance pursuing the criminal culprit, which is of a nature to inspire her with a sentiment of fear that deters from the commission of crime; but such sentiments have been felt by the heroes of the novel which she has read, and nevertheless they have fallen into the abyss which they so much dreaded, I would almost say while fleeing from it. But when they take their stand on a declivity so steep and slippery, nothing short of a miracle can save them.
Such is precisely the nature of the danger in which the readers of such books place them-selves. In those books human frailty is idolized, deeds committed through it are either necessary or excusable, the hair-breadth escapes, and often the tragical conclusion of their story, will often inspire the reader with a salutary terror, it is true; but will that feeling destroy all those tender sympathizing sentiments that were felt while dreading it? Of course this fear is felt by the will, but the imagination has already finished its work; it has seen, heard and felt by the senses; it has delighted and fascinated the soul by those images whose charms cannot be destroyed by the unfortunate issue of those struggles in which frailty played such an important role.
The will, distracted by the tumult of external things, and the variety of, her occupations or pleasures, will soon lose this sentiment of terror on which she seems to count so much, but the imagination will conserve for a long time the impressions and images upon which it has feasted, and which will form the constant subject of her thoughts during the day and of her dreams during the night.
Hence, the books that are capable of producing such results are evidently bad, and if you wish to preserve intact the innocence of your heart you should never take one of them in your hands. If you wish to conceive a deep horror for vice, and guard against the snares of passion, you will more readily and securely attain your end by reading a few serious books in which truth is presented in its own simplicity without artifice. Books in which the author, realizing the importance of his mission, directly addresses the mind without trying to captivate the heart and imagination, or to render vice amiable first in order to inspire you with horror for it afterwards. If you wish to be true to yourself; if by your readings your object is to cultivate a love for virtue and horror for evil, novels are not the books that you will have recourse to.
Hence, to draw a practical conclusion from our considerations on this subject, you may safely say that a book is, if not bad, at least dangerous when its tendencies are to render interesting, and agreeable such deeds or language as you would neither look at nor listen to. This should be the first rule by which to judge of the moral worth of the books you wish to read.