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A PERSON who has never enjoyed a ball game may be puzzled to know what other people get from seeing or playing one. If he were to ask, “Why are the spectators so jubilant?” it would be hard to explain to him. “Watch a good game for yourself, or play one,” we should be likely
," to say, "and then you will understand. Until you do, you have no idea of what you are missing."
Much the same may be said about the joys of reading. People with no love for good books may wonder what sense there is in such fondness. It is not at all sure to add to our income. It is hardly likely to bring us political office or athletic glory. But those persons who have once surrendered to the spell of a good story, or poem, or play, understand well enough that the return is an increase of a certain inner wealth. It is like the joy there is in hearing a great song well sung, or looking at a fine picture or a noble statue. The love of beauty may be hard to explain, but it plays a highly important part in all worth-while living. Without it we should feel that life was that much poorer. A world without books? It might go on eating and drinking; but something unspeakably precious would be lacking.
The best literature does even more for us than to feed our desire for wholesome entertainment. It broadens our understanding of life. We may be living, for instance, in Boston or Chicago in the twentieth century; but, thanks to Cooper and Scott, we can also be living in the Mohawk Valley in the days of the French and Indian
War, or off in Asia with Richard of the Lion Heart. And we can not only share life's greatest experiences with a larger number of people, but also know still better those whom we think we already know - including ourselves. After enjoying a poem like “On the Receipt of My Mother's Portrait” (p. 14), or "A Man" (p. 18), we find ourselves seeing about mothers and fathers something which we had not quite noticed before. Or when, with Major Reed, we too want to touch our caps to salute the heroism of the two volunteers about whom Dr. Kelly tells (p. 106), we somehow get a new sense of lofty possibilities for our own lives. Many a splendid life is begun - often quite unconsciously — with the thrill of admiration which makes the reader say, “That's the only real
way to live!”
Of the many services that good reading performs, none is more important than this prompting us to think about the question, “What makes an excellent life?” The specific answers are endless in their range. They are inexhaustibly interesting. They need not be intended by the writer as preachments. It is enough if he tells us artistically what he feels or thinks, and if we, for our own part, thereupon ask ourselves, “Is this a true picture of life? Is it important? Does it cause us to reflect in ways that widen our mental horizons, deepen and broaden our sympathies, open our eyes to new glories in living, touch our souls to a keener sense of the things that are more admirable?" If a writer accomplishes this for us (and the notes of interpretation in this book are meant to suggest how he can do so), our debt to him for his gift of beautiful speech is all the ampler.
This is the principle on which the readings brought together in this book were chosen. Each selection is a good piece of literary workmanship and at the same time tells something important about some noble field of life. The attempt has been made to find memorable words on friendship, love, home life, study, work, citizenship, on all of our outstanding relationships, on the enduring needs of the human spirit, its high possibilities and resources.
Most of the selections, we are confident, will be easily understood at a first reading. Some will require close study. Of one or two of these the question has been raised whether they are not over the heads of young people. The compiler of the book, however, feels otherwise. He is convinced, from a long experience with many boys and girls, that most young people prefer work which helps them to grow by obliging them to stand mentally on tiptoe. They would rather not be given tasks that fall too easily within their grasp. The reading of literature is no exception to this rule. The old-fashioned counsel, “O'er the steeps to the stars," is still plain good
Most of the selections are from writers of our own time. A few classics have been included, either because it has been hard to find contemporary productions on the same subjects as well written as the old, or, in one or two instances, because permission to reprint the newer has not been obtained from the publishers. The good things are not all new, nor are they all old. To select literature either for its long age or for its recency is surely much less wise than to choose it for its own chief merit, its power to feed our hunger for great thought expressed in noble speech. Wherever such excellence is to be found, whether in old writings or modern, native or foreign, all that is best in us will give it glad welcome.