Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
Newspaper ReadingIts Use and Abuse
By Henry Theodore Tuckerman (18131871)
[The Criterion. 1866.]
THERE is a very large class whose reading is confined to newspapers, and they manifest the wisdom of Popes maxim about the danger of a little learning. Adopting the cant and slang phrases of the hour, and satisfied with the hasty conjectures and partial glimpses of truth that diurnal journals usually contain, they are at once superficial and dogmatic, full of fragmentary ideas and oracular commonplace. If such is the natural effect upon an undisciplined mind of exclusive newspaper reading, even the scholar, the thinker, and the man of refined taste is exposed to mental dissipation from the same cause. A celebrated French philosopher, recently deceased, remarkable for severe and efficient mental labor, told an American friend that he had not read a newspaper for four years. It is incalculable what productiveness of mind and freshness of conception is lost to the cultivated intellect by the habit of beginning the day with newspapers. The brain, refreshed by sleep, is prepared to act genially in the morning hours; and a statistical table, prepared by an able physiologist, shows that those authors who give this period to labor most frequently attain longevity. Scott is a memorable example of the healthfulness and efficiency attending the practice. If, therefore, the student, the man of science, or the author dissipates his mental vigor, and the nervous energy induced by a nights repose, in skimming over the countless topics of a newspaper, he is too much in relation with things in general to concentrate easily his thoughts; his mind has been diverted, and his sympathies too variously excited, to readily gather around a special theme. Those intent upon self-culture, or intellectual results, should, therefore, make this kind of reading a pastime, and resort to it in the intervals of more consecutive thought. There is no element of civilization that debauches the mind of our age more than the indiscriminate and exclusive perusal of newspapers. Only by consulting history, by disciplining the reasoning powers in the study of philosophy, and cherishing a true sense of the beautiful by communion with the poets,in a word, only by habitual reference to standard literature, can we justly estimate the record of the hour. There must be great examples in the mind, great principles of judgment and taste, or the immediate appeal to these qualities is ignorantly answered; whereas, the thoughtful, intelligent comments of an educated reader of journals upon the questions they discuss, the precedents he brings in view, and the facts of the past to which he refers, place the immediate in relation with the universal, and enable us to seize upon essential truth. To depend for mental recreation upon newspapers is a desperate resource; not to consult them is to linger behind the age. De Tocqueville has shown that devotion to the immediate is characteristic of republics; and this tendency is manifest in the prevalence of newspapers in the United States. They, in a great measure, supersede the demand for a more permanent native literature; they foster a taste for ephemeral topics and modes of thought, and lamentably absorb, in casual efforts, gifts and graces of mind which, under a different order of things, would have attained not only a higher, but a lasting development. The comparative importance of newspapers among us, as materials of history, is evidenced by the fact that the constant reference to their files has induced the historical societies to propose an elaborate index to facilitate the labors of inquirers, which has been felicitously called a diving-bell for the sea of print. A list of the various journals now in existence would be found to include not only every political party and religious sect in the country, but every theory of life, every science, profession, and taste, from phrenology to dietetics, and from medicine, war, and odd-fellowship, to literature, catholicism, and sporting. Tribunals and punsters, not less than fashion and chess-players, have their printed organ. What was a subordinate element, has become an exclusive feature .
It is evident that more excitement than truth, more food for curiosity than aid to reflection, more vague knowledge than actual wisdom, is thus promulgated and preserved. The harvest of the immediate is comparatively barren; and life only proves the truth of Dr. Johnsons association of intellectual dignity with the past and future. The individual, to be true to himself, must take a firm stand against the encroachments of this restless, temporary, and absorbing life of the moment represented by the newspaper; he must cleave to Memory and Hope; he must look before and after, or his mind will be superficial in its activity, and fruitless in its growth.