27) NOVELS: What have the prophets counseled concerning fictional books and classics? What counsel has been given concerning novels?
In a letter addressed to his son Feramorz Little Young on August 23, 1877, President Brigham Young instructed:
“You must permit me, my dear son, in the love that I bear for you and your brothers and sisters, to say that I do not esteem the perusal of novels a wise means of increasing your desire to read. I should be very foolish if because I had a poor appetite I took to making my meals of poisonous herbs or berries because they tasted sweet or were otherwise palatable. It would be better for my appetite to remain poor than that I should destroy my vitality. Novel reading appears to me to be very much the same as swallowing poisonous herbs; it is a remedy that is worse than the complaint. I certainly wish you loved reading. I hope that taste will yet be developed in you, but developed by all means with good, healthy, mental food. Read all good books you can obtain, the revelations of God, the writings of His servants, descriptions of His works, as seen in the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms; peruse the lives of the good and great of various ages and nationalities; make yourself acquainted with art, science and manufacture, and before long you will find an interest growing in these things that it will be no longer any trouble to read, but you will read eagerly and whilst so doing you will be fitting yourself for future usefulness.
“Some excuse novel reading on the grounds that it gives them insight into the ways of the world, its life and society, others on the ground that they thus become acquainted with the best authors, their various styles and peculiar beauties. To the first plea I would say that the views of life given in most works of fiction are greatly strained or entirely false, and every elder in the Church of Jesus Christ who performs his duty will have enough experience in the vicissitudes of real life to satisfy him by the time he grows old. To the second excuse I would answer that the Bible and many works of history &c. contain as good, graceful, grand, unadulterated English as any romance that was ever written. Avoid works of fiction; they engender mental carelessness and give a slipshod character to the workings of the mind. To strengthen the mind, increase its perceptions, develop its powers, we should read the true and the wise. The perusal of the rest is worse than time wasted, it is time abused. Sell your Dickens’ works and get Stephens’ & Catherwoods’ Travels in Central America, or Josephus’s or Mosheim’s History. The Bible is a very interesting book when read as history, especially to those who believe the truths that it teaches.” 1
“Now understand it—when parents whip their children for reading novels, and never let them go to the theater, or to any place of recreation and amusement, but bind them to the moral law, until duty becomes loathsome to them; when they are freed by age from the rigorous training of their parents, they are more fit for companions to devils, than to be the children of such religious parents. . . When I was young, I was kept within very strict bounds, and was not allowed to walk more than half-an-hour on Sunday for exercise. The proper and necessary gambols of youth having been denied me, makes me want active exercise and amusement now. I had not a chance to dance when I was young, and never heard the enchanting tones of the violin, until I was eleven years of age; and then I thought I was on the highway to hell, if I suffered myself to linger and listen to it. I shall not subject my little children to such a course of unnatural training, but they shall go to the dance, study music, read novels, and do anything else that will tend to expand their frames, add fire to their spirits, improve their minds, and make them feel free and untrammeled in body and mind. Let everything come in its season, place everything in the place designed for it, and do everything in its right time.” 2
“Novel reading—is it profitable? I would rather that persons read novels than read nothing. There are women in our community, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, and sixty years of age, who would rather read a trifling, lying novel than read history, the Book of Mormon, or any other useful print. Such women are not worth their room. It would do no good for me to say, Don’t read them; read on, and get the spirit of lying in which they are written, and then lie on until you find yourselves in hell. If it would do any good, I would advise you to read books that are worth reading; read reliable history, and search wisdom out of the best books you can procure. How I would be delighted if our young men would do this, instead of continually studying nonsense. And in addition to this, let the boys from ten to twenty years of age get up schools to learn sword exercise, musket and rifle exercise, and, in short, every art of war. Shall we need this knowledge? No matter; it is good to be acquainted with this kind of exercise. Let a few schools be started by those who are capable of teaching the sciences. The science of architecture, for instance, is worthy the attention of every student. It yields a great amount of real pleasure to be able to understand the grand architectural designs of those magnificent structures that are scattered over Europe and other countries. . . If what I have now said about temporal things is faithfully carried out, it will lead to our independence as a people, and to our comfort and happiness as individuals.” 3
“Another thing, I will say to the young ladies especially, that if I should live to have the dictation of a stake of Zion that would live according to the Order of Enoch, this nonsensical reading would cease. This “yellow covered” literature would not come into the houses of the Saints. We should dispense with this, and cast it from us; if it were here, we would cast it out and sell it to the paper makers, and let them make it up into paper to use for a better purpose, to make our own books. In such a state of society we would have every person study that which would be useful.
Here are our young women—now I am not going from home to get this experience. I hope that my children know as much about the Bible, Book of Mormon or the Doctrine and Covenants as they do about yellow covered books. But you ask many of our young people about these stories: “What a beautiful story there is in” such and such a paper! Or “what a beautiful story there” is in this paper or in that. They know all about it. The proprietors of these papers get men and women to write stories with no other foundation than the imaginations of their own hearts and brains, and our young women and boys read these lies until they get perfectly restless in their feelings, and they become desperate, and many of our girls—I am not accusing any one here, I think they pay attention to their business a little better, they have got cows to milk instead of novels to read—but in our part of the land many of our young women just hope and pray, if they ever thought of prayer, “I do wish some villain would come along and break open my room and steal me and carry me off; I want to be stolen, I want to be carried away, I want to be lost with the Indians, I want to be shipwrecked and to go through some terrible scene, so that I can experience what this beloved lady has experienced whom I have been reading about.” Oh, how affecting! and they read with the tears running down their cheeks, until their books become perfectly wet, and they do so wish that somebody or other would come and steal and carry them off.
If I had the dictation of a society, all this would stop, you would have none of it. I would have every person learning something useful. We would come together for two hours after the labors of the day and we would read the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Voice of Warning, history, geography; perhaps we would get up a class for the study of law, for we have to meet the world as it is. We would study physic, anatomy, surgery; the history of our own nation and of other nations; we would have classes in which our German brethren might teach the young people, and the [p.217] old ones too, the German language, and when that was through with we would have the best of the instruction imparted in the English language or in other languages, or in something that would be profitable and useful to pupils in their future life. We would teach them good manners, how human beings, should conduct themselves in their social intercourse.” 4
“If I had charge of such a society as this to which I refer, I would not allow novel reading; yet it is in my house, in the houses of my counselors, in the houses of these Apostles, these Seventies and High Priests, in the houses of the High Council in this city, and in other cities, and in the houses of the Bishops, and we permit it; yet it is ten thousand times worse than it is for men to come here and teach our children the a b c’s, good morals, and how to behave themselves, ten thousand times worse! You let your children read novels until they run away, until they get so that they do not care—they are reckless, and their mothers are reckless, and some of their fathers are reckless, and if you do not break their backs and tie them up they will go to hell. That is rough, is it not? Well, it is a comparison. You have got to check them some way or other, or they will go to destruction. They are perfectly crazy. Their actions say, “I want Babylon stuck on to me; I want to revel in Babylon; I want everything I can think of or desire.” If I had the power to do so, I would not take such people to heaven. God will not take them there, that I am sure of. He will try the faith and patience of this people. I would not like to get into a society where there were no trials; but I would like to see a society organized to show the Latter-day Saints how to build up the kingdom of God.” 5
“Work through the day, and when it comes evening, instead of going to a theater, walking the streets, riding, or reading novels—these falsehoods got up expressly to excite the minds of youth, repair to our room, and have our historians, and our different teachers to teach classes of old and young, to read the Scriptures to them; to teach them history, arithmetic, reading, writing and painting; and have the best teachers that can be got to teach our day schools. Half the labor necessary to make a people moderately comfortable now, would make them independently rich under such a system. Now we toil and work and labor, and some of us are so anxious that we are sure to start after a load of wood on Saturday so as to occupy Sunday in getting home. This would be stopped in our community, and when Sunday morning came every child would be required to go to the school room, and parents to go to meeting or Sunday school; and not get into their wagons or carriages, or on the railroads, or lounge around reading novels; they would be required to go to meeting, to read the Scriptures, to pray and cultivate their minds. The youth would have a good education, they would receive all the learning that could be given to mortal beings; and after they had studied the best books that could be got hold of, they would still have the advantage of the rest of the world, for they would be taught in and have a knowledge of the things of God.” 6
“We are in a great school, and we should be diligent to learn, and continue to store up the knowledge of heaven and of earth, and read good books, although I cannot say that I would recommend the reading of all books, for it is not all books which are good. Read good books, and extract from them wisdom and understanding as much as you possibly can, aided by the Spirit of God, for without His Spirit we are left in the dark.” 7
Address by President Brigham Young, delivered to the Sunday School Children
“Study the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, read the sermons that are published in the Deseret News, as well as all the standard works of the Church. Such reading will afford you instruction and improvement; but novels allure the mind and are without profit.” 8
Joseph F. Smith
“HARMFUL EFFECTS OF BAD BOOKS
It would be difficult to estimate the harmful influences upon the thoughts, feelings, and actions of the young, brought about by the practice of reading dime novels. Books constitute a sort of companionship to everyone who reads, and they create within the heart feelings either for good or for bad. It sometimes happens that parents are very careful about the company which their children keep and are very indifferent about the books they read. In the end the reading of a bad book will bring about evil associates.
It is not only the boy who reads this strange, weird and unnatural exciting literature who is affected by its influence, but in time he influences others. This literature becomes the mother of all sorts of evil suggestions that ripen into evil practices and bring about an unnatural and debased feeling which is ever crowding out the good in the human heart and giving place to the bad. It was Shelley who said that “strange thoughts beget strange deeds,” and when our children are reading books that are creating strange and unusual and undesirable thoughts in their minds we need not be surprised to learn that they have committed some unusual, some strange, or unnatural act. It is in the thoughts and feelings that we have to combat the evils and temptations of the world, and the purification of our thoughts and feelings should be made the special effort of every father and mother. Fuller once wrote, “It seems my soul is like a filthy pond where fish die soon and frogs live long.” It is remarkable how easy it is to learn sin and how hard it is to forget it.
A story is told of an English officer in India, who one day went to the book shelf to take down a book. As he reached his hand up over the volume his finger was bitten by an adder. After a few hours the finger began to swell. Later on the swelling went into his arm, and finally the whole body was affected, and in a few days the officer was dead. There are adders concealed in many a cheap and trashy book, and they are always common in dime novels. Their effects upon our souls are poisonous, and in time they are sure to produce a moral and spiritual death. * * * The influence of these novels is all the more dangerous because the feelings and thoughts which they engender in the heart and mind are more or less hidden, and the evil consequences of such reading frequently does not manifest itself until some overt and horrible act is the result of months and sometimes years of imagination and wonderment. Let the Saints beware of the books that enter their homes, for their influences may be as poisonous and deadly as the adder which brought death to the English officer in India. 9
There is altogether too much novel reading of that class of novels which teaches nothing useful, and only tends to the excitement of the emotions. Excessive novel reading we all know is detrimental to the intellectual development of those who engage in it, and the wise and those who seek advancement might well give more time to useful, educational works—books that would enlighten the reader on history, biography, religion, and other important subjects which all well-informed people are expected to understand.
“Many of our young people, and some older ones, too, are not familiar with their own religion nor with the beautiful and striking doctrines of the gospel with which it is so laden. This class devote more time to reading useless or sensational books than they do to the study and contemplation of works that would familiarize them with the principles of the gospel. If they were better informed in this line, and understood the saving doctrines and every-day questions of their religion, more than they do, they would not be trapped by false teachings, false leaders, and advocates of cults that are false. They would not be misled as some of them are. 10
Joseph Fielding Smith
Our Redeemer would not present a story of fiction of such wonderful significance, if it was not based on truth. No thinking person would accuse the Son of God of presenting an imaginary story of such import as the story of Lazarus and the rich man unless the background was based in truth. 11
George Q. Cannon
What do you read? From constant reading of fiction, the truth becomes tame and uninteresting. A realm of romance, or at least a world of extremes, is where he would choose to dwell; for his associates or ideals he would have either persons of strangely exaggerated attributes or impossible heroes.
On the other hand, the reader of sound, healthy literature is aided and strengthened by his reading for each day’s struggle as it comes along. His heroes are real men, whom he or his parents or someone else has actually known, and the evidence of whose existence is found in the works they left behind them. He delights in the lessons of history as well as in the noble achievements of individuals. Those whom he admires have other things to recommend them to his fancy than abnormal traits of character and fictitious performances; and from studying their lives he is not made familiar with vice, either through direct description or by suggestion. His mind is clear; his head is steady; his tastes are earnest; his ambitions are worthy. He knows what it is to encounter difficulty, for he remembers the trials of others who have preceded him; but he is also encouraged to overcome it by recalling how they did the same. He loves truth, reality, nature and all that his senses and his conscience and his heart and his faith tell him is deserving of honest esteem. . . .
Judged by books read. A boy can not be judged half so correctly by the company he keeps as by the books he reads. In the former case he may not always be able to make his selection and may be unable to escape from company he really does not like. But the silent yet most influential companions, which we call books, these are matters of his own choice, and in his love for this one or that, he reflects his own inclinations as plainly and truly as a plate glass mirror reflects his features.
Waste of time a serious matter. If parents and children alike would realize that nothing is worth reading that is not worth remembering, hundreds of hours in each person’s life might be saved and utilized that are now wasted—yes, worse than wasted, for in such pursuits the time itself is not only gone to no purpose, but the memory is weakened and the mind is more or less tainted. Waste of any kind is little short of crime; and worst of all waste—worse than waste of food, for more food can be grown or bought; worse than the waste of money or substance, for this can be perhaps again obtained—is the waste of time, which neither money nor influence nor prayers can regain—once gone it is gone forever. (Jan. 1, 1899, JI 34:22-23)
. . . There is enough truth in the world to occupy men’s attention, and especially children’s, without bestowing thought or time upon that which is false. Everyone should shun books and periodicals of this character. No judicious parent would knowingly permit his or her children to associate with habitual liars, nor with persons who delight in untruthful statements. We should dread the effect of such contact. But this is no worse than permitting them to have access to literature of the same character, for their minds are sure to be poisoned by that which they read. 12
- Dean Jessee, ed., Letters of Brigham Young to His Sons (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1974), 313-15. ↩
- Brigham Young, “Organization and Development of Man”, Journal of Discourses, vol. 2, pp. 90-96, February 6th, 1853. ↩
- Brigham Young, “Necessity of Paying Due Attention to Temporal Duties, &c”, Journal of Discourses, vol. 9, pp. 167-174, January 26th, 1862. ↩
- Essential Brigham Young, Chapter 21, from Sermon Delivered on 30 June 1873 (from Deseret News, 23 July 1873) ↩
- Brigham Young, “The Order of Enoch”, Journal of Discourses, vol. 15, pp. 220-229, October 9, 1872. ↩
- Brigham Young, “The Order of Enoch“, Journal of Discourses, vol. 15, pp. 220-229, October 9, 1872. ↩
- Brigham Young, “Saints Improving Slowly, Etc.”, Journal of Discourses, vol. 12, pp. 123-129, December 29, 1867. ↩
- Brigham Young, “Items of History, Etc.“, Journal of Discourses, vol. 19, pp. 60-65, July 24, 1877. ↩
- Juvenile Instructor, May 1, 1902, Vol. 37, p. 275. ↩
- Improvement Era, May, 1909, Vol. 12, p. 561 (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine: Selections from the Sermons and Writings of Joseph F. Smith, compiled by John A. Widtsoe [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1939], 324-326. ↩
- Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 5 vols. [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1957-1966], 4: ↩
- Dec. 15, 1895, JI 30:766) (George Q. Cannon, Gospel Truth: Discourses and Writings of President George Q. Cannon, selected, arranged, and edited by Jerreld L. Newquist [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1987], 466. ↩