Novels are excluded from "serious reading," so that the man who,

bent on self-improvement, has been deciding to devote ninety minutes

three times a week to a complete study of the works of Charles

Dickens will be well advised to alter his plans. The reason is not

that novels are not serious--some of the great literature of the

world is in the form of prose fiction--the reason is that bad

novels ought not to be read, a
d that good novels never demand any

appreciable mental application on the part of the reader. It is only

the bad parts of Meredith's novels that are difficult. A good novel

rushes you forward like a skiff down a stream, and you arrive at the

end, perhaps breathless, but unexhausted. The best novels involve

the least strain. Now in the cultivation of the mind one of the

most important factors is precisely the feeling of strain, of

difficulty, of a task which one part of you is anxious to achieve

and another part of you is anxious to shirk; and that feeling

cannot be got in facing a novel. You do not set your teeth in order

to read "Anna Karenina." Therefore, though you should read novels,

you should not read them in those ninety minutes.

Imaginative poetry produces a far greater mental strain than novels.

It produces probably the severest strain of any form of literature.

It is the highest form of literature. It yields the highest form of

pleasure, and teaches the highest form of wisdom. In a word, there

is nothing to compare with it. I say this with sad consciousness of

the fact that the majority of people do not read poetry.

I am persuaded that many excellent persons, if they were confronted

with the alternatives of reading "Paradise Lost" and going round

Trafalgar Square at noonday on their knees in sack-cloth, would

choose the ordeal of public ridicule. Still, I will never cease

advising my friends and enemies to read poetry before anything.

If poetry is what is called "a sealed book" to you, begin by reading

Hazlitt's famous essay on the nature of "poetry in general." It is

the best thing of its kind in English, and no one who has read it

can possibly be under the misapprehension that poetry is a mediaeval

torture, or a mad elephant, or a gun that will go off by itself and

kill at forty paces. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the mental

state of the man who, after reading Hazlitt's essay, is not urgently

desirous of reading some poetry before his next meal. If the essay

so inspires you I would suggest that you make a commencement with

purely narrative poetry.

There is an infinitely finer English novel, written by a woman, than

anything by George Eliot or the Brontes, or even Jane Austen, which

perhaps you have not read. Its title is "Aurora Leigh," and its

author E.B. Browning. It happens to be written in verse, and to

contain a considerable amount of genuinely fine poetry. Decide to

read that book through, even if you die for it. Forget that it is

fine poetry. Read it simply for the story and the social ideas. And

when you have done, ask yourself honestly whether you still dislike

poetry. I have known more than one person to whom "Aurora Leigh" has

been the means of proving that in assuming they hated poetry they

were entirely mistaken.

Of course, if, after Hazlitt, and such an experiment made in the

light of Hazlitt, you are finally assured that there is something in

you which is antagonistic to poetry, you must be content with

history or philosophy. I shall regret it, yet not inconsolably.

"The Decline and Fall" is not to be named in the same day with

"Paradise Lost," but it is a vastly pretty thing; and Herbert

Spencer's "First Principles" simply laughs at the claims of poetry

and refuses to be accepted as aught but the most majestic product of

any human mind. I do not suggest that either of these works is

suitable for a tyro in mental strains. But I see no reason why any

man of average intelligence should not, after a year of continuous

reading, be fit to assault the supreme masterpieces of history or

philosophy. The great convenience of masterpieces is that they are

so astonishingly lucid.

I suggest no particular work as a start. The attempt would be

futile in the space of my command. But I have two general

suggestions of a certain importance. The first is to define the

direction and scope of your efforts. Choose a limited period, or a

limited subject, or a single author. Say to yourself: "I will know

something about the French Revolution, or the rise of railways, or

the works of John Keats." And during a given period, to be settled

beforehand, confine yourself to your choice. There is much pleasure

to be derived from being a specialist.

The second suggestion is to think as well as to read. I know people

who read and read, and for all the good it does them they might just

as well cut bread-and-butter. They take to reading as better men

take to drink. They fly through the shires of literature on a

motor-car, their sole object being motion. They will tell you how

many books they have read in a year.

Unless you give at least forty-five minutes to careful, fatiguing

reflection (it is an awful bore at first) upon what you are reading,

your ninety minutes of a night are chiefly wasted. This means that

your pace will be slow.

Never mind.

Forget the goal; think only of the surrounding country; and after a

period, perhaps when you least expect it, you will suddenly find

yourself in a lovely town on a hill.