Vicessimus Knox
"On Novel Reading"

Essay 14 of Essays Moral and Literary (1778)

If it be true, that the present age is more corrupt than the preceding, the great multiplication of Novels has probably contributed to its degeneracy. Fifty years ago there was scarcely a Novel in the kingdom. Romances, indeed, abounded; but they, it is supposed, were rather favourable to virtue. Their pictures of human nature were not exact, but they were flattering resemblances. By exhibiting patterns of perfection, they stimulated emulation to aim at it. They led the fancy through a beautiful wilderness of delights: and they filled the heart with pure, manly, bold, and liberal sentiments.

Those books also, which were written with a view to ridicule the more absurd romantic writers, are themselves most pleasing romances, and may be read without injury to the morals. Such is the immortal work of Cervantes. Perhaps the safest books of entertainment for young people are those of decent humour, which excite a laugh, and leave the heart little affected.

Books are more read in youth than in the advanced periods of life; but there are few perfectly well adapted to the young mind. They should be entertaining, or they will not be attended to. They should not be profound, or they will not be understood. Entertaining books there are in great numbers; but they were not written solely for young people, and are therefore too unguarded in many of their representations. They do not pay that reverence which Juvenal asserts to be due to the puerile age.

That Richardson's Novels are written with the purest intentions of promoting virtue, none can deny. But in the accomplishment of this purpose scenes are laid open, which it would be safer to conceal, and sentiments excited, which it would be more advantageous to early virtue not to admit. Dangers and temptations are pointed out; but many of them are dangers which seldom occur, and temptations by which few in comparison are assaulted. It is to be feared, the moral view is rarely regarded by youthful and inexperienced readers, who naturally pay the chief attention to the lively description of love, and its effects; and who, while they read, eagerly wish to be actors in the scenes which they admire.

The cultivated genius of Fielding entitles him to a high rank among the classics. His works exhibit a series of pictures drawn with all the descriptive fidelity of a Hogarth. They are highly entertaining, and will always be read with pleasure; but they likewise disclose scenes, which may corrupt a mind unseasoned by experience.

Smollett undoubtedly possesses great merit. He would, however, have been more generally read among the polite and refined, if his humour had been less coarse. His Peregrine Pickle has, I am convinced, done much mischief; as all books must do, in which wicked characters are painted in captivating colours. And it is advisable to defer the perusal of his works, till the judgment is mature.

The writings of such men do, however, display the beauties of that genius, which allures and rewards the attention of the discreet reader. But the memoirs, private histories, and curious anecdotes, imported from our neighbouring land of libertinism, have seldom any thing to recommend them to perusal but their profligacy. Yet even these, adorned with specious titles, and a pert vivacity of language, have found their way to the circulating libraries, and are often obtruded on the attention at an early age.

The English Press has teemed with similar original productions. That coarse taste, which was introduced in the reign of Charles the Second, was greedily adopted by the juvenile reader. At an inflammatory age, the fuel of licentious ideas will always find a ready reception. The sentimental manner seems of late to have supplanted it. But it is matter of doubt, whether even this manner is not equally dangerous. It has given an amiable name to vice, and has obliquely excused the extravagance of the passions, by representing them as the effect of lovely sensibility. The least refined affections of humanity have lost their indelicate nature, in the ideas of many, when dignified by the epithet of sentimental; and transgressions forbidden by the laws of God and man have been absurdly palliated, as proceeding from an excess of those finer feelings, which vanity has arrogated to itself as elegant and amiable distinctions. A softened appellation has given a degree of gracefulness to moral deformity.

The languishing and affectedly sentimental compositions formed on the pattern of Sterne, or of other less original Novelists, not only tend to give the mind a degree of weakness, which renders it unable to resist the slightest impulse of libidinous passion, but also indirectly insinuate, that the attempt is unnatural. What then remains to support the feeble efforts of remaining virtue, but the absence of temptation?

Such books, however pernicious in their tendency, are the most easily attained. The prudence of their publishers suggests the expediency of making them conveniently portable. Every corner of the kingdom is abundantly supplied with them. In vain is youth secluded from the corruptions of the living world. Books are commonly allowed them with little restriction, as innocent amusements; yet these often pollute the heart in the recesses of the closet, inflame the passions at a distance from temptation, and teach all the malignity of vice in solitude.

There is another evil arising from a too early attention to Novels. They fix attention so deeply, and afford so lively a pleasure, that the mind, once accustomed to them, cannot submit to the painful task of serious study. Authentic history becomes insipid. The reserved graces of the chaste matron Truth pass unobserved admist the gaudy and painted decorations of fiction. The boy who can procure a variety of books like Gil Blas, and the Devil upon Two Sticks, will no longer think his Livy, his Sallust, his Homer, or his Virgil pleasing. He will not study old Lilly, while he can read Pamela and Tom Jones, and a thousand inferior and more dangerous novels.

When the judgment is ripened by reflection, and the morals out of danger, every well-written book will claim attention. The man of application may always find agreeable refreshment, after severer study, in the amusing pages of a Fielding; but the fungous productions of the common Novel-wright will be too insignificant to attract his notice.

The extreme insipidity of some of our later Novels, it might have been supposed, would have prevented their reception. But insipid minds find in them entertainment congenial to their nature. And, indeed, the futility of the modern Novel almost precludes its power of causing any other mischief, than the consumption of time that might be more usefully employed.

If, however, Novels are to be prohibited, in what, it will be asked, can the young mind employ itself during the hours of necessary leisure? To this it may be answered, that when the sweetened poison is removed, plain and wholesome food will always be relished. The growing mind will crave nourishment, and will gladly seek it in true histories, written in a pleasing style, on purpose for its use. Voyages and travels, when not obscured by scientific observations, are always delightful to youthful curiosity. From interesting narratives, like those of Telemachus, and Robinson Crusoe, a mind not vitiated by a taste for licentious Novels will derive a very sensible pleasure. Let the boy's library consist of such books as Rollin's History, Plutarch's Lives, and the Spectators; and, together with the improvement of his morals and understanding, which he must derive from reading them, he will have it in his power to spend his vacant time in such mental amusements as are truly and permanently delightful.