Heine has recorded the overpowering impression made upon him by the first glimpse of the Venus of Melos. An experience so extreme in emotional quality could come only to a nature singularly sensitive to beauty and abnormally sensitive to physical emotion; but he who has no power of feeling intensely the power of beauty in the moment of discovery, has missed something of very high value in the process of culture. One of the signs of real culture is the power of enjoyment which goes with fresh feeling. All great art is full of this feeling; its characteristic is the new interest with which it invests the most familiar objects; and one evidence of capacity to receive culture from art is the development of this feeling. The reader who is on the way to enrich himself by contact with books cultivates the power of feeling freshly and keenly the charm of every book he reads simply as a piece of literature. One may destroy this power by permitting analysis and criticism to become the primary mood, or one may develop it by resolutely putting analysis and criticism into the secondary place, and sedulously developing the power to enjoy for the sake of enjoyment. The reader who does not feel the immediate and obvious beauty of a poem or a play has lost the power, not only of getting the full effect of a work of art, but of getting its full significance as well. The surprise, the delight, the joy of the first discovery are not merely pleasurable; they are in the highest degree educational. They reveal the sensitiveness of the nature to those ultimate forms of beauty and power which art takes on, and its power of responding not only to what is obviously beautiful but is also profoundly true. For the harmonious and noble beauty of “As You Like It” is not only obvious and external; it is wrought into its structure so completely that, like the blossom of the apple, it is the effluence of the life of the play. To get delight out of reading is, therefore, the first and constant care of the reader who wishes to be enriched by vital contact with the most inclusive and expressive of the arts.
The Feeling for Literature.
The importance of reading habitually the best books becomes apparent when one remembers that taste depends very largely on the standards with which we are familiar, and that the ability to enjoy the best and only the best is conditioned upon intimate acquaintance with the best. The man who is thrown into constant association with inferior work either revolts against his surroundings or suffers a disintegration of aim and standard, which perceptibly lowers the plane on which he lives. In either case the power of enjoyment from contact with a genuine piece of creative work is sensibly diminished, and may be finally lost. The delicacy of the mind is both precious and perishable; it can be preserved only by associations which confirm and satisfy it. For this reason, among others, the best books are the only books which a man bent on culture should read; inferior books not only waste his time, but they dull the edge of his perception and diminish his capacity for delight.