The testimony of librarians as to the kind of books people are reading nowadays is somewhat discouraging to the book-lover who has been brought up in the old traditions. We are told that Scott and Thackeray and George Eliot cannot compete with the year's 'best sellers,' and that the old classics are read only by the few who have a cultivated taste and a trained intelligence.
The interest of novelty, the dislike of mental effort, the temptation to read merely for a mild sensation,-all these undoubtedly tend to keep down the level of literary taste. To many readers of good average ability, neither the esthetic nor the purely intellectual makes a strong appeal. Even minds of fine quality often find a welcome diversion in trivial reading. In fact, to expect every one and at all times to have his mind keyed up to the higher levels is neither sincere nor reasonable. And yet, making due allowance for intellectual limitations, for the busy and distracting conditions of modern life, and for the real need of light reading at times when recreation is of more value than instruction, it would seem that a fair proportion of our reading could and should be on a higher plane.
To put it on this high plane is one of the fixed objects of the school. For this end the schools have given English an important place, have broadened the list of recommended books year by year, and have sought to improve the method of teaching literature. Especially have they hoped to create in the pupil the habit of reading good books and of discovering new material on his own initiative. Thus far their success has fallen much below their hopes, as the testimony of librarians, adduced above, plainly indicates.
There is one significant fact which both librarians and teachers have observed. The average reader, child or adult, seldom knows how or where to find things to read. He is lost in a library, whether among the book-shelves or at a card-catalogue. He is like a traveler who is ignorant of the geography of the country and cannot use the compass. And worse still, he has not the explorer's instinct. If he possessed this, he would somehow find his way himself,-a thing which occasionally happens when the reader has more than usual ability. Between the covers of those books, turning to him their uncommunicative backs, behind those labels-to him so unexpressive-there may be passages, whole chapters or more, that would give him entertainment, if he only knew!
To introduce him to an author may be to give him a new friend. Introductions need not imply long and intimate companionship. This author may hold him for half an hour, and never again; that one may claim his attention for a day; and another may come to rank as one of his old friends. In each case the acquaintance may depend upon the fact of an introduction, and not upon the reader's own initiative in discovery. More than the acquaintances thus made, is the sense of at-homeness among books which they gradually bring about. We all know that feeling of the unreality of a book of which we have merely heard the title, and how soon we forget it. A book that we have seen and handled, however, and especially one which we have read or from which we have seen a passage quoted in another volume, is somehow real,-an entity. Through continued experiences of this sort we come to feel really acquainted with books, to know where to find the things we are looking for, to judge and appreciate,-in brief, to feel at home among them.
It is as a series of such introductions to the larger world of literature that this volume has been compiled. Some of the selections are from books whose titles are already familiar to high school students; many others are from sources that few pupils will know. All of them, it is confidently believed, are within the interest and comprehension of boys and girls of high school age. The notes and questions at the end of each selection will, it is hoped, be of some help to the students in getting at the author's meaning, and in suggesting interesting topics for discussion. If, after finishing the Short Stories and Selections, a few more students will have formed the habit of good reading and will feel, not merely willing, but eager, to enlarge their acquaintance among good books, this volume has accomplished its purpose.