Walter Scott on Reading

First of all, have you ever wondered how not to write a paper?

Now to Walter Scott, who has made a contribution to the debate going on here about what one should read and how one should read it; here’s a description of his hero Edward Waverley’s reading:

With a desire for amusement, therefore, which better discipline might soon have converted into a thirst for knowledge, young Waverley drove through the sea of books, like a vessel without a pilot or rudder. Nothing perhaps increases by indulgence more than a desultory habit of reading, especially under such opportunities of gratifying it … Edward … like the epicure who only deigned to take a single morsel from the sunny side of a peach, read no volume a moment after it ceased to excite his curiosity or interest; and it necessarily happened, that the habit of seeking only this sort of gratification rendered it daily more difficult of attainment, till the passion for reading, like other strong appetites, produced by indulgence a sort of satiety.

Waverly has suffered the fate that many heroes and heroines from 18C and 19C novels suffer — he is without sufficient parental supervision of his reading material; his mother died when he was young and his father doesn’t pay a whole lot of attention. In novels from this time, trouble is sure to develop if young people are allowed unfettered access to libraries. I haven’t gotten all that far in the novel, so I’m not sure what direction it’s heading in, but I’m certain that this lack of reading discipline foreshadows some sort of trouble for the young man.

Now, I believe both in young people having unfettered access to libraries and in teaching them (somehow) to develop discipline in their reading. How do you accomplish both of these things though? I’m not sure. But discipline is important to me, just as reading purely for pleasure is. I think I’d be suspicious of someone like Waverley who never, ever finished a book he wasn’t entirely enthralled with or someone who never challenged him or herself with something difficult.

Maybe it’s good I don’t have children so I don’t have to worry about such things …


Filed under Books, Fiction, Reading

14 responses to “Walter Scott on Reading

  1. My second niece repeatedly exceeds her school’s holiday reading programs by a factor of five or ten times. She is rarely seen without a book in hand. My sister-in-law was telling me one day that she thought it was good for parents to know what their kids were reading, but she found it was physically impossible for her to screen all of the books which my niece read.

    Finally, she decided that she had to trust the general guidance my niece had received from her. I often ask my niece to summarize what she’s currently reading and to compare and contrast it with other books; I find this gives me an idea about how she thinks and feels about what she’s taking in. Also, it challenges her on the fly to connect her knowledge together.

    So, her access to libraries is unfettered but, I think, not unguided.


  2. My mom always took us to the library, but I don’t actually recall a lot of guidance in book choices. I pretty much picked what I liked (at least from middle school on). In some ways I wish I had specific books given to me to read, but I am not sure I would have appreciated them then as much as I do now–of course that’s hard to say in retrospect. Despite having free reign in the library (and probably picking out every Nancy Drew and Phyllis Whitney novel over the Brontes and Jane Austen), I think I have ended up okay in my reading. I love to read still and I have managed to come to the classics on my own and enjoy them greatly. It will be interesting to see how Waverly turns out! 🙂


  3. I didn’t need any discipline to cultivate a thirst for knowledge–I remember annoying my parents with incessant questions about how stuff worked. But it didn’t hurt that my parents were also interested in everything and exposed me to all sorts of good things. We went to museums, not amusement parks, and that was fine with me.


  4. Sylvia, excellent point! I once told a friend that I thought a teacher’s job was predominantly to encourage children to learn. He replied that children naturally want to learn and many teachers (or society in general) dampen that desire. He suggested that, often a teacher’s job is just to stay out of the way.

    As a teacher, I try to encourage those who have had their spirits quashed, and feed those who still have the natural desire to learn.


  5. At the risk of repeating myself, send them to college.


  6. Amos – Send whom to college? The teachers? 😉


  7. Edd

    Dorothy, I am not sufficiently qualified to comment on Waverly or the development of learning or teaching habits anymore but I do feel strongly after reading your blog for some time you would make an exceptional mother.


  8. I can’t say how to best teach kids, but I know when I was a kid I got to read whatever I wanted to (except for my mom’s romance novels, she hid those, not very well though!). The reading guidance was left to my teachers who, at least from my perspective, did a pretty good job.


  9. Bikkuri — thanks for the name explanation — I could have cut and pasted it, now that I think about it! It sounds like your niece is on the right track — perhaps some adult interest and recommendations now and then would be enough to do the trick.

    Danielle — your story shows that people don’t have to choose the classics over everything else early on in order to develop a love for them — reading the classics can happen at any time in one’s life.

    Sylvia — exposing kids to new books, art, etc., is invaluable, isn’t it? Otherwise, it’s hard to find things, to know what to look for.

    Amos — yes, college did wonders for me too in influencing my reading, teaching me to love books I wouldn’t have thought I could.

    Edd — thank you! I’m glad for the encouragement in case I change my mind, although I have no desire to change it right now.

    Stefanie — parents can be kind of clueless, can’t they? 🙂


  10. Actually my parents exposed me to *old* books, art, etc.! 😉 We did go to the Pompidou, but mostly they were into classics.


  11. hepzibah

    Yes dorothy– I agree with Ed, you would be an exceptional mother 🙂

    But, I liked what you said about the character not knowing what to read — that was a problem for me growing up too — my parents didn’t really have much of a book collection (they still don’t) and no one in my family really understands me, and why I like to read so much –especially my grandparents, they think I am crazy 🙂 But now I feel better — I am not the only person who felt this way.


  12. Okay, Sylvia, OLD books then. 🙂

    Hepzibah — it’s so interesting to find out how people became interested in books and how they across the ones they did — how wonderful that you learned to love reading in spite of having a family who doesn’t always get it!


  13. I’ve fallen in love with Scott and will post on him when things settle. Based on the biographical sketch I read about him, he almost seems to have been describing himself in this passage you quote. I have very similar feelings to yours about reading with no discipline, although I will say it was wonderful those first few years I was out of school and realized, “I only have to read what I want to read for the rest of my life.” Then, of course, I went into publishing…


  14. Hmmm … I haven’t fallen in love with Scott at all. I’m curious to hear what you think of him — the details, I mean.


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