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Reform Through Reading Post by :brandyn Category :Essays Author :Heywood Broun Date :November 2011 Read :2539

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Reform Through Reading

Virtue, good health, efficiency and all the other subjects which are served up in the numberless thick volumes with a purpose seldom seem desirable when the propagandist has finished his say about them. For instance, we began the day with a firm determination never to smoke again--that is, not for some time--and then we ran across Efficiency Through Concentration, by B. Johnston. Since then we light the new cigarette from the dying embers of the old. The passage which enraged us most occurs in a chapter called "Personal Habits," in which the author writes:

"If you are a gentleman always ask a lady's permission before smoking, and if you find that her statement that it is disagreeable to her is a disappointment to you, and that your observance of her wishes causes you real discomfort, then you may know that the time has come to give up the habit entirely."

To be sure, Mr. Johnston does not specify whether "the habit" refers to smoking or to the lady, but later it is made clear that he seriously suggests that a smoker should change his whole mode of life to suit the whim of "a lady" who is not otherwise identified in the book. What this particular "lady" is to the "gentleman" we don't know, but it sounds very much like blackmail.

Nor later were we much moved to strength of will against nicotine by the author's advice, "If self-conquest seems difficult, brace yourself up with the reminder that as heir of the ages you sum up in yourself all the powers of self-restraint bequeathed by your innumerable ancestors."

To us that makes but slight appeal. After all, the ancestors most celebrated for self-restraint were those that didn't have any descendants.

Later we came across "Concentrate your thought on the blessings that accompany moderation in all things." This, however, seemed to us an excellent suggestion if followed in moderation.

Next we turned to a health book by Thomas R. Gaines which promised "a sound and certain way to health, a cure for fatigue, a preventive for disease and one of the most potent allies in the battle of life against premature old age." The book is called Vitalic Breathing and the introductory notice went on to say that the system suggested was easy to practise and cost nothing. Only when we came to facts did the new guide to health fail us, for then we read, "Vitalic breathing means inhaling in sniffs and forcibly exhaling." No dramatic critic could afford to follow such a system. He would be hurled out of every theater in town on the suspicion that he was hissing the show.

Vance Thompson's advice in Live and Be Young is no easier. "The best is none too good for you," he writes graciously, and continues: "Whether it is the country or the village or the city, the men and women you want to know are the best--those who are getting the best out of life--those who have beautiful homes and social influence--those who play games and make an art of pleasant things--in a word, those who are smart."

We read on and learned that, "Rich people are, nine times out of ten, pleasanter, kindlier, better bred and less selfish than poor folk--they can afford to be; and they are more enjoyable playmates and steadier friends."

No, after mature deliberation we think we would rather try the sniffing and forcibly exhaling method. We would even prefer to concentrate and give up tobacco. Addition never was one of our strong points, and Mr. Thompson's advice is not for us. We would have a terrible time in finding out whether they really were rich enough to be of any use to our arteries. Clues are simple enough. It is easy to ask nonchalantly, "How much income tax did you pay this year?" But after obtaining that you have to find out whether your potentially rich man is living with his wife and whether he has any children or bad debts or Liberty bonds of that issue which is tax exempt. Then you must calculate the first few thousands on the basis of four per cent and on up. It couldn't be done in your head, and we doubt whether it would be polite to ask your host for paper and pencil. The system is all well enough after you have your rich, smart people identified, but the possibility of contracting premature old age while still in the research period seems to us too dangerous to meddle with.

After setting down all this we find that we have not been fair to Mr. Thompson. Early in the book, on a page which we had inadvertently skipped, an easy method is suggested for ascertaining whether your friends are actually rich and smart. Speaking of such words as "climbers" and "snobs" Mr. Thompson writes: "These epithets are always ready to the hand of the slack-living, uncouth man, who is more comfortable in bad society than he is in good society--and he loves to throw them about. You know that man? He stands out in the commonness and indecency of the street, as you go up to knock at the door of a smart house, and shouts, 'Snob!'"

Of course, we would like it fine, but truthfulness compels us to admit that we never met him. Whether we like it or not we will have to continue to seek health in good works and deep breathing.

Still, our own house is pretty smart. It carries three mortgages and has never dropped one yet.


(The end)
Heywood Broun's essay: Reform Through Reading

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