Item of the Day: Pierpont’s The American First Class Book
Full Title: The American first class book; or, exercises in reading and recitation: selected principally from modern authors of Great Britain and America: and designed for the use of the highest class in publick and private schools. By John Pierpont, Minister of Hollis-street Church, Boston: Author of Airs of Palestine, &c. Boston: Hilliard, Gray, Little, and Wilkins and Richardson, Lord & Holbrook, 1831.
This book has been compiled with a special reference to the publick Reading and Grammar Schools of this city. It is the result of an attempt to supply the want—which has long been a subject of complaint among those whom the citizens of Boston have charged with the general superintendence of their publick schools, as well as with those who are appointed to the immediate instruction of them—of a book of Exercises in Reading and Speaking better adapted, than any English compilation that has yet appeared, to the state of society as it is in this country; and less obnoxious to complaint, on the ground of its national or political character, than it is reasonable to expect that any English compilation would be, among a people whose manners, opinions, literary institutions, and civil governments, are so strictly republican as our own.
But, though the immediate design of this compilation was a limited and local one, it has been borne in mind, throughout the work, that the want, which has been a subject of complaint in this city, must have been still more widely felt; especially by those, in every part of our country, who are attentive to the national, moral, and religious sentiments, contained in the books that are used by their children while learning to read, and while their literary taste is beginning to assume something of the character which it ever afterwards retains.
How far the objections, which have been made to other works of this sort, have been obviated in the present selection, it is for others to determine. I willingly leave the decision of this question to the ultimate and only proper tribunal—the publick; to whose kindness, as shown towards one of my efforts, in another department of literature, I am no stranger, and for which I should prove myself ungrateful should I not acknowledge my obligation. –I only hope that the kindness of the publick towards the past, many not have led into presumption and carelessness in regard to the present.
In as much, however, as this book departs, in some particulars, from most others of the same general character, it may be expected that the author should assign his reasons for such deviations. These relate principally to the omission of some things that are usually deemed essential to a school-reader; and to the arrangement of the materials of which this is made up.
First, then, it may be urged as an objection to this, as a compilation that is to be used by those who are learning to read, that it consists entirely of exercises in reading and speaking, to the exclusion of those rules, the knowledge of which is indispensable to any considerable proficiency in either.
I have observed, however, that that part of school-books which consists of Brief Treatises upon Rhetorick, Rules for Reading, and Essays on Elocution is, almost uniformly, little worn; --an evidence that it is little used; in other words, that it is of little use. I have construed this fact into an oracular monition not to devote to such Rules, Treatises, or Essays, any part of the present work.
The truth probably is, that reading, like conversation, is learned from example rather than by rule. –No one becomes distinguished, as a singer, by the most familiar knowledge of the gamut; so, no one is ever made an accomplished reader or speaker by studying rules for elocution, even though aided by a diagram. There is even less aid derived from rules in reading than singing: for musick is, in a great degree, a matter of strict science; while reading, after the alphabet is learned, is altogether an art: --an art, indeed, which requires a quick perception, a delicate taste, a good understanding, and, especially, a faculty of nicely discriminating and accurately expressing the various shades of an author’s meaning: --but, still, an art that is less capable than musick of being reduced to definitive rules, or of being taught by them.
To become a good reader or a good speaker, the best examples of elocution, in these respective departments, must be see, and heard, and studied. The tones that express particular emotions and passions must be caught by the ear. The same organ must inform us what is mean: by the very terms in which all rules must be expressed, --what is meant by a rapid or deliberate enunciation; what by speaking loudly or softly, on a high or low key, with emphasis or in a monotony, distinctly or indistinctly. We may amuse ourselves, if we please, with laying down rules upon these matters, but, till our rules are illustrated by the voice and manner of a good reader, they are totally inoperative; and, when thus illustrated, totally unnecessary. The learner imitates the example of reading which is given in explaining a rule, and the rule itself is forsaken and soon forgotten.
It seems to me that the readiest, indeed, the only good way, to teach children to read well, is, to give them the charge of instructers who are themselves good readers, --instructers, who, like teachers of musick, will not content themselves with laying certain rules for regulating the tones, inflexions, and cadences of the voice before your child’s eye, which can neither receive a sound nor give one, but who will address his ear with living instruction, --with the rich and informing melody of the human voice. . . .
Boston, June, 1823.