The Duty of Owning Books

​In the following essay 19th century preacher, social reformer and abolitionist, Henry Ward Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe) makes a case for the owning of books.

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We form judgments of men from little things about their houses of which the owner perhaps never thinks. In earlier years, when travelling in the West, where taverns were scarce and in some places unknown, and every settler's house was a house of  "Entertainment," it was a matter of some importance and some experience to select wisely where you would put up. And we always looked for flowers. If there were no trees for shade, no patch of flowers in the yard, we were suspicious of the place. But, no matter how rude the cabin or rough the surroundings, if we saw that the window held a little trough for flowers, and that some vines twilled about strings let down from the eaves, we were confident that there was some taste and carefulness in the log-cabin. In a new country, where people have to tug for a living, no one will take the trouble to rear flowers unless the love of them is pretty strong; and this taste, blossoming out of plain and uncultivated people is itself like a clump of harebells growing out of the seams of a rock. We were seldom misled. A patch of flowers came to signify kind people, clean beds, and good bread.

But in other states of society other signs are more significant. Flowers about a rich man's house may signify only that he has a good gardener, or that he has refined neighbors, and does what he sees them do. But men are not accustomed to buy books unless they want them. If on visiting the dwelling of a man of slender means we find that he contents himself with cheap carpets, and very plain furniture, in order that he may purchase books, he rises at once in our esteem. Books are not made for furniture, but there is nothing else that so beautifully furnishes a house. The plainest row of books that cloth or paper ever covered is more significant of refinement than the most elaborately carved ​étagère or sideboard.

Give us a house furnished with books rather than furniture! Both, if you can, but books at any rate! To spend several days in a friend's house, and hunger for something to read, while you are treading on costly carpets, and sitting upon luxurious chairs, and sleeping upon down, is as if one were bribing your body for the sake of cheating your mind. Is it not pitiable to see a man growing rich, augmenting the comforts of home, and lavishing money on ostentatious upholstery, upon the table, upon everything but what the soul needs? We know of many and many a rich man's house where it would not be safe to ask for the commonest English classics. A few gairish annuals on the table, a few pictorial monstrosities, together with the stock religious books of his "persuasion," and that is all! No poets, no essayists, no historians, no travels or biographies, no select fictions, or curious legendary lore. But the wall-paper cost three dollars a roll, and the carpets four dollars a yard!

Books are the windows through which the soul looks out. A house without books is like a room without windows. No man has a right to bring up his children without surrounding them with books, if he has the means to buy them. It is a wrong to his family. He cheats them! Children learn to read by being in the presence of books. The love of knowledge comes with reading and grows upon it. And the love of knowledge, in a young mind, is almost a warrant against the inferior excitement of passions and vices.

Let us pity these poor rich men who live barrenly in great, bookless houses! Let us congratulate the poor that, in our day, books are so cheap that a man may every year add a hundred volumes to his library for the price of what his tobacco and his beer would cost him. Among the earliest ambitions to be excited in clerks, workmen, journeymen, and, indeed, among all that are struggling up in life from nothing to something, is that of owning, and constantly adding to, a library of good books. A little library growing larger every year is an honorable part of a young man's history. It is a man's duty to have books. A library is not a luxury, but one of the necessaries of life.

─ ​From Eyes and Ears, a collection of essays by Henry Ward Beecher, ​published in 1862.

This Way to Christmas with Ruth Sawyer

You may know Ruth Sawyer as author of the Newbery Award winning Roller Skates, but did you know that she also has to her credit three outstanding collections of Christmas stories for children? Let me introduce you to them and tell you how she came to write them.

As a child Ruth was lucky, indeed, to have as nurse Johanna who hailed from County Donegal in Ireland─Johanna, a gifted storyteller who told Ruth one story after another all the year long. “From her,” Sawyer says, “I got my love of listening and telling stories─and finally of writing them down.” In her early twenties she took up the study of folklore and storytelling at Columbia, then followed that with a couple of years of practical experience telling stories all over the city of New York to audiences of various ages and nationalities. She took advantage of every opportunity to collect stories, first in Ireland and much later in Spain. In The Way of the Storyteller, Sawyer asserts, “The art of storytelling lies within the storyteller, to be searched for, drawn out, made to grow.” She goes on to enumerate critical factors in the development of a storyteller─experience, the building of background, the power of creative imagination, and the art of selection─all capacities she developed to an extraordinary degree in becoming a master storyteller.

Each phase of the story development process is illustrated in her shaping of The Voyage of the Wee Red Cap. She collected the story of a miserly chap by the name of Teig and his Christmas Eve adventure from a "drab and dirty tinker" at a crossroads in Donegal. After refashioning it in her own words, she tested it by telling it to a room full of immigrant children at a branch of the New York Public Library. Only after making revisions based on her experience in telling the tale, did she prepare the story for publication.

She included it in her 1916 book, This Way to Christmas, as one of the six Christmas stories set within the narrative. This Way to Christmas features a lonesome boy named David who is stranded in upstate New York with just seven days to go until Christmas. With no prospect of a Christmas celebration in sight, he comes up with an ingenious way to bring Christmas to himself and to the equally lonesome inhabitants of his small mountain community, all of whom were spending the winter far from home. Visiting each in turn, David befriends his neighbors and delights in hearing the Christmas stories they share with him, stories they heard in their homelands long ago. He invites them all to a festive celebration, erecting signposts that read This Way to Christmas. Through his efforts he brings all the neighbors of different nationalities together, forging relationships that will outlast the holiday season and sending a message of hope to a war-torn world.

Stories in This Way to Christmas

The Voyage of the Wee Red Cap

The Christmas Apple

The Three Kings Ride

St. Bridget

Gifts for the First Birthday

The Christmas That Was Nearly Lost

Ruth Sawyer continued to collect stories and in 1941 published The Long Christmas. She chose the stories for this book "to lengthen the season, as many did in olden times, to last from the first cock-crow on Saint Thomas's Day to the blessing of the candles on Candlemas." And so she provides a story or two for each phase of the Long Christmas, pairing every story with a song, poem, or carol that complements it. There are thirteen stories in all, most with origins in the Old World.

Stories in The Long Christmas

The Shepherds

Fiddler, Play Faster, Play Faster

The Good Night

The Gold of Bernardino

The Wishing Well

The Voyage of the Wee Red Cap

The Wee Christmas Cabin of Carn-na-ween

The Holy Lake

The Crib of Bo'Bossu

The Three Kings Ride

A Candle for St. Bridget

The Feast of Fools

Schnitzle, Schnotzle, and Schnootzle

Publishing The Long Christmas in the shadow of World War II, Ruth Sawyer writes of her vision of Christmas in her Introduction, "Never before within our memory has it seemed so important to keep the Long Christmas; to begin early enough and hold to the festival long enough to feel the deep, moving significance of it. For Christmas is a state of mind quite as much as a festival; and who can establish and maintain a state of mind in the rush and turmoil of a single day, or two days? Around no other time of year has been built so much of faith, of beauty. Out of no other festival have grown so many legends. It is a time when man walks abroad in the full stature of his humanity and in the true image of God. He walks with grace, with laughter, and a great awareness of brotherhood. This bringing of the world together to worship at the manger brings kings and cooks to be in good fellowship, makes children and their grandsires to be of one age, makes witty men of fools and fools of scholars. And who is there to foretell to whom the star may appear?"

Sawyer's third anthology of Christmas stories, Joy to the World: Christmas Legends, is the only one of the three not to have been published in war time. It gathers together six stories from Ancient Araby, Serbia, Ireland, and Spain, introducing each with a carol, and all decorated with striking illustrations in black and shades of gold by Trina Schart Hyman. My favorite story in this collection is What the Three Kings Brought, a personal story from her year in Spain in which Sawyer herself plays a central role.

Stories in Joy to the World

The Two Lambs

This Is the Christmas

The Precious Herbs of Christmas

What the Three Kings Brought

San Froilan of the Wilderness

The Miracle of Saint Cumgall

Th​e year 2016 marked the 100th anniversary of the publication of This Way to Christmas, the 75th anniversary of The Long Christmas, and the 50th anniversary of Joy to the World. Will you join me in keeping these stories alive in our hearts for generations to come?


Purchase a print edition of This Way to Christmas at Amazon

Purchase a print edition of
The Long Christmas

Purchase a print edition of 
Joy to the World at

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