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Thomas Jefferson on reading novels

Read any good books lately?
A great obstacle to good education is the ordinate passion prevalent for novels, and the time lost in that reading which should be instructively employed. When this poison infects the mind, it destroys its tone and revolts it against wholesome reading. Reason and fact, plain and unadorned, are rejected. Nothing can engage attention unless dressed in all the figments of fancy, and nothing so bedecked comes amiss. The result is a bloated imagination, sickly judgment, and disgust towards all the real businesses of life.

Thomas Jefferson to N. Burwell, 1818, 2390

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
On the surface, this one is bound to rankle readers of fiction. This is undoubtedly what Jefferson meant by “novels,” fiction rather than fact. He was all about facts, and had no room for fiction that did not inspire the reader to something greater. These novels would have been ones for entertainment only, with no redeeming characteristics.
This letter was written when Jefferson was 75. A more complete view comes from a letter he wrote in 1771, at age 28, to Robert Skipworth (2994): “…the entertainments of fiction are useful as well as pleasant … But wherein is its utility? … I answer everything is useful which contributes to fix in the principles and practices of virtue.”
Later in this excerpt, Jefferson praises a certain kind of fiction over nonfiction: “We are, therefore, wisely framed to be as warmly interested for a fictitious as for a real personage. The field of imagination is thus laid open to our use and lessons may be formed to illustrate and carry home to the heart every moral rule of life. Thus a lively and lasting sense of filial duty is more effectually impressed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading King Lear, than by all the dry volumes of ethics and divinity that ever were written. This is my idea of well written Romance, of Tragedy, Comedy and Epic poetry.”
Perhaps as an old man, Jefferson was dismayed with a preoccupation with fiction that only entertained and served no greater purpose.

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3 Responses to Thomas Jefferson on reading novels

  1. Jane Flink says:

    I quite agree with the President. I have never left that early stage of life where all children inquire, “Is it real, Mommy?” I read some fiction and enjoy it, but the majority of my beloved books are historical or biographical. Thanks for bringing us Mr. Jefferson’s reasoning.

    • David says:

      In reply to your comment, just look at the rest of the letter: ¨This mass of trash, however, is not without some distinction; some few modelling their narratives, although fictitious, on the incidents of real life, have been able to make them interesting and useful vehicles of sound morality. ¨
      Jefferson, just like any other sentimental critic until the 1960s, held conservative views on sentimental novels, and did not see the merit that was actually to be had from reading them, as is seen nowadays in literary criticism.

  2. Pingback: Should females be educated? If so, in what? | Thomas Jefferson Leadership

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