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THOUGH a man spend all his summer vacation in roaming through the fields and woods of this broad land; though he pore for days over the pages of Cassell and peer deep into the works of Cuvier; though he even join the Harvard Natural History Society and listen to the learned discourses of that august body, - though he do any or all of these, the chances are ten to one he will never once meet with that strange creature, the literary butterfly. Yet it is not a rara avis of which I speak; nor do I tell quaint fables of learned animals of the olden time; for even now, here in our midst, several species of this animal are found. To speak scientifically, literary butterflies are bipeds, of the genus Homo. Their bodies are regularly shaped and their wings, though formed of thin tissues of imagination, often grow to great size. Breaking out from the cocoon of indifference to every mental pursuit which often surrounds their boyhood or girlhood, - for the females of this species are more numerous than the males, - they see the wide field of literature spread invitingly before them. Guided by the whim of the moment, as their humbler namesakes are, they float aimlessly among the rich flowers; alighting here on one of Thackeray's bright novels; pausing there a moment to sip the sweetness of Wordsworth's poems; attracted yonder by the flashing pages of Charles Reade. They seek only the pleasures of literature, and slight observation will convince us that they delight in these only when easily obtained. Where grow the more sober plants of history and biography their fancy seldom leads them. The rich stores of Macaulay and Prescott lie too deep for their shallow taste. The sole care of these literary butterflies is to draw pleasure from the writings of other; that they never add the smallest morsel to the food of the reading world grieves them not in the least; nor do they mourn that they have planted no flowers to brighten the garden of literature with blossoms. They appear to have fed on lotus-flowers, so dulled are their senses to the duties and pleasures of labor in the field of letters.
Another species of the literary butterfly resembles those just mentioned in their nomadic habits; but they are guided not so much by pleasure as by the ambition to be considered learned in the literary field. They fly rapidly from George Eliot to Moliere, from the "Critique of Pure Reason" to the "Heathen Chinee," from Aldrich to Schiller, not because they are dissatisfied with what they taste, but because they seek from the pages of all authors brilliant colors with which to tinge the "winged words" of their conversation.
Leaving our butterfly friends to pursue their happy wanderings in peace, let those who are the "workers" in the literary beehive think for a moment whether they may not profitably take a lesson from these seekers after pleasure and wisdom. Since the plants in the field of letters are almost numberless, no man can hope, in the span of an ordinary life, to find time to study them all thoroughly. Is it always true that "a little learning is a dangerous thing"?
To become acquainted with an author's style, and derive benefit and pleasure from his works, it is not necessary to read everything he has written. Yet what we do read, we should read with moderate care at least; since a novel from which we can learn nothing as to excellence of style, delineation of character, or relation of events, - and none of these benefits can be gained from superficial reading, - ought not to take the time of any one, unless he reads wholly for pleasure. We usually do better, therefore, to skip volumes rather than pages. Because we cannot now read all that we wish on certain subjects, it does not follow that we should neglect them entirely. At some future time we may take them up again if we have learned enough to know what authors to choose among the many who attract us from all sides. Scorn not, then, all traits of the literary butterflies.
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