Shakespeare, who was easily the literary master of his age, probably had not read more than fifty books when he began his astonishing career as the world's greatest dramatist. Many high-school boys today are better read than he—so far as quantity of reading is concerned. One hundred years ago everyone who read anything was reading Sir Walter Scott's novels, yet an edition of 10,000 was all that was needed for the time. The novels of Charles Dickens were the amazing triumph in current English literature; however, the maximum edition of his day was only 35,000 copies.
In America we have come out of a generation of pioneers who had few books. But today all this is changed. In no feature of our national life has there been more surprising growth than in the recently developed popular interest in books. In these days, books of fiction not infrequently reach editions totaling half a million or more copies, while a recent edition of one of Harold Bell Wright's sentimental stories filled an entire freight train. And even in our own denominational literature field, "Steps to Christ" has reached an amazing circulation of millions of copies. Think as we may of the nature and the quality of the literary materials going into the bulk of the books which are being produced today, the fact remains, and is increasingly apparent, that people are now reading more, and are being influenced more by what they read, than ever before.
In our general community life, reading is rapidly becoming a passport to respectability and social recognition. For us, the chief significance of this statement does not lie in the fact that we have in books and reading an interesting and recently developed touchstone by which social groups measure the fitness of their members. It means rather that we, as workers in the cause of God, must recognize the new and challenging situation which has been brought abotit through the influence of books now reaching and vitally affecting the thought-life of all sections of society, and creating a dominant force with which every worker must either cooperate or contend.
No religious leader can justify his ignorance of, nor his indifference to, the books that his people are reading on the ground of the preeminent importance of his own specialized reading. A minister looking out upon his congregation today—whether in city, village, or rural church—sees a group of hearers whose world knowledge, general information, and judgment of things written and spoken have been profoundly affected by current reading matter. In the presence of this transforming influence working in the daily life and thought of people in every congregation,—affecting not only their literary and cultural ideals, but positively affecting their attitude toward, and appreciation of, the method and content of the minister's message, —no worker in any section of the field can fail to be concerned as to the effect this new world of books has upon himself and his people.
Ours is indeed a generation of omnivorous readers. Every American family, for example, purchases on an average nine books each year, two magazines or periodicals each week, and one or two newspapers each day. Besides this we have 6,500 public libraries on whose shelves repose more than 160,000,000 volumes, which circulate more or less freely among readers of alI classes. Probably no other fact in our modern life more profoundly affects the popular mind or attitude toward things religious than the increased interest in general education and extensive reading.
This puts upon the leaders in our cause—ministers and other workers alike—an inescapable responsibility to make most thorough preparation for their work. In this day it is suicidal to neglect either academic or spiritual preparation, or to assume that goodness and piety alone will guarantee successful religious leadership. The educational and literary atmosphere that influences so many people today, affecting their intellectual and spiritual life, necessitates that the minister of truth be able to cope with the clever enemies of religious faith who oppose him, and to give answer to the honest questionings of stimulated intellects within or without our own ranks.
God has provided for this people intellectual and spiritual equipment sufficient to meet every need created by the intellectual atmosphere that, through the powerful effect of books and reading, pervades the entire modern situation. Through the Spirit of prophecy, and through keen, incisive minds guided by the Holy Spirit, the Lord has vouchsafed to the workers of this denomination a wealth of books and other religious literature rich in literary form, apt in illustration, keen in logic, and beautiful in style—a wealth of literature with which every minister should be thoroughly acquainted, and which he should employ as an accessory to his pulpit utterances as he endeavors to make more winsome and challenging his declaration of the everlasting gospel in oral form.
Through books selected by the Ministerial Association in past years, we have made an appreciable advance in the right direction. But, thus far, we have merely touched the fringes of a situation brimful of tremendous possibilities. If we are to be adequate to our opportunities, if our personal ministry is to be marked with greater grace and power, we must.—and there is no room for option,—we must be alive to these practical approaches which are designed of God to lead us into a more efficient and effective service until the truth for this hour is proclaimed with mighty power and the earth is lightened with its glory.