Make Your Reading Count
By Herbert Morrison
IT WAS about ten o’clock at night on a street corner in the dimly lit Brixton section of London. In the flickering circle of light cast by a gas lamp, a tall sallow man on a soapbox harangued a small cluster of bystanders. “Learn about the most interesting subject in the world-yourself!” he shouted in a leathery voice. “Learn how to be successful! What are you good at? Let phrenology tell you!” In his hand he waved a chart of the human head colorfully divided into sections labeled “history, mathematics, memory” and so on.
A grocer’s errand boy, I had no idea what phrenology was. But if the bumps on my 15-year-old noggin signified any such magnificent-sounding capacities as these, I wanted to know what they were. I stepped up and held out the thin silver sixpence which I could ill afford. The phrenologist rested his fingertips on my head and explored it, bump by bump. “That ridge above your eyes-that’s originality. A fully rounded forehead-memory. Ever see a picture of Macaulay? He had a memory bump big as an egg.”
After the reading, he looked me in the eye, lowered his voice and said seriously, “You’ve got a good head. What do you read?” “Bloods, mostly,” I said, referring to the penny thrillers sold by news vendors. “And novelettes.” “Better read trash than nothing.” He said, “But you’ve got too good a head for that. Why not better stuff-but develop the habit of serious reading.” I was flattered that this examiner of countless heads had found something special in mine. as I walked homeward my heart beat faster. Herbert Morrison has too god a head for trash, I kept telling myself; though my education had stopped with elementary school, I was capable of serious reading.
Next day I took a shilling saved from my seven shillings’ weekly wage and bought a copy of Macaulay’s History of England. Despite the fact that I had something in common with the author-my memory bump-I finished the book with a feeling of disappointment. It dealt with events too far in the past. Then I discovered Green’s Readings from English History, a more modern work, and it fired my imagination. Through it I became aware for the first time of social problems, and I began to wonder how the conditions I saw around me in London could be improved.
Drunkenness, for example. Why, I asked myself, did so many people drink themselves into a stupor? Who could stop them? Should e prohibit the sale of intoxicants? Ordinarily I would have wondered idly about such questions and then dismissed them. Now, thanks to the phrenologist, I knew what to do. At the library I started reading temperance pamphlets. They quickly led me to social studies of the industrial revolution and the present-day working class. Questions of bad housing, high rents and inadequate education took on real meaning for me. I saw my fellow men in the pubs with a new understanding.
The thrill of learning seized me-one of the greatest joys I had ever known. I struggled for time and a place to read. I rose in the morning an hour earlier than usual. After dressing in my heatless room above the grocery store, I wrapped myself in a blanket and read as much as I could before the grocer’s wife called me to breakfast. My room was too cold to read in at night, so I went to a coffeehouse a few blocks away. There I settled myself with a book at a corner table, ordered a cup of cocoa for a halfpenny and nursed it through the late evening. That way I read Ruskin, Matthew Arnold and Prince Kropot-kin’s Fields, Factories and workshops.
Later, when I became a telephone operator in a brewery, I read Herbert Spencer’s First principles of psychology and Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species while riding to and from work on the bus or train. My mind teemed with ideas, and I had plenty of opportunity to test them. I spoke up at socialist meetings, union halls and street-corner discussions. I had theories as to what to do about a hundred different projects, from public health and housing, libraries and labor, to methods of sanitary inspection and drainage, refuse collection and public baths. ( I felt this last issue quite personally, as I had to walk two miles for my weekly scrubbing.)
InevitablyI became a member of the political labor movement. Campaigning underlined the need for more and deeper reading, to enable me to express my thoughts and defend my conclusion. I got barrages of questions from the crowds. When I was tossed a real poser, I’d parry it as best I could and that evening “swat it up” at the library. It was amazing how often the same question would come up at the very next meeting.
Needless to say, all this experience was invaluable preparation for my career in the House of Commons.
I have spent some agreeable hours listening to radio and a few watching television. I welcome the dramatic way in which much useful information is thus disseminated. But I have never heard or seen a program which rivaled the value of an authoritative book. I shall always be grateful to my anonymous friend, the street-corner phrenologist, for the best advice I ever had-to develop the habit of serious reading.
British Labour Party leader Herbert Morrison has had a distinguished career, serving his country as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in the post-war era.