The Story-Book of Science Chapter 19


“NOW that I know what paper is made of,” said Jules, “I should like to know how they make books.”

“I could listen all day without getting tired,” Emile asserted. “For a story I would leave my top and my soldiers.”

“To make a book, my children, there is double work: first the labor of the one who thinks and writes it, then the labor of the one who prints it. To think a book and write it under the sole dictation of one’s mind is a difficult and serious business. Brain-work exhausts our strength much more quickly than manual labor, for we must put the best of ourselves into it, our soul. I tell you these things that you may see what gratitude you owe those who, solicitous for your future, think and write in order to teach you to think for yourselves and to free you from the miseries of ignorance.”

“I am quite convinced,” returned Jules, “of the difficulties to be overcome in order to compose a book under the sole dictation of one’s mind; for when I want to write a letter of half a page to wish you a Happy New Year, I come to a full stop at the first word. How hard it is to find the first word! My head is heavy, my face flushes, and I can’t see straight. I shall do better when I know my grammar well.”

“I am sorry, my dear child, but I must undeceive you. Grammar cannot teach one to write. It teaches us to make a verb agree with its subject, an adjective with a substantive, and other things of that kind. It is very useful, I admit, for nothing is more displeasing than to violate the rules of language; but that does not impart the gift of writing. There are people whose memories are crammed with rules of grammar, who, like you, stop short at the first word.

“Language is in some sort the clothing of thought. We cannot clothe what does not exist; we cannot speak or write what we do not find in our minds. Thought dictates and the pen writes. When the head is furnished with ideas, and usage, still more than grammar, has taught us the rules of language, we have all that is necessary to write excellent things correctly. But, again, if ideas are wanting, if there is nothing in the head, what can you write? How are these ideas to be acquired? By study, reading, and conversation with people better instructed than we.”

“Then, in listening to all these fine things you tell us, I am no doubt learning to write,” said Jules.

“Why, certainly, my little friend. Is it not true, for example, that if it had been proposed to you, a few days ago, to write only two lines about the origin of paper, you would not have been able to do it? What was wanting? Ideas and not grammar, although you know very little of that yet.”

“It is true, I was entirely ignorant what paper comes from. To-day I know that cotton is a flock found in the bolls of a shrub called the cotton plant: I know that with this flock they make thread; then, after the thread, cloth; I know that when the cloth gets old with use, it is reduced to pulp by machines, and that this pulp, stretched in very thin layers and pressed, finally becomes a sheet of paper. I know these things well, and yet I should find it very hard to write them.”

“You are mistaken, for all you need do is to put in writing exactly what you have just told me.”

“You write then just as you talk?” asked the boy, incredulously.

“Yes, provided that speech is corrected, if necessary, on reflection, since writing gives time for it, whereas talking does not.”

“In that case, I should soon have my five lines on paper. I should write: ‘Cotton is the flock that is found in the bolls of a shrub called the cotton plant. With this flock they make thread; and with this thread, cloth. When the cloth is worn out, machines tear it into little pieces, and mill-stones grind it with water to make it into a pulp. This pulp is stretched in thin layers which are pressed and dried. Then it is paper.’ There! Is that right, Uncle?”

“As well as one could wish from one of your age,” his uncle assured him.

“But that could not be put into a book.”

“And why not? I promise you that shall be in a book some day. It has been said to me that our talks might be useful to many other little boys as desirous to learn as you, and I propose to collect them in all their simplicity and make a book of them.”

“A book where I could read at leisure the stories that you tell us? Oh, how pleased I am, Uncle, and how I love you! You won’t put my ignorant questions in that book?”

“I shall put them all in. You know next to nothing now, my dear child, but you ardently desire to learn. That is a fine quality, and a very becoming one.”

“Are you at least sure that the little boys who read this book will not laugh at me?”

“I am sure.”

“Tell them then that I love them well and embrace them all.”

“Tell them I wish them as good a top and as fine lead soldiers as those you gave me,” put in Emile.

“Take care, Emile,” cautioned his brother. “Uncle may put your lead soldier’s in the book.”

“They will be there, they are there.”

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