S. Austin Allibone, comp. Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay. 1880.
Of all the diversions of life, there is none so proper to fill up its empty spaces as the reading of useful and entertaining authors. But this I shall only touch upon, because it in some measure interferes with the third method, which I shall propose in another paper, for the employment of our dead inactive hours, and which I shall only mention in general to be the pursuit of knowledge.
A man who has any relish for fine writing either discovers new beauties, or receives stronger impressions, from the masterly strokes of a great author every time he peruses him; besides that he naturally wears himself into the same manner of speaking and thinking.
I may cast my readers under two general divisions, the mercurial and the saturnine. The first are the gay part of my disciples, who require speculations of wit and humour; the others are those of a more solemn and sober turn.
Keep your view of men and things attentive, and depend upon it that a mixed knowledge is not a superficial one. As far as it goes, the views that it gives are true; but he who reads deeply in one class of writers only, gets views which are almost sure to be perverted, and which are not only narrow, but false. Adjust your proposed amount of reading to your time and inclination,this is perfectly free to every man; but whether that amount be large or small, let it be varied in its kind, and widely varied. If I have a confident opinion on any one point connected with the improvement of the human mind, it is on this.
Read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments, and the meaner sort of books: else distilled books are like common distilled waters, flashy things.
Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man: and, therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory: if he confer little, he had need have a present wit: and if he read little, he had need have much cunning to seem to know that he doth not.
Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend: Abeunt studia in mores; nay, there is no stand or impediment in the wit, but may be wrought out by fit studies: like as diseases of the body may have appropriate exercises: bowling is good for the stone and reins, shooting for the lungs and breast, gentle walking for the stomach, riding for the head, and the like: so, if a mans wit be wandering, let him study the mathematics; for in demonstrations, if his wit be called away never so little he must begin again: if his wit be not apt to distinguish or find differences, let him study the schoolmen, for they are Cymini sectores: if he be not apt to beat over matters, and to call upon one thing to prove and illustrate another, let him study the lawyers cases: so every defect of the mind may have a special receipt.
A proper and judicious system of reading is of the highest importance. Two things are necessary in perusing the mental labours of others; namely, not to read too much, and to pay great attention to the nature of what you do read. Many persons peruse books for the express and avowed purpose of consuming time; and this class of readers forms by far the majority of what are termed the reading public; others, again, read with the laudable anxiety of being made wiser; and when this object is not attained, the disappointment may generally be attributed either to the habit of reading too much, or of paying insufficient attention to what falls under their notice.
He who reads with discernment and choice will acquire less learning, but more knowledge; and as this knowledge is collected with design, and cultivated with art and method, it will be at all times of immediate and ready use to himself and others . He who reads without this discernment and choice, and, like Bodins pupil, resolves to read all, will not have time, no, nor capacity neither, to do anything else. He will not be able to think, without which it is impertinent to read; nor to act, without which it is impertinent to think. He will assemble materials with much pains, and purchase them at much expense, and have neither leisure nor skill to frame them into proper scantlings, or to prepare them for use. To what purpose should he husband his time, or learn architecture? he has no design to build. But then, to what purpose all these quarries of stone, all these mountains of sand and time, all these forests of oak and deal?
Lord Bolingbroke: Letters on the Study and Use of History.
Reading, and much reading, is good; but the power of diversifying the matter infinitely in your own mind, and of applying it to every occasion that arises, is far better; so dont suppress the vivida vis. May God grant you every blessing. Remember Him first, and last, and midst. Keep yourselves constantly in His presence. Again and again, God bless you.
Edmund Burke: To R. Burke, Jan., and Mr. T. King, Feb. 1773.
Who is he that is now wholly overcome with idleness, or otherwise involved in a labyrinth of worldly care, troubles, and discontents, that will not be much lightened in his mind by reading of some enticing story, true or feigned, where, as in a glass, he shall observe what our forefathers have done; the beginnings, ruins, falls, periods of commonwealths, private mens actions, displayed to the life, &c. Plutarch therefore calls them, secundas mensas et bellaria, the second course and junkets, because they were usually read at noblemens feasts.
Use and assert your own reason: reflect, examine, and analyze everything, in order to form a sound and mature judgment; let no [Greek] impose upon your understanding, mislead your actions, or dictate your conversation. Be early, what, if you are not, you will, when late, wish you had been. Consult your reason betimes: I do not say that it will always prove an unerring guide; for human reason is not infallible: but it will prove the least erring guide that you can follow. Books and conversation may assist it; but adopt neither blindly and implicitly; try both by that best rule which God has given to direct us, Reason.
Lord Chesterfield: Letters to his Son, Feb. 7, 1749.
Some read to thinkthese are rare; some to writethese are common; and some read to talkand these form the great majority. The first page of an author not unfrequently suffices all the purposes of this latter class, of whom it has been said that they treat books as some do lords: they inform themselves of their titles, and then boast of an intimate acquaintance.
How I pity those who have no love of reading, of study, or of the fine arts! I have passed my youth amidst amusements and in the most brilliant society; but I can assert with perfect truth that I have never tasted pleasures so true as those I have found in the study of books, in writing, or in music. The days that succeed brilliant entertainments are always melancholy, but those which follow days of study are delicious; we have gained something; we have acquired some new knowledge, and we recall the past day not only without disgust and without regret, but with consummate satisfaction.
Few have been sufficiently sensible of the importance of that economy in reading which selects, almost exclusively, the very first order of books. Why should a man, except for some special reason, read a very inferior book at the very time that he might be reading one of the highest order?
Readers in general who have an object beyond amusement, yet are not apprised of the most important use of reading, the acquisition of power. Their knowledge is not power; and, too, the memory retains but the small part of the knowledge of which a book should be full: the grand object, then, should be to improve the strength and tone of the mind by a thinking, analyzing, discriminating manner of reading.
How often have I been struck at observing that no effect at all is produced by the noblest works of genius on the habits of thought, sentiment, and talk, of the generality of readers; their mental tone becomes no deeper, no mellower; they are not equal to a fiddle, which improves by being repeatedly played upon. I should not expect one in twenty, of even educated readers, so much as to recollect one singularly sublime, and by far the noblest, part of the poem in question: so little emotion does anything awake, even in the moment of reading: if it did, they would not forget it so soon.
Let us read with method, and propose to ourselves an end to which all our studies may point. Through neglect of this rule, gross ignorance often disgraces great readers, who, by skipping hastily and irregularly from one subject to another, render themselves incapable of combining their ideas. So many detached parcels of knowledge cannot form a whole. This inconstancy weakens the energies of the mind, creates in it a dislike to application, and even robs it of the advantages of natural good sense.
Yet let us avoid the contrary extreme, and respect method without rendering ourselves its slaves. While we propose an end in our reading, let not this end be too remote; and when once we have attained it, let our attention be directed to a different subject. Inconstancy weakens the understanding; a long and exclusive application to a single object hardens and contracts it. Our ideas no longer change easily into a different channel, and the course of reading to which we have too long accustomed ourselves is the only one we can pursue with pleasure.
To read with attention, exactly to define the expressions of our author, never to admit a conclusion without comprehending its reason, often to pause, reflect, and interrogate ourselves, these are so many advices which it is easy to give, but difficult to follow. The same may be said of that almost evangelical maxim of forgetting friends, country, religion, of giving merit its due praise, and embracing truth wherever it is to be found.
It is of no importance to read much except you be regular in reading. If it be interrupted for any considerable time, it can never be attended with proper improvement. There are some who study for one day with intense application, and repose themselves for ten days after. But wisdom is a coquet, and must be courted with unabating assiduity. It was a saying of the ancients that a man never opens a book without reaping some advantage by it.
Of all the amusements which can possibly be imagined for a hard-working man, after his daily toil, or in its intervals, there is nothing like reading an entertaining book, supposing him to have a taste for it, and supposing him to have the book to read. It calls for no bodily exertion, of which he has had enough or too much. It relieves his home of its dulness and sameness, which, in nine cases out of ten, is what drives him out to the ale-house, to his own ruin and his familys. It transports him into a livelier, and gayer, and more diversified and interesting scene, and, while he enjoys himself there, he may forget the evils of the present moment fully as much as if he were ever so drunk, with the great advantage of finding himself the next day with his money in his pocket, or at least laid out in real necessaries and comforts for himself and his family,and without a headache. Nay, it accompanies him to his next days work, and, if the book he has been reading be anything above the very idlest and lightest, gives him something to think of besides the mere mechanical drudgery of his every-day occupation,something he can enjoy while absent, and look forward with pleasure to return to.
But supposing him to have been fortunate in the choice of his book, and to have alighted upon one really good and of a good class. What a source of domestic enjoyment is laid open! What a bond of family union! He may read it aloud, or make his wife read it, or his eldest boy or girl, or pass it round from hand to hand. All have the benefit of it; all contribute to the gratification of the rest, and a feeling of common interest and pleasure is excited. Nothing unites people like companionship in intellectual enjoyment. It does more,it gives them mutual respect, and to each among them self-respectthat corner-stone of all virtue. It furnishes to each the master-key by which he may avail himself of his privilege as an intellectual being, to
Enter the sacred temple of his breast,
And gaze and wander there a ravished guest,
Wander through all the glories of his mind,
Gaze upon all the treasures he shall find.
And while thus leading him to look within his own bosom for the ultimate sources of his happiness, warns him at the same time to be cautious how he defiles and desecrates that inward and most glorious of temples.
For general improvement, a man should read whatever his immediate inclination prompts him to; though, to be sure, if a man has a science to learn, he must regularly and resolutely advance. What we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention, so there is but one-half to be employed on what we read. If a man begins to read in the middle of a book, and feels an inclination to go on, let him not quit it to go to the beginning. He may, perhaps, not feel again the inclination.
But the truth is, that the knowledge of external nature, and the sciences which that knowledge requires or includes, are not the great or the frequent business of the human mind. Whether we provide for action or conversation, whether we wish to be useful or pleasing, the first requisite is the religious and moral knowledge of right and wrong; the next is an acquaintance with the history of mankind, and with those examples which may be said to embody truth, and prove by events the reasonableness of opinions.
Prudence and Justice are virtues and excellencies of all times and all places; we are perpetually moralists, but we are geometricians only by chance. Our intercourse with intellectual nature is necessary; our speculations upon matter are voluntary, and at leisure. Physiological learning is of such rare emergence, that one may know another half his life without being able to estimate his skill in hydrostatics or astronomy; but his moral and prudential character immediately appears.
Those authors, therefore, are to be read at schools that supply most axioms of prudence, most principles of moral truth, and most materials for conversation; and these purposes are best served by poets, orators, and historians.
Much depends upon when and where you read a book. In the five or six impatient minutes before the dinner is quite ready, who would think of taking up the Fairy Queen for a stop-gap, or a volume of Bishop Andrewss sermons?
Winter eveningsthe world shut outwith less of ceremony the gentle Shakspeare enters. At such a season the Tempest, or his own Winters Tale.These two poets you cannot avoid reading aloudto yourself, or (as it chances) to some single person listening. More than oneand it degenerates into an audience.
Those who have read of everything are thought to understand everything too; but it is not always so. Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge: it is thinking that makes what we read ours. We are of the ruminating kind, and it is not enough to cram ourselves with a great load of collections: unless we chew them over and over again they will not give us strength and nourishment.
I say, then, that books, taken indiscriminately, are no cure to the diseases and afflictions of the mind. There is a world of science necessary in the taking of them. I have known some people in great sorrow fly to a novel, or the last light book in fashion. One might as well take a rose-draught for the plague! Light reading does not do when the heart is really heavy. I am told that Goethe, when he lost his son, took to study a science that was new to him. Ah! Goethe was a physician who knew what he was about. In a great grief like that, you cannot tickle and divert the mind: you must wrench it away, abstract, absorbbury it in an abyss, hurry it into a labyrinth. Therefore, for the irremediable sorrows of middle life and old age, I recommend a strict chronic course of science and hard reasoningcounter-irritation. Bring the brain to act upon the heart! If science is too much against the grain (for we have not all got mathematical heads), something in the reach of the humblest understanding, but sufficiently searching to the highesta new languageGreek, Arabic, Scandinavian, Chinese, or Welsh!
I could wish to have a more perfect knowledge of things, but I will not buy it so dear as it will cost. My design is to pass over easily, and not laboriously, the remainder of my life. There is nothing that I will cudgel my brains about; no, not knowledge, of what price soever I seek in the reading of my books only to please myself by an irreproachable diversion: or if I study, it is for no other science than what treats of the knowledge of my self, and instructs me how to die, and live well.
Has meus ad metas sudet oportet equus.
I to this only course
Train up, and in it only breathe my horse.
I do not bite my nails about the difficulties I meet with in my reading; after a charge or two, I give them over.
Michel de Montaigne: Essays, Cottons 3d ed., ch. lxvii.
I never travel without books, either in peace or war; and yet sometimes I pass over several days, and sometimes months, without looking on them: I will read by and by, say I to my self, or to-morrow, or when I please, and in the interim time steals away without any inconvenience. For it is not to be imagind to what degree I please my self, and rest content in this consideration, that I have them by me, to divert my self with them when I am so disposd, and to call to mind what an ease and refreshment they are to my life. Tis the best viaticum I have yet found out for this human journey, and very much lament those men of understanding who are unprovided of them. And yet I rather accept of any other sort of diversion, how light soever, because this can never fail me.
Michel de Montaigne: Essays, Cottons 3d ed., ch. xcvii.
Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body. As by the one health is preserved, strengthened, and invigorated; by the other, virtue, which is the health of the mind, is kept alive, cherished, and confirmed. But as exercise becomes tedious and painful when we make use of it only as the means of health, so reading is apt to grow uneasy and burdensome when we apply ourselves to it only for our improvement in virtue. For this reason, the virtue which we gather from a fable, or an allegory, is like the health we get by hunting; as we are engaged in an agreeable pursuit that draws us on with pleasure, and makes us insensible of the fatigues that accompany it.
The mind should be accustomed to make wise reflections, and draw curious conclusions, as it goes along; the habitude of which made Pliny the younger affirm that he never read a book so bad but he drew some profit from it.
Nothing, in truth, has such a tendency to weaken not only the powers of invention, but the intellectual powers in general, as a habit of extensive and various reading without reflection. The activity and force of mind are gradually impaired in consequence of disuse; and, not infrequently, all our principles and opinions come to be lost in the infinite multiplicity and discordancy of our acquired ideas.
It is hard that not one gentlemans daughter should read her own tongue; as any one may find who can hear them when they are disposed to mangle a play or a novel, where the least word out of the common road disconcerts them.
We never read without profit if with the pen or pencil in our hand we mark such ideas as strike us by their novelty, or correct those we already possess. Reading soon becomes fatiguing unless undertaken with an eye to our own advantage or that of others, and when it does not enrich the mind with new ideas; but this habit is easily acquired by exercise, and then books afford the surest relief in the most melancholy moments.