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Nine-tenths of our reading is on mere chance recommendation, passing whim or by sheer accident. We catch sight of a book on a library table. Having nothing better to do we pick it up; we start perusing it. Every book read in this way means a sinful waste of time. To be sure, a book read in this chance manner might (accidentally) be very good—even better than some you would have planned for; but this will happen seldom, and is never a justification of the practice. By going a round about way to a place a man might stumble across a lost pocketbook, but this would not justify taking round about ways.
The first thing needed, then, is that we should plan our reading. Perhaps the best way to do this would be to make out a list of the books we intend to read for the coming year, or say a list of from a dozen to twenty-five volumes, and then read them in the order listed. Another good plan is to jot down the title of every book we intend to read, and keep the list about with us. Then when we meet with a book which we think would be good to read, or which we feel we simply must read, we can before starting it glance at our list. The formidable array we find there will probably induce us either to give up entirely our intention to read the book before us, or at least to put it somewhere on the list which will allow more important books to be read first.
Some people cannot endure planning their reading in this manner. It grates on them to think they are tied down to any sort of program; it seems to deprive them of the advantages of spontaneous interest. Well, if you cannot plan your reading prospectively, at least plan it retrospectively. If you cannot keep a list of books you intend to read, at least keep a list of books you have read. Refer to this from time to time. See whether you have been reading uniformly good literature. See whether you have been reading too much on one topic and not enough on another, and what topics you have been long neglecting. But at best this method is a poor substitute for planning your reading prospectively.
We should plan not only with regard to topics and subjects, but with regard to authors. Obviously if two men of equal ability both study the same subject, one will get more out of his study than the other if he reads authors who treat the subject on a deeper plane—provided of course he understands them.
Whether consciously or not, we tend to imitate the authors we read. If we read shallow books we are forced, while reading them, to do shallow thinking. Our plane of thought tends toward the plane of thought of the authors we study; we acquire either habits of careful critical thinking, or of dogmatic lack of thinking.
This emphasizes the importance of reading the best books, and only the best books. Our plane of thinking is determined not alone by the good books we read, but by all the books we read; it tends toward the average. Most men imagine that when they read a good book they get a certain amount of good out of it, and that this good will stay with them undiminished. Provided they read a certain number of serious books, they see no reason why they should not read any number of superficial or useless books, or any amount of ephemeral magazine or newspaper literature. They expect the serious reading to benefit them. They do not expect the shallow reading to harm them. This is just as if they were to buy and eat un-nutritious and indigestible food, and excuse themselves on the ground that they ate nourishing and digestible food along with it.
The analogy may be carried further. As it is the average of the physical food you digest which ultimately determines the constitution of your body, so it is the average of the mental food you absorb which determines the constitution of your mind. One good meal will not offset a week of bad ones; one good book will never offset any number of poor books. Further, as no one has a perfect memory, you do not retain all you read any more than you retain all you eat. Therefore if you do not want your mind to retrogress, you should not rest satisfied with books already read, but should continue to read books at least as good as any previous. As at any given time your bodily health—so far as it depends on food—is mainly determined by the meals of the last few days or weeks, so is your mental health dependent on the last few books you have read.
One of the first things we should look to in selecting books is their comprehensiveness. To quote Arnold Bennett: "Unless and until, a man has formed a scheme of knowledge, be it but a mere skeleton, his reading must necessarily be un-philosophical. He must have attained to some notion of the interrelations of the various branches of knowledge before he can properly comprehend the branch of knowledge in which he specializes." As an aid in forming this scheme of knowledge, Mr. Bennett suggests Herbert Spencer's First Principles. I heartily endorse his choice. I would add to it the essay on The Classification of the Sciences by the same author.
These works are classics, and one of the most regrettable of difficulties is that of getting people to read the classics. Mention to a man Darwin's Origin of Species or Descent of Man, and he will reply, "Oh, yes, that's the theory that says men descended from monkeys." Satisfied that he knows all there is to know about it, he never reads any of Darwin's works. Now passing over the fact that the theory does not assert that man descended from monkeys and never intended to assert it;—what a compliment to Darwin's thought and brevity to assume that all his books can be summed up in a phrase! But Darwin is not the only sufferer. If we come across the title of a classic often enough, and hear a lot of talk "about it and about" and a few quotations from it, we gradually come to believe we know all the contents worth knowing. This is why Shakespeare, and in fact most of the classics, are so seldom actually read, and why we go for our serious reading to a book on "How to Read Character from Handwriting" or to a sensational volume on prostitution by one of our modern "sociologists." The only way we can keep ourselves from such stuff is to lay out some definite end, some big objective, to be attained; and before reading a book we should ask how that helps us to attain it.
I have not given a formal list of books worth reading, nor do I intend to; one of the reasons being that the work has been done so well by others. Ever since Sir John Lubbock published his list of one hundred best books, the number of selections has been legion. Charles Eliot's selection for his Five Foot Shelf is to be commended, and a little volume by Frank Parsons The World's Best Books. Of course our purpose is special:—to find the best books for making thinkers; but the remarks already made should aid the reader sufficiently in making his own selection from these lists. As previously pointed out, if the reader is studying a specialty he can usually find a fairly well selected bibliography at the end of the article on that specialty in any standard encyclopedia.
The reader probably sees clearly by now that it is impossible to do his own thinking in every case; that if he is to have sound knowledge on important questions he must have the courage to be ignorant of many things. How much trouble to go to in any particular case it is difficult to say.
We can lay it down as a general principle that questions of the highest importance, such as those of which I have given a suggestive list — questions which deal with facts known or easily ascertainable, and which depend for their right solution more on thinking than on anything else—a man should solve for himself, and should take the greatest caution in so doing. On the other hand, questions of the highest importance which depend for their solution mainly on full and detailed knowledge of highly technical facts which lie outside of one's specialty, should be dealt with by consulting authorities and taking their word for it.
There still remains the great mass of questions which are relatively unimportant, but continually coming up in our daily life, the answers to which greatly influence our conduct. Time forbids us not only from thinking these out for ourselves, but even from consulting an authority—for the selection of an authority often involves almost as much intellectual responsibility as self-thinking. The only thing we can do is to accept the verdict of popular opinion.
Custom, convention and popular belief, no matter how many times they have been overthrown, have fairly reliable foundations. Popular ideas, to be sure, are products of mere unorganized experience. They are empirical; seldom if ever scientific. But though they are founded on experience which is unorganized, they are founded on so much of it that they are worthy of respect. Society could not long exist if it persisted in acting on beliefs altogether wrong, though it is safe to say that popular ideas are never more than approximately right. But unless and until you have either thoroughly thought over a question for yourself or have consulted an acknowledged and trustworthy authority, it is best tentatively to accept and act on common belief. To think and act differently, merely for the sake of being different, is unprofitable and dangerous, all questions of ethics aside.
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