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Are books fitted to be our companions? That depends. You and I read them with pleasure; others do not care for them; to some the reading of any book at all is as impossible as the perusal of a volume in Old Slavonic would be to most of us. These people simply do not read at all. To a suggestion that he supplement his usual vacation sports by reading a novel, a New York police captain—a man with a common school education—replied, “Well, I’ve never read a book yet, and I don’t think I’ll begin now.” Here was a man who had never read a book, who had no use for books, and who could get along perfectly well without them. He is not a unique type. Hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens might as well be quite illiterate, so far as the use that they make of their ability to read is concerned. These persons are not all uneducated; they possess and are still acquiring much knowledge, but since leaving school they have acquired it chiefly by personal experience and by word of mouth. Is it possible that they are right? May it be that to read books is unnecessary and superfluous?
There has been some effort of late to depreciate the book—to insist on its inadequacy and on the impracticality of the knowledge that it conveys. “Book-learning” has always been derided more or less by so-called “practical men”. A recent series of comic pictures in the newspapers makes this clear. It is about “Book-taught Bilkins”. Bilkins tries to do everything by a book. He raises vegetables, builds furniture, runs a chicken farm, all by the directions contained in books, and meets with ignominious failure. He makes himself, in fact, very ridiculous in every instance and thousands of readers laugh at him and his absurd books. They inwardly resolve, doubtless, that they will be practical and will pay no attention to books. Are they right? Is the information contained in books always useless and absurd, while that obtained by experience or by talking to one’s neighbor is always correct and valuable?
Many of our foremost educators are displeased with the book. They are throwing it aside for the lecture, for laboratory work, for personal research and experiment. Does this mean that the book, as a tool of the teacher, will have to go?
What it all certainly does mean is that we ought to pause a minute and think about the book, about what it does and what it can not do. This means that we ought to consider a little the whole subject of written as distinguished from spoken language. Why should we have two languages—as we practically do—one to be interpreted by the ear and the other by the eye? Could we or should we abandon either? What are the advantages and what the limitations of each? We are so accustomed to looking upon the printed page, to reading newspapers, books, and advertisements, to sending and receiving letters, written or typewritten, that we are apt to forget that all this is not part of the natural order, except in the sense that all inventions and creations of the human brain are natural. Written language is a conscious invention of man; spoken language is a development, shaped by his needs and controlled by his sense of what is fitting, but not at the outset consciously devised.
We are apt to think of written language as simply a means of representing spoken language to the eye; but it is more than this; originally, at least in many cases, it was not this at all. The written signs represented not sounds, but ideas themselves; if they were intended to correspond directly with anything, it was with the rude gestures that signified ideas and had nothing to do with their vocal expression. It was not until later that these written symbols came to correspond to vocal sounds and even to-day they do so imperfectly; languages that are largely phonetic are the exception. The result is, as I have said, that we have two languages—a spoken and a written. What we call reading aloud is translation from the written to the spoken tongue; while writing from dictation is translation from the spoken to the written. When we read, as we say, “to ourselves,” we sometimes, if we are not skilful, pronounce the spoken words under our breath, or at least form them with our vocal organs. You all remember the story of how the Irishman who could not read made his friend stop up his ears while reading a letter aloud, so that he might not hear it. This anecdote, like all good comic stories, has something in it to think about. The skilful reader does not even imagine the spoken words as he goes. He forgets, for the moment, the spoken tongue and translates the written words and phrases directly into the ideas for which they stand. A skilful reader thus takes in the meaning of a phrase, a sentence, even of a paragraph, at a glance. Likewise the writer who sets his own thoughts down on paper need not voice them, even in imagination; he may also forget all about the spoken tongue and spread his ideas on the page at first hand. This is not so common because one writes slower than he speaks, whereas he reads very much faster. The swift reader could not imagine that he was speaking the words, even if he would; the pace is too incredibly fast.
Our written tongue, then, has come to be something of a language by itself. In some countries it has grown so out of touch with the spoken tongue that the two have little to do with each other. Where only the learned know how to read and write, the written language takes on a learned tinge; the popular spoken tongue has nothing to keep it steady and changes rapidly and unsystematically. Where nearly all who speak the language also read and write it, as in our own country, the written tongue, even in its highest literary forms, is apt to be much more familiar and colloquial, but at the same time the written and the spoken tongue keep closer together. Still, they never accurately correspond. When a man “talks like a book,” or in other words, uses such language that it could be printed word for word and appear in good literary form, we recognize that he is not talking ordinary colloquial English—not using the normal spoken language. On the other hand, when the speech of a southern negro or a down-east Yankee is set down in print, as it so often is in the modern “dialect story,” we recognize at once that although for the occasion this is written language, it is not normal literary English. It is most desirable that the two forms of speech shall closely correspond, for then the written speech gets life from the spoken and the spoken has the written for its governor and controller; but it is also desirable that each should retain more or less individuality, and fortunately it is almost impossible that they should not do so.
We must not forget, therefore, that our written speech is not merely a way of setting down our spoken speech in print. This is exactly what our friends the spelling reformers appear to have forgotten. The name that they have given to what they propose to do, indicates this clearly. When a word as written and as spoken have drifted apart, it is usually the spoken word that has changed. Reform, therefore, would be accomplished by restoring the old spoken form. Instead of this, it is proposed to change the written form. In other words, the two languages are to be forced together by altering that one of them that is by its essence the most immutable. Where the written word has been corrupted as in spelling “guild” for “gild,” the adoption of the simpler spelling is a reform; otherwise, not.
Now is the possession of two languages, a spoken and a written, an advantage or not? With regard to the spoken tongue, the question answers itself. If we were all deaf and dumb, we could still live and carry on business, but we should be badly handicapped. On the other hand, if we could neither read nor write, we should simply be in the position of our remote forefathers or even of many in our own day and our own land. What then is the reasons for a separate written language, beyond the variety thereby secured, by the use of two senses, hearing and sight, instead of only one?
Evidently the chief reason is that written speech is eminently fitted for preservation. Without the transmittal of ideas from one generation to another, intellectual progress is impossible. Such transmittal, before the invention of writing, was effected solely by memory. The father spoke to the son, and he, remembering what was said, told it, in turn, to the grandson. This is tradition, sometimes marvellously accurate, but often untrustworthy. And as it is without check, there is no way of telling whether a given fact, so transmitted, is or is not handed down faithfully. Now we have the phonograph for preserving and accurately reproducing spoken language. If this had been invented before the introduction of written language, we might never have had the latter; as it is, the device comes on the field too late to be a competitor with the book in more than a very limited field. For preserving particular voices, such as those of great men, or for recording intonation and pronunciation, it fills a want that writing and printing could never supply.
For the long preservation of ideas and their conveyance to a human mind, written speech is now the indispensable vehicle. And, as has been said, this is how man makes progress. We learn in two ways: by undergoing and reflecting on our own experiences and by reading and reflecting on those of others. Neither of these ways is sufficient in itself. A child bound hand and foot and confined in a dark room would not be a fit subject for instruction, but neither would he reach a high level if placed on a desert island far from his kind and forced to rely solely on his own experiences. The experiences of our forebears, read in the light of our own; the experiences of our forebears, used as a starting-point from which we may move forward to fresh fields—these we must know and appreciate if we are to make progress. This means the book and its use.
Books may be used in three ways—for information, for recreation, for inspiration. There are some who feel inclined to rely implicitly on the information that is to be found in books—to believe that a book can not lie. This is an unfortunate state of mind. The word of an author set down in print is worth no more than when he gives it to us in spoken language—no more and no less. There was, to be sure, a time when the printed word implied at least care and thoughtfulness. It is still true that the book implies somewhat more of this than the newspaper, but the difference between the two is becoming unfortunately less. Now a wrong record, if it purports to be a record of facts, is worse than none at all. The man who desires to know the distance between two towns in Texas and is unable to find it in any book of reference may obtain it at the cost of some time and trouble; but if he finds it wrongly recorded, he accepts the result and goes away believing a lie. If we are to use books for information, therefore, it is of the utmost consequence that we know whether the information is correct or not. A general critical evaluation of all literature, even on this score alone, without going into the question of literary merit, is probably beyond the possibilities, although it has been seriously proposed. Some partial lists we have, and a few lists of those lists, so that we may know where to get at them. There are many books about books, especially in certain departments of history, technology, or art, but no one place to which a man may go, before he begins to read his book, to find out whether he may believe what he reads in it. This is a serious lack, especially as there is more than one point of view. Books that are of high excellence as literature may not be at all accurate. How shall the boy who hears enthusiastic praise of Prescott’s histories and who is spellbound when he reads them know that the results of recent investigation prove that those histories give a totally incorrect idea of Mexico and Peru? How is the future reader of Dr. Cook’s interesting account of the ascent of Mount McKinley to know that it has been discredited? And how is he to know whether other interesting and well-written histories and books of travel have not been similarly proved inaccurate? At present, there is no way except to go to one who knows the literature of the subject, or to read as many other books on the subject as can be obtained, weighing one against the other and coming to one’s own conclusions. Possibly the public library may be able to help. Mr. Charles F. Lummis of the Los Angeles library advocates labelling books with what he calls “Poison Labels” to warn the reader when they are inaccurate or untrustworthy. Most librarians have hesitated a little to take so radical a step as this, not so much from unwillingness to assume the duty of warning the public, as from a feeling that they were not competent to undertake the critical evaluation of the whole of the literature of special subjects. The librarian may know that this or that book is out of date or not to be depended on, but there are others about which he is not certain or regarding which he must rely on what others tell him. And he knows that expert testimony is notoriously one-sided. It is this fear of acting as an advocate instead of as a judge that has generally deterred the librarian from labelling his books with notes of advice or warning.
There is, however, no reason why the librarian should take sides in the matter. He may simply point out to the reader that there are other books on the same subject, written from different points of view, and he may direct attention to these, letting the reader draw his own conclusions. There is probability that the public library in the future will furnish information and guidance of this kind about books, more than it has done in the past.
And here it may be noted in passing that the library is coming out of its shell. It no longer holds itself aloof, taking good care of its books and taking little care of the public that uses them. It is coming to realize that the man and the book are complementary, that neither is much without the other, and that to bring them together is its duty. It realizes also that a book is valuable, not because it is so much paper and ink and thread and leather, but because it records and preserves somebody’s ideas. It is the projection of a human mind across space and across time and where it touches another human mind those minds have come into contact just as truly and with as valuable results as if the bodies that held them stood face to face in actual converse. This is the miracle of written speech—a miracle renewed daily in millions of places with millions of readers.
We have, in the modern library, the very best way of perpetuating such relations as this and of ensuring that such as are preserved shall be worth preserving. When the ancients desired to make an idea carry as far as possible, they saw to the toughness and strength of the material object constituting the record; they cut it in stone or cast it in metal, forgetting that all matter is in a state of continual flux and change; it is the idea only that endures. Stone and metal will both one day pass away and unless some one sees fit to copy the inscription on a fresh block or tablet, the record will be lost. It is, then, only by continual renewal of its material basis that a record in written language can be made to last, and there is no reason why this renewal should not take place every few years, as well as every few centuries. There is even an advantage in frequent renewal; for this ensures that the value of the record shall be more frequently passed upon and prevents the preservation of records that are not worth keeping. This preservation by frequent renewal is just what is taking place with books; we make them of perishable materials; if we want to keep them, we reprint them; otherwise they decay and are forgotten.
We should not forget that by this plan the reader is usually made the judge of whether a book is worth keeping. Why do we preserve by continual reprinting Shakespeare and Scott and Tennyson and Hawthorne? The reprinting is done by publishers as a money-making scheme. It is profitable to them because there is a demand for those authors. If we cease to care for them and prefer unworthy writers, Shakespeare and Scott will decay and be forgotten and the unworthy ones will be preserved. Thus a great responsibility is thrown upon readers; so far they have judged pretty well.
Just now, however, we are confining ourselves to the use of books for information; and here there is less preservation than elsewhere. Especially in science, statements and facts quickly become out of date; here it is not the old but the new that we want—the new based on the accurate and enduring part of the old.
Before we leave this part of the subject it may be noted that many persons have no idea of the kinds of information that may be obtained from books. Even those who would unhesitatingly seek a book for data in history, art, or mathematics would not think of going to books for facts on plumbing, weaving, or shoe-making, for methods of shop-window decoration or of display-advertising, for special forms of bookkeeping suitable for factories or for stock-farms—for a host of facts relating to trades, occupations, and business in general. Yet there are books about all these things—not books perhaps to read for an idle hour, but books full of meat for them who want just this kind of food. If Book-taught Bilkins fails, after trying to utilize what such books have taught him, it is doubtless because he has previously failed to realize that books plus experience, or, to put it differently, the recorded experience of others plus our own is better than either could be separately. And the same is true of information that calls for no physical action to supplement it. Books plus thought—the thoughts of others plus our own—are more effective in combination than either could be by itself. Reading should provoke thought; thought should suggest more reading, and so on, until others’ thoughts and our own have become so completely amalgamated that they are our personal intellectual possessions.
But we may not read for information at all—recreation may be what we are after. Do not misunderstand me. Many persons have an idea that if one reads to amuse himself he must necessarily read novels. I think most highly of good novels. Narrative is a popular form of literary expression; it is used by those who wish to instruct as well as to amuse. One may obtain plenty of information from novels—often in a form nowhere else available. If we want exact statement, statistical or otherwise, we do not go to fiction for it; but if we wish to obtain what is often more important—accurate and lasting general impressions of history, society, or geography, the novel is often the only place where these may be had. Likewise, one may amuse himself with history, travel, science, or art—even with mathematics. The last is rarely written primarily to amuse, although we have such a title as “Mathematical recreations,” but there are plenty of non-fiction books written for entertainment and one may read for entertainment any book whatever. The result depends not so much on the book or its contents as on the reader.
Recreation is now recognized as an essential part of education. And just as physical recreation consists largely in the same muscular movements that constitute work, only in different combinations and with different ends in view, so mental recreation consists of intellectual exercise with a similar variation of combinations and aims.
Somebody says that “play is work that you don’t have to do”. So reading for amusement may closely resemble study—the only difference is that it is purely voluntary. Here again, however, the written language is only an intermediary; we have as before, the contact of two minds—only here it is often the lighter contact of good-fellowship. And one who reads always for such recreation is thus like the man who is always bandying trivialities, story-telling, and jesting—an excellent, even a necessary, way of passing part of one’s time, but a mistaken way of employing all of it.
The best kind of recreation is gently stimulating, but stimulation may rise easily to abnormality. There are fiction drunkards just as there are persons who take too much alcohol or too much coffee. In fact, if one is so much absorbed by the ideas that he is assimilating that the process interferes with the ordinary duties of life, he may be fairly sure that it is injuring him. If one loves coffee or alcohol, or even candy, so dearly that one can not give it up, it is time to stop using it altogether. If a reader is so fond of an exciting story that he can not lay it aside, so that he sits up late at night reading it, or if he can not drop it from his mind when he does lay it aside, but goes on thinking about the deadly combat between the hero and Lord William Fitz Grouchy when he ought to be studying his lessons or attending to his business, it is time to cut out fiction altogether. This advice has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the fiction. It will not do simply to warn the habitual drunkard that he must be careful to take none but the best brands; he must drop alcohol altogether. If you are a fiction drunkard, enhanced quality will only enslave you further. This sort of use is no more recreation in the proper sense of the word than is gambling, or drinking to excess, or smoking opium.
And now we come to a use of books that is more important—lies more at the root of things—than their use for either information or recreation—their use for inspiration. One may get help and inspiration along with the other two—reading about how to make a box may inspire a boy to go out and make one himself. It is this kind of thing that should be the final outcome of every mental process. Nothing that goes on in the brain is really complete until it ends in a motor stimulus. The action, it is true, may not follow closely; it may be the result of years of mental adjustment; it may even take place in another body from the one where it originated. The man who tells us how to make a box, and tells it so fascinatingly that he sets all his readers to box-making, presumably has made boxes with his own hands, but there may be those who are fitted to inspire action in others rather than to undertake it themselves. And the larger literature of inspiration is not that which urges to specific deeds like box-making, or even to classes of deeds, like caring for the sick or improving methods of transportation; rather does it include in its scope all good thoughts and all good actions. It makes better men and women of those who read it; it is revolutionary and evolutionary at the same time, in the best sense of both words.
What will thus inspire me, do you ask? It would be easy to try to tell you; it would also be easy to fail. Many have tried and failed. This is a deeply personal matter. I can not tell what book, or what passage in a book, will touch the magic spring that shall make your life useful instead of useless, that shall start your thoughts and your deeds climbing up instead of grovelling or passively waiting. Only search will reveal it. The diamond-miner who expects to be directed to the precise spot where he will find a gem will never pick one up. Only he who seeks, finds. There are, however, places to look and places to avoid. The peculiar clay in which diamonds occur is well known to mineralogists. He who runs across it, looks for diamonds, though he may find none. But he who hunts for them on the rock-ribbed hills of New Hampshire or the sea-sands of Florida is doing a foolish thing—although even there he may conceivably pick up one that has been dropped by accident.
So you may know where it is best to go in your search for inspiration from books, for we know where seekers in the past have most often found it. He who could read the Bible or Shakespeare without finding some of it is the exception. It may be looked for in the great poets—Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Milton, Hugo, Keats, Goethe; or the great historians—Tacitus, Herodotus, Froissart, Macaulay, Taine, Bancroft; or in the great travellers from Sir John Mandeville down, or in biographies like Boswell’s life of Johnson, or in books of science—Laplace, Lagrange, Darwin, Tyndall, Helmholtz; in the lives of the great artists; in the great novels and romances—Thackeray, Balzac, Hawthorne, Dickens, George Eliot. Yet each and all of these may leave you cold and may pick up your gem in some out-of-the-way corner where neither you nor anyone else would think of looking for it.
Did you ever see a car-conductor fumbling about in the dark with the trolley pole, trying to hit the wire? While he is pulling it down and letting it fly up again, making fruitless dabs in the air, the car is dark and motionless; in vain the motorman turns his controller, in vain do the passengers long for light. But sooner or later the pole strikes the wire; down it flows the current that was there all the time up in the air; in a jiffy the car is in motion and ablaze with light. So your search for inspiration in literature may be long and unsuccessful; you are dark and motionless. But the life-giving current from some great man’s brain is flowing through some book not far away. One day you will make the connection and your life will in a trice be filled with light and instinct with action.
And before we leave this subject of inspiration, let us dwell for a moment on that to be obtained from one’s literary setting in general—from the totality of one’s literary associations and impressions, as distinguished from that gained from some specific passage or idea.
It has been said that it takes two to tell the truth; one to speak and one to listen. In like manner we may say that two persons are necessary to a great artistic interpretation—one to create and one to appreciate. And of no art is this more true than it is of literature. The thought that we are thus cooperating with Shakespeare and Schiller and Hugo in bringing out the full effect of their deathless conceptions is an inspiring one and its consideration may aid us in realizing the essential oneness of the human race, so far as its intellectual life is concerned.
Would you rather be a citizen of the United States than, we will say, of Nicaragua? You might be as happy, as well educated, as well off, there as here. Why do you prefer your present status? Simply and solely because of associations and relationships. If this is sentiment, as it doubtless is, it is the kind of sentiment that rules the world—it is in the same class as friendship, loyalty, love of kin, affection for home. The links that bind us to the past and the threads that stretch out into the future are more satisfactory to us here in the United States, with the complexity of its interests for us, than they would be in Nicaragua, or Guam, or Iceland.
Then of what country in the realm of literature do you desire to be a citizen? Of the one where Shakespeare is king and where your familiar and daily speech is with the great ones of this earth—those whose wise, witty, good, or inspiring words, spoken for centuries past, have been recorded in books? Or would you prefer to dwell with triviality and banality—perhaps with Laura Jean Libbey or even with Mary J. Holmes, and those a little better than these—or a little worse.
I am one of those who believe in the best associations, literary as well as social. And associations may have their effect even if they are apparently trivial or superficial.
When the open-shelf library was first introduced we were told that one of its chief advantages was that it encouraged “browsing”—the somewhat aimless rambling about and dipping here and there into a book. Obviously this can not be done in a closed-shelf library. But of late it has been suggested, in one quarter or another, that although this may be a pleasant occupation to some, or even to most, it is not a profitable one. Opponents of the open shelf of whom there are still one or two, here and there, find in this conclusion a reason for negativing the argument in its favor, while those of its advocates who accept this view see in it only a reason for basing that argument wholly on other grounds.
Now those of us who like a thing do not relish being told that it is not good for us. We feel that pleasure was intended as an outward sign of benefits received and although it may in abnormal conditions deceive us, we are right in demanding proof before distrusting its indications. When the cow absorbs physical nutriment by browsing, she does so without further reason than that she likes it. Does the absorber of mental pabulum from books argue wrongly from similar premises?
Many things are hastily and wrongly condemned because they do not achieve certain results that they were not intended to achieve. And in particular, when a thing exists in several degrees or grades, some one of those grades is often censured, although good in itself, because it is not a grade or two higher. Obviously everything depends on what is required. When a shopper wants just three yards of cloth, she would be foolish to buy four. She would, of course, be even more foolish to imagine that, if she really wished four, three would do just as well. But if a man wants to go to the eighth story of a building, he should not be condemned because he does not mount to the ninth; if he wishes a light lunch, he should not be found fault with for not ordering a seven-course dinner. And yet we continually hear persons accused of “superficiality” who purposely and knowingly acquire some slight degree of knowledge of a subject instead of a higher degree. And others are condemned, we will say, for reading for amusement when they might have read for serious information, without inquiring whether amusement, in this instance, was not precisely what they needed.
It may be, therefore, that browsing is productive of some good result, and that it fails to effect some other, perhaps some higher, result which its critics have wrongly fixed upon as the one desirable thing in this connection.
When a name embodies a figure of speech, we may often learn something by following up the figure to see how far it holds good. What does an animal do, and what does it not do, when it “browses”? In the first place it eats food—fresh, growing food; but, secondly, it eats this food by cropping off the tips of the herbage, not taking much at once, and again, it moves about from place to place, eating now here and now there and then making selection, from one motive or another, but presumably following the dictates of its own taste or fancy. What does it not do? First, it does not, from choice, eat anything bad. Secondly, it does not necessarily consume all of its food in this way. If it finds a particularly choice spot, it may confine its feeding to that spot; or, if its owner sees fit, he may remove it to the stable, where it may stand all day and eat what he chooses to give it. The benefits of browsing are, first, the nourishment actually derived from the food taken, coupled with the fact that it is taken in small quantities, and in great variety; and secondly, the knowledge of good spots, obtained from the testing of one spot after another, throughout the whole broad pasture.
Now I submit that our figure of speech holds good in all these particulars. The literary “browser” partakes of his mental food from books and is thereby nourished and stimulated; he takes it here and there in brief quantities, moving from section to section and from shelf to shelf, selecting choice morsels of literature as fancy may dictate. He does not, if he is a healthy reader, absorb voluntarily anything that will hurt him, and this method of literary absorption does not preclude other methods of mental nourishment. He may like a book so much that he proceeds to devour it whole, or his superiors in knowledge may remove him to a place where necessary mental food is administered more or less forcibly. And having gone so far with our comparison, we shall make no mistake if we go a little further and say that the benefits of browsing to the reader are twofold, as they are to the material feeder—the absorption of actual nutriment in his own wilful, wayward manner—a little at a time and in great variety; and the knowledge of good reading obtained from such a wide testing of the field.
Are not these real benefits, and are they not desirable? I fear that our original surmise was correct and that browsing is condemned not for what it does, but because it fails to do something that it could not be expected to do. Of course, if one were to browse continuously he would be unable to feed in any other way. Attendance upon school or the continuous reading of any book whatever would be obviously impossible. To avoid misunderstanding, therefore, we will agree at this point that whatever may be said here in commendation of browsing is on condition that it be occasional and not excessive and that the normal amount of continuous reading and study proceed together with it.
Having settled, therefore, that browsing is a good thing when one does not occupy ones’ whole time with it, let us examine its advantages a little more in detail.
First: about the mental nourishment that is absorbed in browsing; the specific information, the appreciation of what is good, the intellectual stimulation—not that which comes from reading suggested or guided by browsing, but from the actual process itself. I have heard it strenuously denied that any such absorption occurs; the bits taken are too small, the motion of the browser is too rapid, the whole process is too desultory. Let us see. In the first place a knowledge of authors and titles and of the general character of their works is by no means to be despised. I heard the other day of a presumably educated woman who betrayed in a conversation her ignorance of Omar Khayyam—not lack of acquaintance with his works, but lack of knowledge that such a person had ever existed. If at some period in her life she had held in her hand a copy of “The Rubaiyat,” and had glanced at its back, without even opening it, how much embarrassment she might have been spared! And if, in addition, she had glanced within for just ten seconds and had discovered that he wrote poetry in stanzas of four lines each, she would have known as much about Omar as do many of those who would contemptuously scoff at her ignorance. With so brief effort may we acquire literary knowledge sufficient to avoid embarrassment in ordinary conversation. Browsing in a good library, if the browser has a memory, will soon equip him with a wide range of knowledge of this kind. Nor is such knowledge to be sneered at as superficial. It is all that we know, or need to know, about scores of authors. One may never study higher mathematics, but it may be good for him to know that Lagrange was a French author who wrote on analytical mechanics, that Euclid was a Greek geometer, and that Hamilton invented quaternions. All this and vastly more may be impressed on the mind by an hour in the mathematical alcove of a library of moderate size. And it will do no harm to a boy to know that Benvenuto Cellini wrote his autobiography, even if the inevitable perusal of the book is delayed for several years, or that Felicia Hemans, James Thomson, and Robert Herrick wrote poetry, independently of familiarity with their works, or that “Lamia” is not something to eat or “As you like it” a popular novel. Information of this kind is almost impossible to acquire from lists or from oral statement, whereas a moment’s handling of a book in the concrete may fix it in the mind for good and all. So far, we have not supposed that even a word of the contents has been read. What, now, if a sentence, a stanza, a paragraph, a page, passes into the brain through the eye? Those who measure literary effect by the thousand words or by the hour are making a great mistake. The lightning flash is over in a fraction of a second, but in that time it may reveal a scene of beauty, may give the traveller warning of the fatal precipice, or may shatter the farmer’s home into kindling wood. Intellectual lightning may strike the “browser” as he stands there book in hand before the shelf. A word, a phrase, may sear into his brain—may turn the current of his whole life. And even if no such epoch-making words meet his eye, in how brief a time may he read, digest, appreciate, some of the gems of literature! Leigh Hunt’s “Jennie kissed me” would probably take about thirty seconds; on a second reading he would have it by heart—the joy of a life-time. How many meaty epigrams would take as long? The whole of Gray’s “Elegy” is hardly beyond the browser’s limit.
In an editorial on the Harvard Classics in the “Chicago evening post”, (April 22), we read, “the cultural tabloid has very little virtue;… to gain everything that a book has to give one must be submerged in it, saturated and absorbed”. This is very much like saying, “there is very little nourishment in a sandwich; to get the full effect of a luncheon you must eat everything on the table”. It is a truism to say that you can not get everything in a book without reading all of it; but it by no means follows that the virtue of less than the whole is negligible.
So much for the direct effect of what one may thus take in, bit by bit. The indirect effect is even more important. For by sampling a whole literature, as he does, he not only gets a bird’s-eye view of it, but he finds out what lie likes and what he dislikes; he begins to form his taste. Are you afraid that he will form it wrong? I am not. We are assuming that the library where he browses is a good one; here is no chance of evil, only a choice between different kinds of good. And even if the evil be there, it is astonishing how the healthy mind will let it slip and fasten eagerly on the good. Would you prefer a taste fixed by someone who tells the browser what he ought to like? Then that is not the reader’s own taste at all, but that of his informant. We have too much of this sort of thing—too many readers without an atom of taste of their own who will say, for instance, that they adore George Meredith, because some one has told them that all intellectual persons do so. The man who frankly loves George Ade and can yet see nothing in Shakespeare may one day discover Shakespeare. The man who reads Shakespeare merely because he thinks he ought to is hopeless.
But what a triumph, to stand spell-bound by the art of a writer whose name you never heard, and then discover that he is one of the great ones of the world! Nought is comparable to it except perhaps to pick out all by yourself in the exhibition the one picture that the experts have chosen for the museum or to be able to say you liked olives the first time you tasted them.
Who are your favorites? Did some one guide you to them or did you find them yourselves? I will warrant that in many cases you discovered them and that this is why you love them. I discovered DeQuincey’s romances, Praed’s poetry, Béranger in French, Heine in German, “The Arabian nights”, Molière, Irving’s “Alhambra,” hundreds of others probably. I am sure that I love them all far more than if some one had told me they were good books. If I had been obliged to read them in school and pass an examination on them, I should have hated them. The teacher who can write an examination paper on Gray’s “Elegy”, would, I firmly believe, cut up his grandmother alive before the physiology class.
And next to the author or the book that you have discovered yourself comes the one that the discoverer himself—your boy or girl friend—tells you about. He knows a good thing—she knows it! No school nonsense about that; no adult misunderstanding. I found out Poe that way, and Thackeray’s “Major Gahagan”, and many others.
To go back to our old illustration and consider for a moment not the book but the mind, the personality whose ideas it records, such association with books represents association with one’s fellowmen in society—at a reception, in school or college, at a club. Some we pass by with a nod, with some we exchange a word; sometimes there is a warm handgrasp; sometimes a long conversation. No matter what the mental contact may be, it has its effects—we are continually gaining knowledge, making new friends, receiving fresh inspiration. The complexion of this kind of daily association determines the cast of one’s mind, the thoroughness of his taste, the usefulness or uselessness of what he does. A man is known by the company he keeps, because that company forms him; he gets from it what becomes brain of his brain and soul of his soul.
And no less is he formed by his mental associations with the good and the great of all ages whom he meets in books and who talk to him there. More rather than less; for into a book the writer puts generally what is best in him, laying aside the pettiness, the triviality, the downright wickedness that may have characterized him in the flesh.
I have often heard the comment from one who had met face to face a writer whose work he loved—“Oh! he disappointed me so!” How disappointed might we be with Thackeray, with Dickens, even with Shakespeare, could we meet them in the flesh! Now they can not disappoint us, for we know only what they have left on record—the best, the most enduring part, purified from what is gross and earthly.
In and among such company as this it is your privilege to live and move, almost without money and without price. Thank God for books; let them be your friends and companions through life—for information, for recreation, but above all for inspiration.
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