The Value of Reading, by Harry Lyman Koopman, Litt.D. 1917
LIBRARIAN OF BROWN UNIVERSITY
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OF what value is it to a community to contain-—still more to be composed of—-well-read people? We can best answer this question by picturing its opposite, a community without readers; this we are unfortunately able to do without drawing upon our imaginations, for we have only to turn to certain districts of countries like Spain or Russia. There we shall meet whole communities, large enough to form cities elsewhere, which are little more than aggregations of paupers. Shall we find in any of these homes a daily or a weekly paper, or a monthly magazine, or even a stray book? Not one, except perhaps in the house of a priest. These masses of people live on the earth, to be sure, but they do not live in the world. No currents of the great, splendid life of the twentieth century ever reach them; and they live in equal isolation from the life of the past. "The glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome" have for them simply no existence. They are truly the disinherited of all the ages. Though they may not be unhappy, they can be called nothing less than wretched. Is the fault one of race, or government, or religion? Much could be said on all these points, both for and against; but one fact remains indisputable—these people do not read.
Let us turn now to a different type of community, that represented by the ordinary New England village. How stands the cause of reading there? If there is any person of sound mind in the community who has never learned to read, he is pointed out as a curiosity. There is not a home in the length and breadth of the town that is without its paper, its magazine, or its books. In other words, literacy is taken for granted. Is it any wonder that in progress, wealth, and influence the one community starts where the other leaves off? In the illiterate towns just described there is often no man who has the slightest capacity for business or who can represent the interests of his community before even the humblest government official. But from towns of the other type come men who represent with honor their state and their nation; men who widen the bounds of freedom and who add new stars to the celestial sphere of knowledge. Is all this wholly a matter of reading? One would not dare to assert it absolutely, remembering the advantages of race, government, and religion enjoyed in New England. And yet we have only to fancy the condition of even such a town after one generation, supposing all its printed matter and its power to read were taken away, if we would realize what an impulse to progress and prosperity is given by the presence of the volumes that line the shelves of our public libraries.
If the fortunes of a community in the modern world are bound up with the use that it makes of books and libraries, no less are those of the individual. This is true whether we refer to his private satisfaction or to his public advancement. The animal is endowed with instinct, which is sufficient for the guidance of his life, but it permits of no development. Man must depend upon judgment, experience, reason—guides that are often only too blind; but at least they admit of progress. In fact it is only in the field of knowledge that human progress appears to be possible. We have no better bodies than the ancient Greeks had—to put the case very mildly. We have no better minds than they had—to make an even safer assertion. But we know almost infinitely more than they did. In this respect the ancient Greeks were but as children compared with ourselves. What makes this tremendous difference? Simply the fact that we know all that was known by them and the Romans and the men of the middle ages, and through this knowledge we have learned more by our own discovery than they knew, all put together. The path to success for men and races lies through the storehouse where this vast knowledge is garnered—the library. But it is something more than a storehouse of knowledge; it is an electrical battery of power. This knowledge, this power, can be obtained in its fullness only through books. The man, therefore, who aspires to lead his fellows, to command their respect or their votes, must not rely on native talent alone; he must add to it the stored-up talent of the ages.
There is an old proverb: "No man ever got rich with his coat off." This is a puzzling assertion, for it seems to contradict so many accepted ideas. General Grant, for instance, when asked for his coat-of-arms, replied: "A pair of shirt sleeves." The answer showed an honorable pride in labor; but we must remember that it was not General Grant's arms but his brain that won his victories. Does not our proverb mean simply this: that the great prizes of life—-of which riches is the symbol, not the sum—-cannot be won by main strength and ignorance; that they can be won only by energy making use of knowledge? But it is not only in the public successes of life that books have a value for the individual. Public successes are never the greatest that men win. It is in the expansion and uplift of the inner self that books render their grandest service. Emily Dickinson wrote of such a reader:
He ate and drank the precious words,
His spirit grew robust;
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was dust.
He danced along the dingy days,
And this bequest of wings
Was but a book. What liberty
A loosened spirit brings!
A final word on values. The philosophers make two great classes of values, which may be entitled respectively Property and Possessions. Under Property come money, houses, lands, carriages, clothing, jewels; under Possessions come love, friendship, morality, knowledge, culture, refinement. All are good things. There never were any houses or carriages or clothes too good for a human being. But these obviously belong to a different type of values from the other group—to a lower type. What is the test, the touchstone, by which we can tell to which class any value belongs? We shall find the test clearly stated in the Sermon on the Mount. Is the treasure in question one that moth and rust can corrupt or that thieves can break through and steal? If so, it belongs to the lower class, to Property. But if it is one that cannot be taken away, then it is a Possession and belongs to the higher type. There is another test, which is really a part of this: Can you share it without loss? If I own a farm, and give to another a half of it or a year's crop from it, I deprive myself of just so much. But, if I have knowledge or taste or judgment or affection, I can pour them all out like water for the benefit of my fellows, and yet never have any the less. On the contrary, I shall find that I have more; for they grow by sharing. But we have not yet done with the superiority of Possessions over Property. "Shrouds have no pockets," says the grim old proverb; and all Property must be laid down at the edge of the grave. But if man be immortal, as the wise in all ages have believed, then we do not have to lay down our Possessions with this mortal body. For, if the soul when freed from the flesh is to remain the soul, the self—-and only so can immortality have any meaning-—then it must keep all those inner acquisitions of knowledge, culture, and character which it has gathered on earth; nay, it then for the first time truly comes into the enjoyment of them. What were our earthly Possessions become Treasures laid up for ourselves in Heaven.