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READ with attention. Attention is the fundamental condition of all reading, of all study, of all work properly done. What is its nature? It is the concentration of the mind upon an object of thought to the exclusion of all others. It is a habit, and, like all habits, to be acquired only by practice. One may live in a state of habitual distraction as well as in a state of habitual attentiveness. The perfect habit of attention—and that which all of us should seek to acquire as best befitting social beings who cannot shirk the claims and requirements of social life—is the attention that can, without strain or effort, break off from one subject, pass on to another, and resume at once the thread of one's readings or thoughts. How may such an attention be acquired? Where the reading matter is congenial to the reader there is no difficulty; the attention becomes naturally and unconsciously absorbed in the subject. But where one is unaccustomed to reading, or where the reading matter has no special interest, it is with an effort that one learns to control one's attention. I conceive a reader may in the following manner acquire this control:
Set aside daily, according to leisure or occupation, a given portion of time for reading. The daily recurrence to a subject at precisely the same hour may at first be irksome, but it soon creates a habit which finally becomes a pleasure.
Keep up the practice of using that time for one purpose and nothing else. This induces the habit all the sooner, and renders it all the more profitable.
Focus the attention during the time of reading in such a manner that the mind becomes wholly occupied with the reading matter. Better is the daily reading for half an hour with sustained attention than a reading of two hours made in an indolent, half-dreamy fashion.
Read with method. Absence of method in one's reading is a source of great distraction. Give yourself the habit while reading of making a mental catalogue of your impressions. Distinguish between the statements that are doubtful and probable and certain; between those that are of opinion and credence and presumption. You will find this practice of great aid in sustaining attention.
When, in spite of all these precautions, you begin to find your thoughts wandering away from the page upon which your eyes rest, leave the book aside for the time being and take up the reading of another subject that is more likely to fix your attention. We are told that Mr. Gladstone—who had such great physical endurance and wonderful intellectual activity—was wont to keep three distinct volumes on three distinct subjects open before him, and when he found attention beginning to flag in the reading of one he immediately turned to another. The practice is admirable for the trained intellect. The change brings rest to the mind and keeps it from growing wearied.
Men who are constant brain-workers generally keep before them a favorite volume, in which they from time to time refresh their minds when they become fatigued, or when they find the train of thought they would pursue exhausted. I have known men to find mental stimulation in the study of a Greek or Sanskrit verb; others, again, are wont to discipline their minds into activity by going over a theorem in geometry or calculus. Mere reverie or listlessness is a hopeless scattering of brain-force. It were well for us all to understand that mental inaction is not rest; it is rust. In this respect the law of intellectual is different from that of physical repose. Our soul is spirit, and must needs be active; and a wholesome, moderate, well-directed activity best satisfies the laws of our being. Brain-work has never injured anybody. It is excitement, or taking trouble to heart, or disregarding the primary hygienic conditions of our physical nature that breaks down the health, and we are too prone to attribute it to mental exertion. In the natural course of things every great author and thinker should live to a ripe old age; witness the length of days to which have lived Kant and Ranke and Dollinger; Gladstone and Manning and Newman; Brownson and Bancroft and President Woolsey and Dr. McCosh. These men all knew what intense brain-work meant.
Another rule is to take notes while reading. The very fact of reading with pen or pencil in hand stimulates thought. Remember that reading is useful only in proportion as it aids our intellectual development, and it aids intellectual development only in proportion as it supplies food for reflection; and that portion of one's reading alone avails which the mind has been able to assimilate to itself and make its own by meditation. Now note-taking, with running comments, is a great means of making clear to one's self how much one does or does not know about the subject-matter of one's reading. Hence its value. But note-taking may be overestimated, and it actually becomes so when it is reduced to a mere mechanical copying and cataloguing of extracts, without any effort to make these extracts the seeds from which to cultivate native thought.
Read with a purpose. Lay out for yourselves a definite object, and let your reading converge upon that object until your purpose is attained. This is the only reading that will be remembered. Books perused in an aimless manner are soon forgotten; indeed are seldom remembered. The mind becomes a mere passive instrument, receiving one set of impressions which are in a little while obliterated by another set no less temporary. Now this is an abuse. Reason, imagination, all the faculties of man's intellect, were given him that he might exercise them and develop them to the full compass of their activity. He who lets them lie dormant is in the position of him who buried the one talent that he had been entrusted with. Dante very justly places all such, though living without blame and without praise, in the first circle of hell. Madame Mohl, that oddest of little women, who for so many years ruled over the socially or politically distinguished in Paris, in her impatience of gossiping women once asked: "Why don't they talk about interesting things? Why don't they use their brains? . . . Everybody but a born idiot has brains enough not to be a fool. Why don't they exercise their brains as they do their fingers and their legs, sewing and playing and dancing? Why don't they read?" Of those who read to no purpose might we also ask: Why don't they use their brains?
Furthermore, reading with a purpose helps to economize time and brain-energy. We soon learn there are many things we had better leave unread, as so many distractions from the main line of our readings. Then we begin to find out that after we know all a book has to tell us bearing directly upon our subject we would be losing time to read farther, and so we put the book aside. With practice we soon discover the short-cuts to our subject, and save ourselves the reading of all irrelevant matters. We become practiced in the rare art of knowing when and what not to read.
But there are works that cannot be partially read. They are all works of art—whether of prosaic art, as the novel, or poetic art, as the epic or lyric or dramatic poem. Such works must be read as a complete whole. As well may you mutilate a picture or a statue or a musical sonata as skip portions of a great poem or a standard novel. Every work of art is one—breathing one ideal, speaking one thought. You cannot reduce the thought to fragments, you cannot break up the ideal. This is a primary law of criticism, and every reader should take it to heart. Critics have compared Milton with Dante; but in what manner? They have taken one-third—a mere fragment—of Dante's great poem—the "Inferno"—and set it beside the whole of "Paradise Lost." These critics never understood Dante. His poem is one. Its parts cannot be separated. The "Paradiso" contains the solution to the "Purgatorio" and the "Inferno." It is simply and literally the keystone to the arch. So also a work of genuine art is not to be run through post-haste and then set aside forever afterwards. If you would grasp the underlying idea you should read the work slowly, read it thoughtfully, read it frequently. A piece of composition so read and so mastered is to you a great gain. It is an element in the formation of true culture. You are thereby learning how to penetrate the veil of appearances and to look essences full in the face.
You complain of the impossibility of remembering all you read. That comes of your reading over-hastily or of your reading aimlessly. When you read with a purpose, and take notes, and make running comments, and mark passages or chapters which you re-read, your memory will be retentive of all essential points.
A memory equally strong in all points is rare. I have met only one instance approaching such a memory in all my experience. It is that of a great churchman who stands foremost as a theologian, a canonist, a scholar, and a critic. But his is an exceptional instance of memory. For the large majority of us memory is simply confirmed experience in regard to topics with which we have grown familiar. According as our minds become active on any subject will our memory grasp the facts and ideas, and even the remote incidents, connected with the subject. Cardinal Newman says truly:
"In real fact memory, as a talent, is not one indivisible faculty, but a power of retaining and recalling the past in this or that department of our experience, not in any whatever. Two memories which are both specially retentive may also be incommensurate. . . . There are a hundred memories, as there are a hundred virtues."
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