Beside a library, how poor are all the other greatest deeds of man – his constitution, brigade, factory, man of war, cathedral – how poor are all miracles in comparison! Look at that wall of motley calf-skin, open those slips of inked rags – who would fancy them as valuable as the rows of stamped cloth in a warehouse? Yet Aladdin’s lamp was a child’s kaleidoscope in comparison. There the thoughts and deeds of the most efficient men during three thousand years are accumulated, and every one who will learn a few conventional signs – 24 (magic) letters – can pass at pleasure from Plato to Napoleon, from the Argonauts to the Afghans, from the proven mathematics of La Place to the mythology of Egypt, and the lyrics of Burns. Young reader! Pause steadily and look at this fact till it blaze before you; look till your imagination summon up even the few acts and thoughts named in that last sentence; and when these visions – from the Greek pirate to the fiery-eyed Scotchman – have begun to dim, solemnly resolve to use these glorious opportunities, as one whose breast has been sobbing at the far sight of a mountain, resolves to climb it, and already strains and exults in his purposed toil.
Throughout the country, at this moment, thousands are consulting how to obtain and use books. We feel painfully anxious that this noble purpose should be well directed. It is possible that these sanguine young men, who are wildly pressing for knowledge, may grow weary or be misled – to their own and Ireland’s injury. We intend, therefore, to put down a few hints and warnings for them. Unless they, themselves, ponder and discuss these hints and warnings they will be useless, nay, worse than useless.
On the selection and purchase of books it is hard to say what is useful without going into detail. Carlyle says that a library is the true University of our days, where every sort of knowledge is brought together to be studied; but the student needs guides in the library as much as in the University. He does not need rules nor rulers; but light and classification. Let a boy loose in a library, and if he have years of leisure and a creative spirit he will come out a master-mind. If he have the leisure without the original spring he will become a book-worm – a useful help, perhaps to his neighbours, but himself a very feeble and poor creature. For one man who gains weapons from idle reading, we know twenty who lose their simplicity without getting strength, and purchase cold recollections of other men’s thoughts by the sacrifice of nature.
Just as men are bewildered and lost from want of guides in a large library, so are others from an equal want of direction in the purchase of a small one. We know from bitter experience how much money it costs a young man to get a sufficient library. Still more hard we should think it for a club of young men to do so. But worse than the loss of money, are the weariness from reading dull and shallow books, the corruption from reading vicious, extravagant, and confused books, and the waste of time and patience from reading idle and impertinent books. The remedy is not by saying “this book you shall read, and this other you shall not read under penalty;” but by inducing students to regard their self-education solemnly, by giving them information on the classification of books, and by setting them to judge authors vigorously and for themselves.
Booksellers, especially in small towns, exercise no small influence in the choice of books yet they are generally unfit to do so. They are like agents for the sale of patent medicines knowing the prices but not the ingredients, nor the comparative worth of their goods, yet puffing them for the commission’s sake.
If some competent person would write a book on books, he would do the world a great favour; but he had need be a man of caution, above political bias or personal motive, and indifferent to the outcries of party. Todd’s Students’ Manual, Vericour’s Modern French Literature, and the like, are rather childish affairs, though better than nothing. McCullagh’s “Use and Study of History” is, on its peculiar subject, a book of much value. Men will differ in judging the style; but it honestly, learnedly, and in a suggestive, candid way examines the great histories from Herodotus down. We wish to see it more generally in the people’s hands. Occasionally one meets in a Review a comprehensive and just estimate of the authorities on some subject; but most of these periodicals are written for some party or interested purpose, and are not trust-worthy. Hallam’s Literature of Europe, Sismondi and Schlegel are guides of the highest value in the formation of a large library, but we fear their use in Ireland is remote.
One of the first mistakes a young, ardent student falls into is, that he can master all knowledge. The desire for universal attainment is natural and glorious; but he, who feels it, is in danger of hurrying over a multitude of books, and confusing himself into the belief that he is about to know everything because he has skimmed many things.
Another evil is apt to grow from this. A young man who gets a name for a great variety of knowledge often is ashamed to appear ignorant of what he does not know. He is appealed to as an authority, and instead of manfully, and wisely avowing his ignorance, he harangues from the title-page, or skilfully parades the opinions of other men as if they were his own observations.
Looking through books in order to talk of them is one of the worst and commonest vices. It is an acted lie, a device to conceal laziness and ignorance, or to compensate for want of wit; a stupid device, too, for it is soon found out, the employer of it gets the character of being a literary cheat, he is thought a pretender, even when well-informed, and a plagiarist when most original.
Beading to consume time is an honest but weak employment. It is a positive disease with multitudes of people. They crouch in corners, going over novels and biographies at the rate of two volumes a day, when they would have been far better employed in digging or playing shuttle-cock. Still it is hard to distinguish between this long-looking through books and the voracity of a curious and powerful mind gathering stores which it will afterwards arrange and use. Indeed the highest reading of all (what we may name epic reading) is of this class. When we are youngest and heartiest we read thus. The fate and passions of men are all in all to us; for we are then true-lovers, candidates for laurel crowns, assured Liberators and conquerors of the earth, rivals of archangels, perchance in our dreams. We never pause then upon the artistical excellence of a book we never try to look at and realise the scenery or sounds described (if the author make them clear, well and good if not, no matter) we hurry on to the end of the shipwreck, or the battle, the court- ship, or the journey palpitating for our hero’s fate. This, we repeat, is the highest kind of reading.
This sort of reading is most common in human narrative.
Earnest readers of science read their books at first as ordinary people do their histories for the plot.
Some of us can recollect the zealous rush through a fresh book on mathematics or chemistry to know the subtle scheme of reasoning, or understand the just unveiled secrets of nature, as we read “Sinbad the Sailor” or “Mungo Park’s Travels.”
But most readers of science read in order to use it. They try to acquire command over each part for convenience’ sake, and not from curiosity or love. All men who persevere in science do this latter mainly; but all of them retain or acquire the epic spirit in reading, and we have seen a dry lawyer swallow a stiff treatise, not thinking of its use in his arguments, but its intrinsic beauty of system and accuracy of logic.
He who seeks to make much use, too, of narrative literature (be it novel, poem, drama, history, or travel), must learn scientific as well as epic reading.
He need not formally criticise and review every book, still less need he pause on every sentence and word till the full meaning of it stand before him.
But he must often do this. He must analyse as well as enjoy. He must consider the elements as well as the argument of a book just as, long dwelling on a landscape, he will begin to know the trees and rocks, the sun-flooded hollow, and the cloud-crowned top, which go to make the scene or, to use a more illustrative thought – as one, long listening to the noise on a summer day, comes to separate and mark the bleat of the lamb, the hoarse caw of the crow, the song of the thrush, the buzz of the bee, and the tinkle of the brook.
Doing this deliberately is an evil to the mind whether the subject be nature or books. The evil is not because the act is one of analysis, though that has been said. It is proof of higher power to combine new ideas out of what is before you, or to notice combinations not at first obvious, than to distinguish and separate. The latter tends to logic, which is our humblest exercise of mind, the former to creation, which is our highest. Yet analysis is not an unhealthy act of mind, nor is the process we have described always analytical.
The evil of deliberate criticism is, that it generates scepticism. Of course we do not mean religious, but general scepticism. The process goes oil till one sees only stratification in the slope, gases in the stream, cunning tissues in the face, associations in the mind, and an astronomical machine in the sky. A more miserable state of soul no mortal ever suffered than this. But an earnest man living and loving vigorously is in little danger of this condition, nor does it last long with any man of strong character.
Another evil, confined chiefly to men who write or talk for effect, is that they become spies (as Emerson calls them) on Nature. They do not wonder at love, or hate what they see. All books and men are arsenals to be used, or, more properly, stores to be plundered by them. But their punishment is sharp. They lose insight into the godlier qualities, they lose the sight of sympathy, and become conscious actors of a poor farce.
Happiest is he who judges and knows books, and nature, and men (himself included), spontaneously or from early training whose feelings are assessors with his intellects, and who is thoroughly in earnest. An actor or a spy is weak as well as wretched; yet it may be needful for him who was blinded by the low principles, the tasteless rules, and the stupid habits of his family and teachers, to face this danger, deliberately to analyse his own and others’ nature, deliberately to study how faculties are acquired and results produced, and thus to cure himself of blindness, and deafness, and dumbness, and become a man, observant and skilful. He will suffer much, and run great danger, but if he go through this faithfully, and then fling himself into action and undertake responsibility, he shall be great and happy.