S. Austin Allibone, comp. Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay. 1880.
The ordinary writers of morality prescribe to their readers after the Galenic way; their medicines are made up in large quantities. An essay-writer must practise in the chemical method, and give the virtue of a full draught in a few drops. Were all books reduced thus to their quintessence, many a bulky author would make his appearance in a penny paper. There would be scarce such a thing in nature as a folio; the works of an age would be contained on a few shelves; not to mention millions of volumes that would be utterly annihilated.
Books are the legacies that a great genius leaves to mankind, which are delivered down from generation to generation, as presents to the posterity of those who are yet unborn. All other arts of perpetuating our ideas continue but a short time. Statues can last but a few thousands of years, edifices fewer, and colours still fewer than edifices. Michael Angelo, Fontana, and Raphael will hereafter be what Phidias, Vitruvius, and Apelles are at present,the names of great statuaries, architects, and painters whose works are lost. The several arts are expressed in mouldering materials. Nature sinks under them, and is not able to support the ideas which are impressed upon it.
The circumstance which gives authors an advantage above all these great masters is this, that they can multiply their originals; or rather can make copies of their works, to what number they please, which shall be as valuable as the originals themselves.
For friends, although your lordship be scant, yet I hope you are not altogether destitute; if you be, do but look upon good Books: they are true friends, that will neither flatter nor dissemble: be you but true to yourself, applying that which they teach unto the party grieved, and you shall need no other comfort nor counsel. To them, and to Gods Holy Spirit directing you in the reading them, I commend your lordship.
Nothing ought to be more weighed than the nature of books recommended by public authority. So recommended, they soon form the character of the age. Uncertain indeed is the efficacy, limited indeed is the extent, of a virtuous institution. But if education takes in vice as any part of its system, there is no doubt but that it will operate with abundant energy, and to an extent indefinite.
Edmund Burke: Letter to a Member of the Nat. Assembly, 1791.
Readers are not aware of the fact, but a fact it is of daily increasing magnitude, and already of terrible importance to readers, that their first grand necessity in reading is to be vigilantly, conscientiously select; and to know everywhere that books, like human souls, are actually divided into what we may call sheep and goats,the latter put inexorably on the left hand of the Judge; and tending, every goat of them, at all moments, whither we know, and much to be avoided, and, if possible, ignored, by all sane creatures!
It is chiefly through books that we enjoy intercourse with superior minds, and these invaluable means of communication are in the reach of all. In the best books great men talk to us, give us their most precious thoughts, and pour their souls into ours. God be thanked for books! they are the voices of the distant and the dead, and make us heirs of the spiritual life of past ages. Books are the true levellers. They give to all, who will faithfully use them, the society, the spiritual presence, of the best and greatest of our race. No matter how poor I am, no matter though the prosperous of my own time will not enter my obscure dwelling, if the Sacred Writers will enter and take up their abode under my roof, if Milton will cross my threshold to sing to me of Paradise, and Shakspeare to open to me the worlds of imagination and the workings of the human heart, and Franklin to enrich me with his practical wisdom, I shall not pine for want of intellectual companionship, and I may become a cultivated man, though excluded from what is called the best society in the place where I live.
Nothing can supply the place of books. They are cheering or soothing companions in solitude, illness, affliction. The wealth of both continents would not compensate for the good they impart. Let every man, if possible, gather some good books under his roof, and obtain access for himself and family to some social library. Almost any luxury should be sacrificed to this.
Books are the food of youth, the delight of old age; the ornament of prosperity, the refuge and comfort of adversity; a delight at home, and no hindrance abroad; companions by night, in travelling, in the country.
In former times a popular work meant one that adapted the results of studious meditation, or scientific research, to the capacity of the people: presenting in the concrete by instances and examples what had been ascertained in the abstract and by the discovery of the law. Now, on the other hand, that is a popular work which gives back to the people their own errors and prejudices, and flatters the many by creating them, under the title of the public, into a supreme and unappealable tribunal of intellectual excellence.
Books are a guide in youth, and an entertainment for age. They support us under solitude, and keep us from becoming a burden to ourselves. They help us to forget the crossness of men and things, compose our cares and our passions, and lay our disappointments asleep. When we are weary of the living we may repair to the dead, who have nothing of peevishness, pride, or design in their conversation.
With books, as with companions, it is of more consequence to know which to avoid than which to choose: for good books are as scarce as good companions, and, in both instances, all that we can learn from bad ones is, that so much time has been worse than thrown away. That writer does the most who gives his reader the most knowledge and takes from him the least time. That short period of a short existence which is rationally employed is that which alone deserves the name of life; and that portion of our life is most rationally employed which is occupied in enlarging our stock of truth and of wisdom.
If a book really wants the patronage of a great name, it is a bad book; and if it be a good book, it wants it not. Swift dedicated a volume to Prince Posterity, and there was a manliness in the act. Posterity will prove a patron of the soundest judgment, as unwilling to give, as unwilling to receive, adulation. But posterity is not a very accessible personage; he knows the high value of that which he gives, he therefore is extremely particular as to what he receives. Very few of the presents that are directed to him reach their destination. Some are too light, others too heavy; since it is as difficult to throw a straw any distance as a ton.
The book of Life is the tabernacle wherein the treasure of wisdom is to be found. The truth of voice perishes with the sound; truth latent in the mind is hidden wisdom and invisible treasure; but the truth which illuminates books desires to manifest itself to every disciplinable sense. Let us consider how great a commodity of doctrine exists in books,how easily, how secretly, how safely, they expose the nakedness of human ignorance without putting it to shame. These are the masters that instruct us without rods and ferules, without hard words and anger, without clothes or money. If you approach them, they are not asleep; if, investigating, you interrogate them, they conceal nothing; if you mistake them, they never grumble; if you are ignorant, they cannot laugh at you.
Under our present enormous accumulation of books, I do affirm that a most miserable distraction of choice must be very generally incident to the times; that the symptoms of it are in fact very prevalent, and that one of the chief symptoms is an enormous gluttonism for books.
Books are loved by some merely as elegant combinations of thought; by others as a means of exercising the intellect. By some they are considered as the engines by which to propagate opinions; and by others they are only deemed worthy of serious regard when they constitute repositories of matters of fact. But perhaps the most important use of literature has been pointed out by those who consider it as a record of the respective modes of moral and intellectual existence that have prevailed in successive ages, and who value literary performances in proportion as they preserve a memorial of the spirit which was at work in real life during the times when they were written. Considered in this point of view, books can no longer be slighted as fanciful tissues of thought, proceeding from the solitary brains of insulated poets or metaphysicians. They are the shadows of what has formerly occupied the minds of mankind, and of what once determined the tenor of existence. The narrator who details political events does no more than indicate a few of the external effects, or casual concomitants, of what was stirring during the times of which he professes to be the historian. As the generations change on the face of the globe, different energies are evolved with new strength, or sink into torpor; faculties are brightened into perfection, or lose themselves in gradual blindness and oblivion. No age concentrates within itself all advantages. The knowledge of what has been is necessary, in addition to the knowledge of the present, to enable us to conceive the full extent of human powers and capacities; or, to speak more correctly, this knowledge is necessary to enable us to become acquainted with the varieties of talent and energy with which beings of the same general nature with ourselves have, in past times, been endowed.
In literature I am fond of confining myself to the best company, which consists chiefly of my old acquaintance with whom I am desirous of becoming more intimate; and I suspect that nine times out of ten it is more profitable, if not more agreeable, to read an old book over again, than to read a new one for the first time. If I hear of a new poem, for instance, I ask myself whether it is superior to Homer, or Shakspeare, or Virgil; and, in the next place, whether I have all these authors completely at my fingers ends. And when both these questions have been answered in the negative, I infer that it is better (and to me it is certainly pleasanter) to give such time as I have to bestow on the reading of poetry to Homer, Shakspeare and Co.; and so of other things. Is it not better to try and adorn ones mind by the constant study and contemplation of the great models, than merely to know of ones own knowledge that such a book is not worth reading? Some new books it is necessary to read,part for the information they contain, and others in order to acquaint ones self with the state of literature in the age in which one lives: but I would rather read too few than too many.
In books one takes up occasionally one finds a consolation for the impossibility of reading many books, by seeing how many might have been spared,how little that is new or striking in the great departments of religion, morals, and sentiment.
How large a portion of the material that books are made of, is destitute of any peculiar distinction! It has, as Pope said of women, just no character at all. An accumulation of sentences and pages of vulgar truisms and candle-light sense, which any one was competent to write, and which no one is interested in reading, or cares to remember, or could remember if he cared.
It is a vanity to persuade the world one hath much learning by getting a great library. As soon shall I believe every one is valiant that hath a well-furnished armoury . Some books are only cursorily to be tasted of: namely, first voluminous books, the task of a mans life to read them over; secondly, auxiliary books, only to be repaired to on occasions; thirdly, such as are merely pieces of formality, so that if you look on them you look through them, and he that peeps through the casement of the index sees as much as if he were in the house. But the laziness of those cannot be excused who perfunctorily pass over authors of consequence, and only trade in their tables and contents. These, like city-cheates, having gotten the names of all country gentlemen, make silly people believe they have long lived in those places where they never were, and flourish with skill in those authors they never seriously studied.
Among men long conversant with books we too frequently find those misplaced virtues of which I have now been complaining. We find the studious animated with a strong passion for the great virtues, as they are mistakingly called, and utterly forgetful of the ordinary ones. The declamations of philosophy are generally rather exhausted on those supererogatory duties than on such as are indispensably necessary. A man, therefore, who has taken his ideas of mankind from study alone, generally comes into the world with a heart melting at every fictitious distress. Thus he is induced, by misplaced liberality, to put himself into the indigent circumstances of the person he relieves.
In proportion as society refines, new books must ever become more necessary. Savage rusticity is reclaimed by oral admonition alone; but the elegant excesses of refinement are best corrected by the still voice of a studious inquiry. In a polite age almost every person becomes a reader, and receives more instruction from the press than the pulpit. The preaching Bonse may instruct the illiterate peasant, but nothing less than the insinuating address of a fine writer can win its way to a heart already relaxed in all the effeminacy of refinement. Books are necessary to correct the vices of the polite, but those vices are ever changing, and the antidote should be changed accordingly, should still be new. Instead, therefore, of thinking the number of new publications here too great, I could wish it still greater, as they are the most useful instruments of reformation.
Books, while they teach us to respect the interest of others, often make us unmindful of our own; while they instruct the youthful reader to grasp at social happiness, he grows miserable in detail; and, attentive to universal harmony, often forgets that he himself has a part to sustain in the concert. I dislike, therefore, the philosopher who describes the inconveniences of life in such pleasing colours that the pupil grows enamoured of distress, longs to try the charms of poverty, meets it without dread, nor fears its inconveniences till he severely feels them.
A youth who has thus spent his life among books, new to the world, and unacquainted with man but by philosophic information, may be considered as a being whose mind is filled with the vulgar errors of the wise: utterly unqualified for a journey through life, yet confident of his own skill in the direction, he sets out with confidence, blunders on with vanity, and finds himself at last undone.
In England, where there are as many new books published as in all the rest of Europe put together, a spirit of freedom and reason reigns among the people; they have been often known to act like fools, they are generally found to think like men . An author may be considered as a merciful substitute to the legislature. He acts not by punishing crimes, but by preventing them.
What a world of thought is here packed up together! I know not whether this sight doth more dismay or comfort me. It dismays me to think that here is so much that I cannot know; it comforts me to think that this variety affords so much assistance to know what I should . What a happiness is it that, without the aid of necromancy, I can here call up any of the ancient worthies of learning, whether human or divine, and confer with them upon all my doubts; that I can at pleasure summon whole synods of reverend fathers and acute doctors from all the coasts of the earth, to give their well-studied judgments in all doubtful points which I propose. Nor can I cast my eye casually upon any of these silent masters but I must learn somewhat. It is a wantonness to complain of choice. No law binds us to read all; but the more we can take in and digest, the greater will be our improvement.
Blessed be God who hath set up so many clear lamps in his church: none but the wilfully blind can plead darkness. And blessed be the memory of those, his faithful servants, who have left their blood, their spirits, their lives, in these precious papers; and have willingly wasted themselves into these enduring monuments to give light to others.
Bishop Joseph Hall: Meditation on the Sight of a Large Library.
The poor man who has gained a taste for good books will in all likelihood become thoughtful; and when you have given the poor a habit of thinking you have conferred on them a much greater favour than by the gift of a large sum of money, since you have put them in possession of the principle of all legitimate prosperity.
Robert Hall: Advantages of Knowledge to the Lower Classes.
Were I to pray for a taste which should stand me in stead under every variety of circumstances, and be a source of happiness and cheerfulness to me during life, and a shield against its ills, however things might go amiss, and the world frown upon me, it would be a taste for reading. Give a man this taste, and the means of gratifying it, and you can hardly fail of making him a happy man; unless, indeed, you put into his hands a most perverse selection of Books. You place him in contact with the best society in every period of history,with the wisest, the wittiest, the tenderest, the bravest, and the purest characters who have adorned humanity. You make him a denizen of all nations, a contemporary of all ages. The world has been created for him!
Sir John F. W. Herschel: Address at the Opening of the Eton Library, 1833.
We often make a great blunder when, snatching up an old fairy-tale book, hap-hazard, we fancy we can revive those pleasant days of our childhood, in which we thought that the absence of a supernatural godmother was a serious defect in modern christenings; that a gentlemans second wife was sure to persecute the progeny of the first, who were (or was) always pretty, and equally sure to bring into the family an ugly bratthe result of a former marriage on her own partwhom she spoiled and petted, less from motives of affection than from a desire to spite all the rest; that where there were three or seven children in a household, the youngest was invariably the shrewdest of the lot; and that no great and glorious end could be obtained without overthrowing three successive obstacles, each more formidable than the obstacle preceding.
Books are faithful repositories, which may be awhile neglected or forgotten, but when they are opened again will again impart their instruction. Memory once interrupted is not to be recalled; written learning is a fixed luminary, which after the cloud that had hidden it has passed away, is again bright in its proper station. Tradition is but a meteor, which if it once falls cannot be rekindled.
The foundation of knowledge must be laid by reading. General principles must be had from books; which, however, must be brought to the test of real life. In conversation you never get a system. What is said upon a subject is to be gathered from a hundred people. The parts which a man gets thus are at such a distance from each other that he never attains to a full view.
Except a living man, there is nothing more wonderful than a book!a message to us from the dead,from human souls whom we never saw, who lived, perhaps, thousands of miles away; and yet these, in those little sheets of paper, speak to us, amuse us, terrify us, teach us, comfort us, open their hearts to us as brothers . I say we ought to reverence books, to look at them as useful and mighty things. If they are good and true, whether they are about religion or politics, farming, trade, or medicine, they are the message of Christ, the maker of all things, the teacher of all truth.
To be strong-backed and neat-bound is the desideratum of a volume. Magnificence comes after. This, when it can be afforded, is not to be lavished upon all kinds of books indiscriminately. I would not dress a set of Magazines, for instance, in full suit. The dishabille, or half-binding (with Russia backs ever), is our costume. A Shakspeare or a Milton (unless the first editions) it were mere foppery to trick out in gay apparel. The possession of them confers no distinction. The exterior of them (the things themselves being so common), strange to say, raises no sweet emotions, no tickling sense of property in the owner . In some respects, the better a book is, the less it demands from binding . But where a book is at once both good and rare,where the individual is almost the species, and, when that perishes,
We know not where is that Promethean torch
That can its life relumine
no casket is rich enough, no casing sufficiently durable, to honour and keep safe such a jewel.
I can read anything which I call a book. There are things in that shape which I cannot allow for such. In this catalogue of books which are no booksbiblia a-bibliaI reckon Court Calendars, Directories, Pocket Books, Draught Boards bound and lettered on the back, Scientific Treatises, Almanacs, Statutes at Large: the works of Hume, Gibbon, Robertson, Beattie, Soame Jenyns, and generally all those volumes which no gentlemans library should be without: the Histories of Flavius Josephus (that learned Jew), and Paleys Moral Philosophy. With these exceptions, I can read almost anything. I bless my stars for a taste so catholic, so unexcluding.
He that will inquire out the best books in every science, and inform himself of the most material authors of the several acts of philosophy and religion, will not find it an infinite work to acquaint himself with the sentiments of mankind concerning the most weighty and comprehensive subjects.
There is no end of books, and yet we seem to need more every day: there was such a darkness brought in by the Fall, as will not thoroughly be dispelled till we come to Heaven, where the sun shineth without either cloud or night: for the present all should contribute their help according to the rate and measure of their abilities: some can only hold up a candle, others a torch, but all are useful. The press is an excellent means to scatter knowledge, were it not so often abused: all complain there is enough written, and think that now there should be a stop; indeed it were well if in this scribbling age there were some restraint: useless pamphlets are grown almost as great a mischief as the erroneous and profane. Yet tis not good to shut the door upon industry and diligence: there is yet room left to discover more (above all that hath been said) of the wisdom of God, and the riches of His grace in the Gospel: yea, more of the stratagems of Satan, and the deceitfulness of mans heart: means need to be increased every day to weaken sin, and strengthen trust, and quicken us to holiness: fundamentals are the same in all ages, but the constant necessities of the Church and private Christians will continually enforce a further explication: as the arts and sleights of besieging and battering increase, so doth skill in fortification: if we have no other benefit by the multitude of books that are written, we have this benefit,an opportunity to observe the various workings of the same spirit about the same truths; and, indeed, the speculation is neither idle nor unfruitful.
For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them, to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve, as in a vial, the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragons teeth; and, being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet, on the other hand, unless wariness be used, as good almost kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature,Gods image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself,kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the earth; but a good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.
In Athens, where books and wits were ever busier than in any other part of Greece, I find but only two sorts of writing which the magistrate cared to take notice of; those either blasphemous and atheistical, or libellous.
I deny not but that it is of greatest concernment in the church and commonwealth to have a vigilant eye how books demean themselves as well as men; and thereafter to confine, imprison, and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors.
Books have brought some men to knowledge, and some to madness. As fulness sometimes hurteth the stomach more than hunger, so fareth it with wits; and, as of meats, so, likewise, of books, the use ought to be limited according to the quality of him that useth them.
I have Friends whose society is extremely agreeable to me: they are of all ages, and of every country. They have distinguished themselves both in the cabinet and in the field, and obtained high honours for their knowledge of the sciences. It is easy to gain access to them; for they are always at my service, and I admit them to my company, and dismiss them from it, whenever I please. They are never troublesome, but immediately answer every question I ask them. Some relate to me the events of past ages, while others reveal to me the secrets of nature. Some teach me how to live, and others how to die. Some, by their vivacity, drive away my cares and exhilarate my spirits, while others give fortitude to my mind, and teach me the important lesson how to restrain my desires and depend wholly on myself. They open to me, in short, the various avenues of all the arts and sciences, and upon their information I safely rely in all emergencies. In return for all these services they only ask me to accommodate them with a convenient chamber in some corner of my humble habitation, where they may repose in peace: for these friends are more delighted by the tranquillity of retirement than with the tumults of society.
Employ your time in improving yourselves by other mens documents; so shall you come easily by what others have laboured hard for. Prefer knowledge to wealth; for the one is transitory, the other perpetual.
It would please you to see such a display of literary wealth which is at once the pride of my eye, and the joy of my heart, and the food of my mind; indeed, more than metaphorically meat, drink, and clothing, to me and mine. I believe that no one in my station was ever so rich before, and I am sure that no one in my station had ever a more thorough enjoyment of riches of any kind, or in any way. It is more delightful for me to live with books than with men, even with all the relish which I have for such society as is worth having.
It is the editors interest to insert what the authors judgment had rejected; and care is taken to intersperse these additions, so that scarce any book can be bought without purchasing something unworthy of the author.
Charles Lamb, tired of lending his books, threatened to chain Wordsworths poems to his shelves, adding, For of those who borrow, some read slow; some mean to read, but dont read; and some neither read nor mean to read, but borrow, to leave you an opinion of their sagacity. I must do my money-borrowing friends the justice to say that there is nothing of this caprice or wantonness of alienation in them. When they borrow my money they never fail to make use of it.
Here is the best solitary company in the world, and in this particular chiefly excelling any other, that in my study I am sure to converse with none but wise men; but abroad it is impossible for me to avoid the society of fools. What an advantage have I, by this good fellowship, that, besides the help which I receive from hence in reference to my life after this life, I can enjoy the life of so many ages before I lived! That I can be acquainted with the passages of three or four thousand years ago, as if they were the weekly occurrences. Here, without travelling so far as Endor, I can call up the ablest spirits of those times, the learnedest philosophers, the greatest generals, and make them serviceable to me. I can make bold with the best jewels they have in their treasury with the same freedom that the Israelites borrowed of the Egyptians, and, without suspicion of felony, make use of them as mine own.
Sir William Waller: Meditations upon the Contentment I have in my Books and Study.
There is so much virtue in eight volumes of Spectators, such a reverence of things sacred, so many valuable remarks for our conduct in life, that they are not improper to lie in parlours or summer-houses, to entertain our thoughts in any moments of leisure.