Do I desire to hear eloquent speeches? Through my books I can enter the Parliament and listen to the thrilling oratory of Disraeli, of Gladstone, of Bright, of O’Connor; they will admit me to the floor of the Senate, where I can hear the matchless oratory of a Webster, of a Clay, of a Calhoun, of a Sumner, of Everett, of Wilson. They will pass me into the Roman Forum, where I can hear Cicero, or to the rostrums of Greece, where I may listen spell-bound to the magic oratory of a Demosthenes.
“No matter how poor I am,” says Channing; “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 Shakespeare 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 the 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.”
“With the dead there is no rivalry,” says Macaulay. “In the dead there is no change. Plato is never sullen; Cervantes is never petulant; Demosthenes never comes unseasonably; Dante never stays too long; no difference of political opinion can alienate Cicero; no heresy can excite the horror of Bossuet.”
“Heed not the idle assertion that literary pursuits will disqualify you for the active business of life,” says Alexander H. Everett. “Reject it as a mere imagination, inconsistent with principle, unsupported by experience.”
The habit of reading may become morbid. There is a novel-reading disease. There are people who are almost as much tied to their novels as an intemperate man is tied to his bottle. The more of these novels they read, the weaker their minds become. They remember nothing; they read for the stimulus; their reasoning powers become weaker and weaker, their memory more treacherous. The mind is ruined for healthy intellectual food. They have no taste for history or biography, or anything but cheap, trashy, sensational novels.
The passive reception of other men’s thoughts is not education. Beware of intellectual dram drinking and intellectual dissipation. It is emasculating. Beware of the book which does not make you determined to go and do something and be something in the world.
The great difference between the American graduate and the graduates from the English universities is that the latter have not read many books superficially, but a few books well. The American graduate has a smattering of many books, but has not become master of any. The same is largely true of readers in general; they want to know a little of everything. They want to read all the latest publications, good, bad and indifferent, if it is only new. As a rule our people want light reading, “something to read” that will take up the attention, kill time on the railroad or at home. As a rule English people read more substantial books, older books, books which have established their right to exist. They are not so eager for “recent publications.”
Joseph Cook advises youth to always make notes of their reading. Mr. Cook uses the margins of his books for his notes, and marks all of his own books very freely, so that every volume in his library becomes a notebook. He advises all young men and young women to keep commonplace books. We cannot too heartily recommend this habit of taking notes. It is a great aid to memory, and it helps wonderfully to locate or to find for future use what we have read. It helps to assimilate and make our own whatever we read. The habit of taking notes of lectures and sermons is an excellent one. One of the greatest aids to education is the habit of writing out an analysis or a skeleton of a book or article after we have read it; also of a sermon or a lecture. This habit has made many a strong, vigorous thinker and writer. In this connection we cannot too strongly recommend the habit of saving clippings from our readings wherever possible of everything which would be likely to assist us in the future. These scrap-books, indexed, often become of untold advantage, especially if in the line of our work. Much of what we call genius in great men comes from these note-books and scrap-books.
How many poor boys and girls who thought they had “no chance” in life have been started upon noble careers by the grand books of Smiles, Todd, Mathews, Munger, Whipple, Geikie, Thayer, and others.
You should bring your mind to the reading of a book, or to the study of any subject, as you take an axe to the grindstone; not for what you get from the stone, but for the sharpening of the axe. While it is true that the facts learned from books are worth more than the dust from the stone, even in much greater ratio is the mind more valuable than the axe. Bacon says: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man; and, therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit; and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know that he doth not. Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtle; natural philosophy deep; morals grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend.”