James Bryce Bryce.

University and historical addresses, delivered during a residence in the United States as ambassador of Great Britain online

. (page 21 of 24)
Online LibraryJames Bryce BryceUniversity and historical addresses, delivered during a residence in the United States as ambassador of Great Britain → online text (page 21 of 24)
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two stories by an estimable Scottish authoress now
long forgotten named Miss Brunton. These tales
were entitled " Discipline " and " Self-Control," and a
perusal of them was well fitted to discourage the
young reader from indulging any further his taste for
imaginative literature. Permitted fiction being scanty,
I did attack " Self-Control," and just got through it,
but " Discipline " was too much for me. Fiction is


far more read now; being abundant and cheaper,
since it comes in the form of magazines as well as
in books. But we have no Dickens, no Thackeray, no
Hawthorne, no George Eliot.

, Need anything more be said about fiction than that
we should deal with it just as we should with other
kinds of literature ? Read the best ; that is to say,
read that from which you can carry away something
that enlarges the range of your knowledge and sets
your mind working. A good story, be it a historical
romance or a picture of contemporary social condi-
tions, gives something that is worth remembering. It
may be a striking type of character, or a view of life
and the influences that mould life, presented in a
dramatic form. Or perhaps the tale portrays the
aspects of society and manners in some other country,
or is made a vehicle for an analysis of the heart and
for reflections that illuminate some of the dark corners
of human nature. Whichever of them it be that a
powerful piece of fiction gives, the result is something
more than mere transient amusement. Knowledge is
increased. Thought is set in motion. New images
rise before us. It is an enrichment of the mind to
have erected within it a gallery of characters, the
creation of imaginative minds, characters who be-
come as real to us as th'e famous characters of history,
to some of us possibly more real. In them we see the
universal traits of human nature and learn to know our-
selves and those around us better, we comprehend the


common temptations and aspirations, the mixture of
motives, the way in which Fortune plays with men.
We share the possession of this gallery with other
educated men. It is a part of the common stock of
the world's wealth.

The danger of becoming so fond of fiction as to care
for no other sort of reading, a malady from which some
men and more women are said to suffer, will threaten
nobody who has formed the habit of reading the kind
of fiction I am trying to describe, because he will enjoy
no other kind. A boy or girl can usually read any
sort of tale be it better or worse written. The story
is enough for him. As he grows older and has read
more and more of the best writers, his taste becomes
more cultivated and exacting. While faults repel him
more, merits attract him more, because he has become
more capable of appreciation. At last a poor quality
of fiction which is merely commonplace, handling
threadbare themes in a hackneyed way, the sort of
fiction into which no inventive or reflective thought
has gone, comes to bore him. He can no longer read
it, because it is too dull or too vapid.

Prose fiction, in its higher forms, cultivates the
imagination almost as well as history does, but poetry
does this better than either. The pleasures of the
imagination are among the highest we can enjoy.
Unless, therefore, any one of you is so unlucky as to
find no delight in poetry, it will always form a part of
your reading. Not much of the highest order has


been appearing in these later days in any country,
but there is such an abundance from former days
that" you will never want for plenty to read and no
modern language possesses so much poetry of first-
rate merit as does our own.

It seems a pity that the old practice of learning a
good deal of poetry by heart should be now falling into
disuse, for it stored the mind hi the early years of life
with fine thoughts in fine words and helped to form a
taste for style, seeing that style can rise to greater
heights of perfection in poetry than hi any kind of
prose. As to what to read in poetry, there is no need
hi our day to warn any one against reading too much,
and there is little to say about choice, for you will
naturally be drawn first to the great and famous
classics in our own and other tongues, and they will so
form your taste that you will know how to choose
among other verse writers. In particular do not omit
those few great writers who have attained to a distinc-
tive way of looking at the world as a whole (what the
Germans call a Weltanschaung), those in whose minds
and works human nature in all its varieties, human
life in all its aspects, is mirrored. The author, or authors,
of the Homeric poems is the earliest example: Goethe
is one of the latest, and not all are poets, for Cervantes
is among them.

A man who does not care for those whom the judg-
ment of the world has approved, may conclude that
the fault is with himself. But it is not always the


greatest writers that give the most pleasure. Most of
us have some two or three poets not classed in the
first rank, perhaps writers whose fame has always been
limited, to whom we frequently return because they
express thoughts in a way which makes a special appeal
to our own minds. Look out for these also, and
cherish them when you have found them.

Though divers wise and learned men have drawn
up lists of what they describe as the Best Hundred
Books, it may be doubted whether such lists have
any use beyond that of indicating the preferences
of their eminent compilers and the use also of re-
calling to the notice of the modern public some
remarkable works which it had nearly forgotten. The
truth is that the excellence of a book is not absolute,
i.e. the same for all readers alike, but rather is
relative to the knowledge and capacities and environ-
ment of the particular reader. Many a book of first-
rate value to a person prepared by education and spe-
cial talents to appreciate it is useless to others not
so prepared. A more really interesting enquiry is,
What are the books that have made most difference to
the progress of the world? Such books are a part, and a
significant part, of world-history, yet some of them
would interest comparatively few readers to-day.

The question of how much time should be devoted
to the classics of other countries than our own is too
large a one for me to enter on. Enough to say that
whoever knows Latin or Greek or Italian or French or


German or Spanish or Icelandic, will not need to be
told that he ought to be just as anxious to know the
masterpieces in those languages as those in his own.
The ancient classics in particular give something which
no modern literature supplies.

From considering What to read, let us go on to con-
sider How to read. Here my advice to you would be,
Read with a purpose. Bend your mind upon the book.
Read it so as to get out of it the best it has to give you.
You may accept this advice as applicable to what is
read for information, but may think it superfluous if
the book is a story or other work read for amusement,
because presumably no one will persevere with such a
book unless it interests him. Yet even where the aim
is amusement and the book a work of fiction one man
may, if he read it in the right way, extract more
benefit as well as more pleasure than another would
do. If the story is worth reading, it is so because it
not only appeals to our curiosity, but also because it
pleasurably stirs our thought.

With other kinds of literature, with science or
philosophy or history or economics, the worth of
the book is to be measured by what you can
carry away from it, and that depends mainly on
the spirit in which you read. The book, as already
observed, must have quality enough to stimulate
thought, to give you what is called a mental reaction.
But however good the quality, the reaction will not
follow unless you address your mind to the subject.


The purpose must be either to get something whether
facts or ideas which you can add to your store of
knowledge or else to receive a stimulus which will
quicken your own powers of thinking and feeling.
These two benefits usually go together. It is not the
quantity of reading that counts, but the quantity and
the intensity of thought that are evoked. Nothing is
gained by skimming over hundreds or thousands of
pages of print unless something remains from the
process. So if after having honestly applied your
intellect to a book you do not find anything you care
to carry away, drop it. Either it is not worth further
effort, or it maybe outside the range of your appreciation.

You will not, however, fancy that all the books you
may have to consult deserve careful study. If
thoroughness is a virtue to be cultivated, still more is
time a thing to be saved. The old maxim, " Whatever
is worth doing is worth doing well," is less true than it
seems, and has led many people into a lamentable
waste of time. Many things are worth doing if you
can do them passably well with a little time and
effort, which are not worth doing thoroughly if so to
do them requires much time and effort.

Time is the measure of everything in life, and
every kind of work ought to be adjusted to it. One of
the commonest mistakes we all make is spending our-
selves on things whose value is below the value of the
time they require. Many a book may be worth read-
ing rapidly so as to extract from it the few important


facts it contains, and yet be by no means worth a
prolonged study. Economize time in reading as in
everything else. The adage that Time is Money falls
far short of the truth. Time is worth more than
money because by its judicious employment more
enjoyment can be secured than money can purchase.

One of the less fortunate results of the large amount
of matter which the printing-press turns out in our time
is the tendency it has bred to read everything hastily
and unthinkingly. The man who glances through
several newspapers in the morning and two or three
magazines in the evening forms the habit of inattention,
or, more correctly, half attention. He reads with no in-
tention of remembering anything except what directly
and urgently bears upon his own business, and when
hi the scanty leisure which business and the practice
of reading newspapers and magazines leave him, he
takes up a book, this habit of half attention prevents
him from applying his mind to what he reads.
Instead of stimulating thought, constant reading of
this kind deadens it, and the quantity of reading and
the quantity of thinking are apt to be in inverse ratio
to one another. To say, "Don't read without think-
ing," might be deemed to be that useless thing, a
Counsel of Perfection ; but I may say, "Beware of the
Reading Habit." It is one of the curses of our age.
What is wanted to-day is less printing and less reading,
but more thinking. Reading is easy, and thinking is
hard work, but the one is useless without the other.


You may ask what is the best way of trying so to
read books as to be able to retain the best they give
us. If the book be one you wish to know with abso-
lute thoroughness, as students at Oxford University
were in my time expected to know Aristotle's Ethics
and the history of Thucydides for our degree examina-
tion, you will find it a good plan to read over every day
all that you read the day before. At first this is irksome,
but it fixes things in your mind and is a saving in the
long run. Everybody has his own devices for record-
ing what he deems best in what he reads, but I can rec-
ommend that of making very short notes, or references,
on the fly leaf (or leaves) at the end and beginning of a
volume of the most important facts or views it contains,
noting the page on which each occurs, so that one can
refer promptly to the things which struck one at the
time. Where a work is either of exceptional merit for
its fertility in suggestion, or is specially rich in out-of-
the-way facts, it may be worth while to bind in
additional fly leaves. Should the book be not one's
own but borrowed from a friend or a library, one
must of course make the notes or references in a Ms.
note-book, and in that case, since the treatise will not
be at hand to refer to, it becomes necessary to make
a somewhat fuller abstract of the facts it is desired to
remember. The advantage of either method is that
the process of compressing the fact or view into the
fewest possible words helps to fix it in the memory. I
remember cases in which eight or ten entries represented


the total results of reading a book of four hundred
octavo pages, yet those entries might serve to make
some dark things clear.

The late Lord Acton, the most learned man I ever
knew, was in the habit of copying out on slips
of paper passages or sentences which he thought
valuable from all the volumes he perused. He had
hundreds of cardboard boxes filled with these slips, the
boxes being labelled with the titles of their subjects;
and he seemed to know how to lay his hand upon any
extract he wanted. Few, however, could hope to bring
leisure and industry like his to the accumulation of
such a mass of knowledge ; and he spent so much time
in the process of gathering the opinions of others that
he had little left for using them or for giving the world
the fruit of his own thoughts, often far better worth
having than that which he had plucked from other

There are those who keep note-books in which they
enter the most remarkable facts or aphorisms or
statements of doctrine and opinion which they en-
counter in the course of their reading. For persons
fortunate enough to have formed methodical habits
this may be a good plan.

Ought reading to be systematic ? Should a man lay
down a scheme and confine himself to one or more sub-
jects in which he can become proficient rather than
spread himself out in superficial sciolism over a large
number ?


For many of us Life answers this question by requir-
ing attention to be devoted primarily to books which
bear upon our occupation or are connected with it.
For others again pronounced tastes point out certain
lines of reading as those in which they will find most
pleasure. Yet there is also a third class whom neither
their avocations nor any marked personal prefer-
ences guide in any particular direction. My advice to
these would be : If you have not got a definite taste, try
to acquire one. Find some pursuit or line of study which
you can relish, and give to it most of your spare time.
It will be a constant spring of pleasure, an occupation
in solitude, a distraction from worries, even a consola-
tion in misfortune, to have something unconnected
with one's daily work to which one can turn for change
and refreshment of spirit. Some branch of natural
history, or some one of the physical sciences, is perhaps
the best for this purpose, but any branch of history
or archaeology or art (including, as one of the very
best, music) will serve. When one has such a pursuit
or taste, it naturally becomes the central line which a
man's reading follows. In advising a concentration of
study upon some few topics, I do not suggest that you
should cease to interest yourselves in the general
movements of the world. Everyone ought to try to
keep abreast of his time, so far at least as not to be
ignorant of the great advances that are being made.
Of most of these you will not be able to know
much, but the more you can know, the better, so long


as you do not scatter and dissipate your efforts in such
wise as to become a mere smatterer.

There is a maxim which, like that other venerable
dictum already referred to, sounds good but has often
done harm. (A book might be written with the title
Moral Maxims and the Mischief they Do.} You all
remember the lines:

A little learning is a dangerous thing ;
Drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring.

With all respect to the poet, this is by no means
true. A little learning is not dangerous so long as you
know that it is little. Danger begins with thinking you
know much more than you do. It is not knowledge,
be it great or small, but the conceit of knowledge, that
misleads men : and the best remedy against this is not
ignorance, but the knowing some one thing really well.
Thoroughness in one subject enables a man to recog-
nize his scantiness of attainment in other subjects, not
to add that to have learnt any one thing well helps
him in dealing with whatever else he touches, since
he learns to discern more quickly what is essential,
and to make sure that his knowledge, even if it
remains elementary, is not merely superficial.

Do not be surprised if after advising you to read
thoroughly I also advise you to learn to read swiftly.
There is no inconsistency, for thoroughness depends
not so much on the time spent on a piece of work as
upon the intensity wherewith the mind is concentrated



upon it. One man will read a book in half as many
hours as another, and yet know more of what is in
the book ; and this because of his superior power of
turning upon it the full stream of his mental energy.
Only exceptional minds possess this gift in high
measure, as did Macaulay, who read a book so swiftly
that he seemed to turn the pages almost without
pausing, taking in at one glance all that was in them,
and yet carrying away all that was worth remem-
bering. But you can cultivate the gift by practice,
and it deserves cultivating, for it means better results
with less time spent.

The counsel of swift reading is, of course, appli-
cable only to books which are read chiefly for their
facts or their views, not to those whose merit lies
largely in their style. It would be folly to gallop
through Virgil or Keats or Charles Lamb or Heinrich
Heine or Chateaubriand. Not in poetry only must
one move deliberately, but also in reading fine 'and
finished prose, where every word has its fitting place
in the sentence, and its due effect in calling up subtle
associations and in touching, however delicately, the
spring of emotion.

Finally, let me suggest that you read with inde-
pendence. There are various spirits in which a
book may be approached. One must not be captious,
hunting out mistakes or blemishes. But neither must
one submissively assume that the author is always
right. No author, however great, is exempt from


error. True it is that modesty is always in order,
and deference due to writers of established credit.
We must take them as likely to be wiser than we are.
Nevertheless, if you wish to profit by your reading,
do not forget to scrutinize each argument as it is pre-
sented, each inference drawn, each maxim delivered,
to see if it be justified by the facts. Sound criticism
seeks rather to discover and appreciate merits than to
note faults ; but however ready we may be to admire,
we must test our author as we go along, and make
sure that the view we accept from him is formed not
because he has given it but because he has con-
vinced us that it is correct. As your forefathers said
that perpetual vigilance is the price of freedom, so
you may say that it is also the price of learning. In
a free country every citizen is responsible for the
formation of his opinions, and must take them neither
from newspapers nor from platform speeches. So in
the domain of knowledge a man will lose half the
benefit of his study if he reads in a passively receptive
way, neglecting to apply his own judgment. Often
he will not be able to test his author. Often when he
differs from his author the author will be right, and he
wrong in venturing to differ. Nevertheless, such error
is better than an indolent acquiescence which brings
to bear no independent thought.

To say this is to repeat in different words the remark
that the reading which counts is the reading which,
in making a man think, stirs and exercises and polishes


the edge of his mind. The end of study is not to pos-
sess knowledge as a man possesses the coins in his
purse, but to make knowledge a part of ourselves, that
is, to turn knowledge into thought, as the food we eat
is turned into the life-giving and nerve-nourishing
blood. It is to have a mind so stored and equipped
that it shall be to each man, as to the imprisoned sage,
his kingdom, of which no one can deprive him. When
you have begun by forming the habit of thinking as
you read, and exercising your own judgment freely,
though modestly, you will find your footing grow
firmer and surer as you advance, and will before long
know for yourselves what to read and how to read.
Life has few greater pleasures.





HAVING come here for the first time forty-two years
ago, I have known the United States long enough to
feel just as much interested in all those questions that
relate to your welfare, in city and in country, as if I
were one of your own citizens, and I hope you will allow
me to speak to you with that freedom which you would
allow to one of your citizens. In discussing a subject
so far removed from politics or any other controversial
field as is that which occupies you this evening, I need
not feel those limitations which an official position
would otherwise impose.

There is one thing better even than that City
Beautiful to which previous speakers have referred,
and that is the Country Beautiful. Before there
were cities there was a Country. It holds for us
greater and more varied beauties than a city can, and
it contains more that appeals to our imagination, and
is associated with the sweet recollections of childhood.



Let me say something about the need for preserving
rural beauty.

I have had in England some experience in dealing
with the questions you are discussing, having been
for some years chairman of a society for preserving
commons and open spaces and public rights of way,
and having also served on the committee of another
society for securing to the public places of national
and historic interest. Thus I was led often to think
of what is our duty to the future, and of the benefits
which the preservation of places of natural beauty
may confer on the community. That is a problem
which presents itself, not only in Great Britain, but
all over Europe, and now you in America are tend-
ing to become what Europe already is. Europe is
now a populous, almost overcrowded, continent. You
will some day be a populous and ultimately, perhaps,
except in those regions which the want of rain con-
demns to sterility, a crowded continent, and it is
well to take thought at once, before the days of over-
crowding confront you, how you will deal with the
difficulties which have met us in Europe, so that you
may learn as much as possible from our experience,
and not find too late that the beauty and primitive
simplicity of nature have been snatched from you by
private individuals.

I need not descant upon that which the love of nature
is, or at least ought to be, to each and all of us. Of
all those pleasures, the power to enjoy which has been


implanted in us, the love of nature is the very
simplest and best. It is the most easily accessible, it
is one which can never be perverted, it is one of which
(as the old darky said about the watermelon) you can-
not have too much. It lasts from youth to age. We
cannot enjoy it in the form of strenuous physical
exercise with the same fulness in old age, because our
powers of walking, swimming, and climbing are not the
same, but we have an ampler and richer enjoyment in
some other ways, because, we have the memories and
associations of the past and especially of those in whose
company we have in bygone days visited beautiful
scenes. And there are also the literary associations

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Online LibraryJames Bryce BryceUniversity and historical addresses, delivered during a residence in the United States as ambassador of Great Britain → online text (page 21 of 24)