Thomas B. (Thomas Brackett) Reed.

Modern eloquence; (Volume 5) online

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cheek of lord, lady, or courtier; and uses "imperious
Caesar " to teach boys the Latin declensions.

But this noble equality of all writers of all writers and
of all readers has a perilous side to it. It is apt to make
us indiscriminate in the books we read, and somewhat
contemptuous of the mighty men of the past. Men who
are most observant as to the friends they make, or the
conversation they share, are carelessness itself as to the
books to whom they intrust themselves, and the printed
language with which they saturate their minds. Yet can
any friendship or society be more important to us than
that of the books which form so large a part of our minds
and even of our characters ? Do we in real life take any
pleasant fellow to our homes and chat with some agree-
able rascal by our firesides, we who will take up any pleas-
ant fellow's printed memoirs, we who delight in the agree-
able rascal when he is cut up into pages and bound in
calf? If any person given to reading were honestly to
keep a register of all the printed stuff that he or she con-
sumes in a year all the idle tales of which the very
names and the story are forgotten in a week, the book-
maker's prattle about nothing at so much a sheet, the
fugitive trifling about silly things and empty people, the
memoirs of the unmemorable, and lives of those who
never really lived at all of what a mountain of rubbish
would it be the catalogue ! Exercises for the eye and the
memory, as mechanical as if we set ourselves to learn the
names, ages, and family histories of every one who lives
in our own street, the flirtations of their maiden aunts, and
the circumstances surrounding the birth of their grand-
mother's first baby.

It is impossible to give any method to our reading till
we get nerve enough to reject. The most exclusive and
careful amongst us will (in literature) take boon compan-
ions out of the street, as easily as an idler in a tavern. " I
came across such and such a book that I never heard men-
tioned," says one, " and found it curious, though entirely
worthless." " I strayed on a volume by I know not



whom, on a subject for which I never cared." And so on.
There are curious and worthless creatures enough in any
pot-house all day long; and there is incessant talk in
omnibus, train, or street by we know not whom, aboufwe
care not what. Yet if a printer and a bookseller can be
induced to make this gabble as immortal as print and pub-
lication can make it, then it straightway is literature, and
in due time it becomes " curious."

I have no intention to moralize or to indulge in a
homily against the reading of what is deliberately evil.
There is not so much need for this now, and I am not dis-
coursing on the whole duty of man. I take that part of
our reading which by itself is no doubt harmless, enter-
taining, and even gently instructive. But of this enor-
mous mass of literature how much deserves to be chosen
out, to be preferred to all the great books of the world, to
be set apart for those precious hours which are all that
the most of us can give to solid reading? The vast pro-
portion of books are books that we shall never
be able to read. A serious percentage of books
are not worth reading at all. The really vital
books for us we also know to be a very trifling
portion of the whole. And yet we act as if every
book were as good as any other, as if it were merely a
question of order which we take up first, as if any book
were good enough for us, and as if all were alike hon-
orable, precious, and satisfying. Alas! books cannot be
more than the men who write them ; and as a fair propor-
tion of the human race now write books, with motives
and objects as various as human activity, books, as books,
are entitled a priori, until their value is proved, to the
same attention and respect as houses, steam-engines, pic-
tures, fiddles, bonnets, and other products of human

In the shelves of those libraries which are our pride,
libraries public or private, circulating or very stationary,
are to be found those great books of the world rari nantes
in gurgite vasto, those books which are truly " the precious
life-blood of a master-spirit." But the very familiarity
which their mighty fame has bred in us makes us indif-
ferent ; we grow weary of what every one is supposed to
have read; and we take down something which looks a


little eccentric, some worthless book, on the mere
ground that we never heard of it before. Thus the diffi-
culties of literature are in their way as great as those of
the world, the obstacles to finding the right friends are
as great, the peril is as great of being lost in a Babel of
voices and an ever-changing mass of beings.

Books are not wiser than men, the true books are not
easier to find than the true men, the bad books or the
vulgar books are not less obtrusive and not less ubiquitous
than the bad or vulgar men are everywhere; the art of
right reading is as long and difficult to learn as the art of
right living. Those who are on good terms with the first
author they meet, run as much risk as men who surrender
their time to the first passer in the street ; for to be open
to every book is for the most part to gain as little as pos-
sible from any. A man aimlessly wandering about in a
crowded city is of all men the most lonely; so he who
takes up only the books that he " comes across " is pretty
certain to meet but few that are worth knowing.

Now this danger is one to which we are specially ex-
posed in this age. Our high-pressure life of emergencies,
our whirling industrial organization or disorganization
have brought us in this (as in most things) their peculiar
difficulties and drawbacks. In almost everything vast
opportunities and gigantic means of multiplying our prod-
ucts bring with them new perils and troubles which are
often at first neglected. Our huge cities, where wealth
is piled up and the requirements and appliances of life ex-
tended beyond the dreams of our forefathers, seem to
breed in themselves new forms of squalor, disease, blights,
or risks to life such as we are yet unable to master. So
the enormous multiplicity of modern books is not alto-
gether favorable to the knowing of the best. I listen with
mixed satisfaction to the paeans that they chant over the
works which issue from the press each day; how the
books poured forth from Paternoster Row might in a few
years be built into a pyramid that would fill the dome of
St. Paul's. How in this mountain of literature am I to
find the really useful book ? How, when I have found it,
and found its value, am I to get others to read it? How
am I to keep my head clear in the torrent and din of
works, all of which distract my attention, most of which


promise me something, whilst so few fulfil that promise?
The Nile is the source of the Egyptian's bread, and with-
out it he perishes of hunger. But the Nile may be rather
too liberal in his flood, and then the Egyptian runs immi-
nent risk of drowning.

And thus there never was a time, at least during the
last two hundred years, when the difficulties in the way of
making an efficient use of books were greater than they
are to-day, when the obstacles were more real between
readers and the right books to read, when it was practi-
cally so troublesome to find out that which it is of vital im-
portance to know ; and that not by the dearth, but by the
plethora of printed matter. For it comes to nearly the
same thing whether we are actually debarred by physical
imposibility from getting the right book into our hand,
or whether we are choked off from the right book by the
obtrusive crowd of the wrong books ; so that it needs a
strong character and a resolute system of reading to keep
the head cool in the storm of literature around us. We
read nowadays in the market-place I would rather say
in some large steam factory of letter-press, where damp
sheets of new print whirl round us perpetually if it be
not rather some noisy book-fair where literary showmen
tempt us with performing dolls, and the gongs of rival
booths are stunning our ears from morn till night.

Contrast with this pandemonium of Leipsic and Pater-
noster Row the sublime picture of our Milton in his early
retirement at Horton, when, musing over his coming
flight to the epic heaven, practising his pinions, as he tells
Diodati, he consumed five years of solitude in reading the
ancient writers

" Et totum rapiunt me, mea vita, libri."

Who now reads the ancient writers? Who systemati-
cally reads the great writers, be they ancient or modern,
whom the consent of ages has marked out as classics:
typical, immortal, peculiar teachers of our race? Alas!
the " Paradise Lost " is lost again to us beneath an inun-
dation of graceful academic verse, sugary stanzas of lady-
like prettiness, and ceaseless explanations in more or less
readable prose of what John Milton meant or did not


mean, or what he saw or did not see, who married his
great-aunt, and why Adam or Satan is like that, or unlike
the other. We read a perfect library about the " Paradise
Lost," but the " Paradise Lost " itself we do not read.

I am not presumptuous enough to assert that the larger
part of modern literature is not worth reading in itself,
that the prose is not readable, entertaining, one may say
highly instructive. Nor do I pretend that the verses
which we read so zealously in place of Milton's are not
good verses. On the contrary, I think them sweetly con-
ceived, as musical and as graceful as the verse of any age
in our history. A great deal of our modern literature is
such that it is exceedingly difficult to resist it, and it is
undeniable that it gives us real information. It seems
perhaps unreasonable to many to assert that a decent
readable book which gives us actual instruction can be
otherwise than a useful companion and a solid gain. Pos-
sibly many people are ready to cry out upon me as an
obscurantist for venturing to doubt a genial confidence in
all literature simply as such. But the question which
weighs upon me with such really crushing urgency is this :
What are the books that in our little remnant of reading
time it is most vital for us to know? For the true use of
books is of such sacred value to us that to be simply en-
tertained is to cease to be taught, elevated, inspired by
books; merely to gather information of a chance kind
is to close the mind to knowledge of the urgent kind.

Every book that we take up without a purpose is an
opportunity lost of taking up a book with a purpose
every bit of stray information which we cram into our
heads without any sense of its importance, is for the most
part a bit of the most useful information driven out of our;
heads and choked off from our minds.

It is so certain that information, i. e., the knowledge,
the stored thoughts and observations of mankind, is now
grown to proportions so utterly incalculable and prodig-
ious, that even the learned whose lives are given to study
can but pick up some crumbs that fall from the table of
truth. They delve and tend but a plot in that vast and
teeming kingdom, whilst those whom active life leaves
with but a few cramped hours of study can hardly come
to know the very vastness of the field before them, or how;



infinitesimally small is the corner they can traverse at the
best. We know all is not of equal value. We know that
books differ in value as much as diamonds differ from the
sand on the seashore, as much as our living friend differs
from a dead rat. We know that much in the myriad-peo-
pled world of books very much in all kinds is trivial,
enervating, inane, even noxious. And thus, where we
have infinite opportunities of wasting our efforts to no
end, of fatiguing our minds without enriching them, of
clogging the spirit without satisfying it, there, I cannot
but think, the very infinity of opportunities is robbing us
of the actual power of using them. And thus I come
often, in my less hopeful moods, to watch the remorseless
cataract of daily literature which thunders over the rem-
nants of the past, as if it were a fresh impediment to the
men of our day in the way of systematic knowledge and
consistent powers of thought, as if it were destined one
day to overwhelm the great inheritance of mankind in
prose and verse.

I remember, when I was a very young man at college,
that a youth, in no spirit of paradox, but out of plenary
conviction, undertook to maintain before a body of seri-
ous students, the astounding proposition that the inven-
tion of printing had been one of the greatest misfortunes
that had ever befallen mankind. He argued that exclu-
sive reliance on printed matter had destroyed the higher
method of oral teaching, the dissemination of thought by
the spoken word to the attentive ear. He insisted that
the formation of a vast literary class looking to the mak-
ing of books as a means of making money rather than as
a social duty, had multiplied books for the sake of the
writers rather than for the sake of the readers; that the
reliance on books as a cheap and common resource had
done much to weaken the powers of memory; that it de-
stroyed the craving for a general culture of taste, and the
need of artistic expression in all the surroundings of life.
And he argued lastly that the sudden multiplication of all
kinds of printed matter had been fatal to the orderly ar-
rangement of thought, and had hindered a system of
knowledge and a scheme of education.

I am far from sharing this immature view. Of course
I hold the invention of printing to have been one of the



most momentous facts in the whole history of man.
Without it universal social progress, true democratic en-
lightenment, and the education of the people would have
been impossible, or very slow, even if the cultured few, as
is likely, could have advanced the knowledge of mankind
without it. We place Gutemberg amonst the small list
of the unique and special benefactors of mankind, in the
sacred choir of those whose work transformed the condi-
tions of life, whose work, once done, could never be re-
peated. And no doubt the things which our ardent friend
regarded as so fatal a disturbance of society were all in-
evitable and necessary, part of the great revolution of
mind through which men grew out of the mediaeval in-
completeness to a richer conception of life and of the

Yet there is a sense in which this boyish anathema
against printing may become true to us by our own fault.
We may create for ourselves these very evils. For the
art of printing has not been a gift wholly unmixed with
evils ; it must be used wisely if it is to be a boon to man
at all; it entails on us heavy responsibilities, resolution to
use it with judgment and self-control, and the will to resist
its temptations and its perils. Indeed, we may easily
so act that we may make it a clog on the progress of the
human mind, a real curse and not a boon. The power of
flying at will through space would probably extingiush
civilization and society, for it would release us from the
wholesome bondage of place and rest. The power of
hearing every word that had ever been uttered on this
planet would annihilate thought, as the power of knowing
all recorded facts by the process of turning a handle would
annihilate true science. Our human faculties and our
mental forces are not enlarged simply by multiplying our
materials of knowledge and our facilities for communica-
tion. Telephones, microphones, pantoscopes, steam-
presses, and ubiquity-engines in general may, after all,
leave the poor human brain panting and throbbing under
the strain of its appliances, no bigger and no stronger
than the brains of the men who heard Moses speak, and
saw Aristotle and Archimedes pondering over a few worn
rolls of crabbed manuscript. Until some new Gutemberg
or Watt can invent a machine for magnifying the human



mind, every fresh apparatus for multiplying its work is a
fresh strain on the mind, a new realm for it to order and
to rule.

And so, I say it most confidently, the first intellectual
task of our age is rightly to order and make serviceable
the vast realm of printed material which four centuries
have swept across our path. To organize our knowledge,
to systematize our reading, to save, out of the relentless
cataract of ink, the immortal thoughts of the greatest
this is a necessity, unless the productive ingenuity of man
is to lead us at last to a measureless and pathless chaos.
To know anything that turns up is, in the infinity of
knowledge, to know nothing. To read the first book we
come across, in the wilderness of books, is to learn noth-
ing. To turn over the pages of ten thousand volumes is
to be practically indifferent to all that is good.

But this warns me that I am entering on a subject
which is far too big and solemn. It is plain that to organ-
ize our knowledge, even to systematize our reading, to
make a working selection of books for general study,
really implies a complete scheme of education. A scheme
of education ultimately implies a system of philosophy, a
view of man's duty and powers as a moral and social be-
ing a religion. Before a problem so great as this, on
which readers have such different ideas and wants, and
differ so profoundly on the very premises from which we
start, before such a problem as a general theory of educa-
tion, I prefer to pause. I will keep silence even from
good words. I have chosen my own part, and adopted
my own teacher. But to ask men to adopt the education
of Auguste Comte, is, almost to ask them to aUopt Posi-
tivism itself. Nor will I enlarge on the matter for
thought, for foreboding, almost for 'despair, that is pre-
sented to us by the fact of our familiar literary ways and
our recognized literary profession. That things infinitely
trifling in themselves : men, events, societies, phenomena,
in no way otherwise more valuable than the myriad other
things which flit around us like the sparrows on the house-
top, should be glorified, magnified, and perpetuated, set
under a literary microscope and focussed in the blaze of
a literary magic-lantern not for what they are in them-
selves, but solely to amuse and excite the world by show-



ing how it can be done all this is to me so amazing, so
heart-breaking, that I forbear now to treat it, as I cannot
say all that I would.

The choice of books is really the choice of our educa-
tion, of a moral and intellectual ideal, of the whole duty
of man. But though I shrink from any so high a theme,
a few words are needed to indicate my general point of
view in the matter.

In the first place, when we speak about books, let us
avoid the extravagance of expecting too much from
books, the pedant's habit of extolling books as synony-
mous with education. Books are no more education than
laws are virtue ; and just as profligacy is easy within the
strict limits of law, a boundless knowledge of books may
be found with a narrow education. A man may be, as the
poet saith, " deep vers'd in books, and shallow in himself."
We need to know in order that we may feel rightly and
act wisely. The thirst after truth itself may be pushed
to a degree where indulgence enfeebles our sympathies
and unnerves us in action. Of all men perhaps the book-
lover needs most to be reminded that man's business here
is to know for the sake of living ; not to live for the sake
of knowing. A healthy mode of reading would follow
the lines of a sound education. And the first canon of a
sound educations is to make it the instrument to perfect
the whole nature and character. Its aims are comprehen-
sive, not special; they regard life as a whole, not mental
curiosity ; they have to give us, not so much materials, as
capacities. So that, however moderate and limited the
opportunity for education, in its way it should be always
more or less symmetrical and balanced, appealing equally
in turn to the three grand intellectual elements imagina-
tion, memory, reflection : and so having something to give
us in poetry, in history, in science, and in philosophy.

And thus our reading will be sadly one-sided, however
voluminous it be, if it entirely close to us any of the great
types and ideals which the creative instinct of man has
produced, if it shut out from us either the ancient world,
or other European poetry, as important almost as our
own. When our reading, however deep, runs wholly into
" pockets," and exhausts itself in the literature of one
age, one country, one type, then we may be sure that it is



tending to narrow or deform our minds. And the more
it leads us into curious byways and nurtures us into indif-
ference for the beaten highways of the world, the sooner
we shall end, if we be not specialists and students by pro-
fession, in ceasing to treat our books as the companions
and solace of our lifetime, and in using them as the instru-
ments of a refined sort of self-indulgence.

A wise education, and so judicious reading, should
leave no great type of thought, no dominant phase of hu-
man nature, wholly a blank. Whether our reading be
great or small, so far as it goes, it should be general. If
our lives admit of but a short space for reading, all the
more reason that, so far as may be, it should remind us
of the vast expanse of human thought, and the wonderful
variety of human nature.

To read, and yet so to read that we see nothing but a
corner of literature, the loose fringe, or flats and wastes
of letters, and by reading only deepen our natural belief
that this island is the hub of the universe, and the nine-
teenth century the only age worth notice, all this is really
to call in the aid of books to thicken and harden our un-
taught prejudices. Be it imagination, memory, or reflec-
tion that we address that is, in poetry, history, science,
or philosophy our first duty is to aim at knowing some-
thing at least of the best, at getting some definite idea of
the mighty realm whose outer rim we are permitted to

But how are we to know the best ; how are we to gain
this definite idea of the vast world of letters? There are
some who appear to suppose that the " best " are known
only to experts in an esoteric way, who may reveal to in-
quirers what schoolboys and betting-men describe as
"tips." There are no "tips" in literature; the "best"
authors are never dark horses ; we need no " crammers "
and " coaches " to thrust us into the presence of the
great writers of all time. " Crammers " will only lead
us wrong. It is a thing far easier and more
common than many imagine, to discover the besc. It
needs no research, no learning, and is only misguided by
recondite information. The world has long ago closed
the great assize of letters, and judged the first places
everywhere. In such a matter the judgment of the world,


guided and informed by a long succession of accomplished
critics, is almost unerring. When some Zoilus finds
blemishes in Homer, and prefers, it may be, the work of
some Apollonius of his own discovering, we only laugh.
There may be doubts about the third and the fourth rank ;
but the first and the second are hardly open to discussion.

The gates which lead to the Elysian fields may slowly
wheel back on their adamantine hinges to admit now and
then some new and chosen modern. But the company
of the masters of those who know, and in especial degree
of the great poets, is a roll long closed and complete, and
they who are of it hold ever peaceful converse together.
Hence we may find it a useful maxim that, if our reading
be utterly closed to the great poems of the world, there is
something amiss with our reading. If you find Milton,
Dante, Calderon, Goethe, so much " Hebrew-Greek " to
you ; if your Homer and Virgil, your Moliere and Scott,
rest year after year undisturbed on their shelves beside
your school trigonometry and your old college text-
books ; if you have never opened the " Cid," the " Nibe-
lungen," " Crusoe," and " Don Quixote," since you were
a boy, and are wont to leave the Bible and the Imitation
for some wet Sunday afternoon know, friend, that your
reading can do you little real good. Your mental diges-
tion is ruined or sadly out of order.

No doubt, to thousands of intelligent educated
men who call themselves readers, the reading through
a Canto of "The Purgatorio," or a Book of

Online LibraryThomas B. (Thomas Brackett) ReedModern eloquence; (Volume 5) → online text (page 13 of 38)