James Freeman Clarke — Self-Culture by Reading and Books
“Knowledge of books, and a habit of careful reading, is a most important means of intellectual development.”
One of the many hidden gems in New England Transcendentalist literature. This insightful essay by James Freeman Clarke (1810–1888) is as valuable today as ever. (Source: James Freeman Clarke, Self-Culture Physical, Intellectual, Moral And Spiritual. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1908 [orig. ed. 1880]; ch. 15, pp. 307—324.)*
Culture By Reading And Books
THE subject of this chapter is “Reading as a Means of Culture.”
The “Publisher’s Circular” gives the statistics of the books issued each year from the press in England. The annual number of titles, one year with another, is about five thousand. About two-thirds of these are new books; the others are reprints. Last year there were 737 theological books, 529 educational works, 522 juvenile books, and 854 works of fiction. I have not at hand the statistics of books for the United States, but it must compare favorably with that of England, as a larger proportion of our population are able to read than in that country. The number of copies of newspapers printed and circulated every year in the United States is enormous, — I was about to say frightful. The annual circulation is fifteen hundred millions of copies, which would give about forty copies every year to every man, woman, and child in the United States.
These statistics show how much time is occupied by the people in reading. And it is a valuable education, so far as it goes. Poor as much is that is printed, it is better than the common talk. The average newspaper is higher than the average conversation. The newspaper does not swear, does not use coarse and gross language; it is often weak, but does not talk pure nonsense. It is trying to say something, and it has to seem to be aiming at something honest, true, and generous. The newspapers give a vast amount of information in regard to the affairs of mankind. The nation which reads newspapers is able to sympathize with the people of other countries; men’s hearts are enlarged, and they are helped to love their fellow-men. Without newspapers, we should never have felt sympathy with Greece in her revolution, with Poland in its misfortunes, with Italy in its independence and unity, with France in her great disasters and subsequent recovery. Without the newspapers, we should not have sent food to starving Ireland in its years of famine, for we should, as a people, have known nothing about it. The newspapers create a common feeling and a common opinion through the whole land, and a sympathy with the people of other lands. So they help the cause of humanity and of social progress.
But with all this good done by reading newspapers, there is one particular evil. It produces that state of mind which the Book of Acts ascribed to the Athenians: “The Athenians and strangers at Athens passed all their time,” so we are told in the Acts, “in seeing and hearing some new thing.” What they wanted was not the new, but the novel. They wished for novel sensations, perpetual change. Therefore, neither St. Paul – nor Socrates four centuries earlier – had much success teaching the Athenians anything really new. There was no depth in that soil.
Now, today the newspaper creates and feeds the appetite for news. When we read it, it is not to find what is true, what is important, what we must consider and reflect upon, what we must carry away and remember, but what is new. When any very curious or important event occurs, the newspaper, in narrating it, often gives, as its only comment and reflection, this phrase, “What next?” That is often the motto of the newspaper and the newspaper reader, “What next?” The only reflection and moral derived from learning a great fact is simply this, “Now let us hear of another.” The whole world rushes to the newspaper every morning to find out what has happened since yesterday; and the moment it finds what has happened, it cares no more about it. We think no more of yesterday’s newspaper than of yesterday’s dinner. We forget both as soon as possible. This is a mental dissipation which takes away mental earnestness, and destroys all hearty interest in truth. It also weakens the memory. The memory, like all other powers, is strengthened by exercise. We cultivate our memory by remembering. But if we read, not intending to remember what we read, but expecting to forget it, then we cultivate the habit of forgetting. I think that the effect of reading newspapers, in the way we read them, must be to weaken steadily and permanently, the memory of the nation. Every generation will be born with a worse memory than that which preceded it. The proper way to cure this evil would be to select every day from the newspaper certain important facts to be carried in the mind, considered and thought about. These would be fixed in the memory. They should be made the subject of conversation with friends or in the family, and this would improve the memory, instead of destroying it.
In short, in reading, and in all that we read, our mind should be active, and not passive. Milton says:—
Incessantly, and to his reading brings not
A spirit and genius equal or superior,
Uncertain and unsettled still remains,
Deep versed in books and shallow in himself.”
And Lord Bacon tells us that “reading makes a full man, conference (or conversation) a ready man, and writing an exact man;” and that we should read, not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider. Montaigne, who had a passion for books, who never travelled without them, and called them the best viaticum for this journey of life, said that the principal use of reading, to him, was, that it roused his reason. It employed his judgment, not his memory. “Read much, not many things,” is good advice. There was an old saying, “He is a man of one book.” If one reads but one book, he may read that one book so well as to be a very hard man to encounter. But he is a happy person who enjoys his books, and to whom the day does not seem long enough for reading. For books are friends who never quarrel, never complain, are never false; who come from far ages and old lands to talk with us when we wish to hear them, and are silent when we are weary. Good books take us away from our small troubles and petty vexations into a serene atmosphere of thought, nobleness, truth. They are solace in sorrow, and companions in joy.
Knowledge of books, and a habit of careful reading, is a most important means of intellectual development. It gives mental breadth, poise, and authority. The man of great practical abilities, but unacquainted with the history or theory of a subject, is liable to make serious mistakes. He cannot be trusted. If he is conscious himself of his ignorance, he is timid; if not conscious, he is rash. It would be impossible for our members of Congress to commit so many blunders if they should pass an examination in political economy before taking their seats. To read two or three good books on any subject is equivalent to hearing it discussed by an assembly of wise, able, and impartial experts, who tell you all that can be known about it. You see the whole field, understand all that can be said on one side or the other, know what has been the result in practice of either course. The experience of the whole world, and of all past history, comes to your aid.
The moral influence also of good books is very great. They purify the taste, elevate the character, make low pleasures unattractive, and carry the soul up into a region of noble aims and generous purposes. All first-class books are eminently moral; and all immoral books are, so far, poor books. Homer, Shakspeare, Plato, Dante, are pure in their spirit, and elevate the character. No one can make a thorough study of such books as these without being a better man. Milton says, and says truly, that “our sage and serious poet, Spenser, is, I dare be known to think, a better teacher of temperance than John Duns Scotus or Thomas Aquinas.” Who can read the biography of Benjamin Franklin without learning to admire such a life of perpetual study, unfailing industry, large patriotism, temperance, good-humor, and general good-will? When we read the story of Washington we become sure that disinterested public service is a real thing. The charming allegory of the “Pilgrim’s Progress” teaches, in pictures too vivid to be ever forgotten, of the temptations and dangers we must encounter in any serious effort to save our soul.
Religious books are usually considered dull and uninteresting; but that they need not be so appears from the example of this book of Bunyan’s, and from the popularity of religious books far inferior in their quality. In fact, religious books stand at the summit of literature. First come the Sacred Scriptures of the race, —the books of books,—and, before all others, the Christian and Hebrew Bible, read by countless millions. Then come the Scriptures of the Hindus, the Persians, the Chinese, the Buddhists, also circulated by millions of copies during numerous centuries. Next come religious books of the second class, as the works of Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus, Pindar; the great poems of Dante and Milton; and, after these, the lives of saints, the liturgies and hymns of the ages, the manuals of devotion, “The Imitation of Christ,” “Taylor’s Holy Living,” the works of Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Swedenborg, Channing. The vast circulation of such works testifies that there is nothing so interesting to the human heart as religion.
But “let him that readeth understand.” It used to be thought a great credit to a boy to “love his book,” to be fond of reading. But all depends on what we read and how we read. One may have a morbid love of reading. The habit of reading may become an evil. I have known persons who had acquired such a love for novel-reading that it was a real disease. They swallowed novel after novel as a rum-drinker swallows his glass of spirits. They lived on that excitement. They were passive recipients of these stories, and the more they read the weaker grew their minds. The result of this sort of reading is mental imbecility. Better, instead of it, to walk in the fields, to dig potatoes, or to talk with the first man you meet.
I do not mean to say that novel-reading is necessarily bad. It was formerly thought wrong to read novels at all; or, at least, wrong to read anything but the regular moral romance: the writings of Miss Edgeworth, Miss Burney, and the like. But novels in which the moral is too prominent are usually not so influential as those in which it comes, as in life, out of the incidents themselves. “The Vicar of Wakefield” has not any moral which compels your attention. “Don Quixote” has no obtrusive moral. But who can read the first and not sympathize with the good man, who, with all his ignorance of the world and its ways, commands our respect by his honorable purposes and his loyalty to truth and right. So, while we read “Don Quixote,” we smile at the folly of the good knight with the surface of our mind, and love and honor him in the depths of our heart, for the magnanimity and nobleness of his character. We smile at him, but respect him. Such books make us feel how much better is inward purity and uprightness than any mere knowledge of the world or outward success. That is their moral, and it is a great one. But it is nowhere stated in so many words.
The great merit of Walter Scott’s novels is their generous and pure sentiment. There is a strain of generosity, manliness, truth, which runs through them all. They nowhere take for granted meanness; they always take for granted justice and honor. Now this is the real, though subtle, influence which comes from novels, poems, plays. This indirect influence, this taking for granted, is the most influential of all. Some books take for granted that man is selfish and mean. Others take for granted that he is noble and true. Some assume that all men are led by selfishness, and all women by vanity. Such books are deeply immoral, no matter what good maxims are tacked to them. For our standard of right and wrong is usually that of the public opinion just around us, and the books we read create a part of that public opinion. Such works as those of Dickens have gone into public opinion, and have been the guides of the public conscience. They have made us all feel the duty of caring for such poor orphans as Smike; they have made us love the lowly; they have infused an aroma of generous feeling into the public mind. Catholics have their confessors, and those priests whom they call their directors, to whom they go to tell them what they ought to do. Such writers as Scott and Dickens are the directors of the public conscience. Well when they direct it aright.
Novels are good or bad, like other books. To ask whether we ought to read novels is like asking whether we ought to go into society. Choose your associates; choose your books. Do not read anything and everything because it is printed. Meanness, cynicism, cruelty, falsehood, get themselves printed. It is necessary that each one should examine for himself the character of what he reads, and find what effect it has on him.
Let him that readeth understand. “Weigh and consider.”
I return to the maxim to which I referred above, non multa, sed multum. Read much, but do not read many things. Select the great teachers of the race, the great masters, and read them. Read Bacon, Milton, Shakspeare, Dante, Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, Schiller, Goethe, Lessing. Do not read about these authors in magazines, but read the authors themselves. He who has once carefully read Bacon’s “Advancement of Learning,” or Milton’s “Areopagitica,” or the “Phaedo” of Plato, has taken a step forward in thought and life. We read many criticisms on books; it were better to read the books themselves. Who, in visiting Niagara, instead of looking at the majestic cataract itself, would wish to see it reflected in a mirror in a camera obscura? Drink at the fountain, not from the stream. Read Pope, rather than Dr. Johnson’s account of him. Read Milton before you read Macaulay’s article on Milton. Read Goethe, and then Carlyle’s essay on Goethe. Literature tends too much to diluted and second-hand reading. Instead of great books, we read the reviews of books, then articles on the reviews, then criticisms on those articles, then essays on those criticisms.
It is an epoch in one’s life to read a great book for the first time. It is like going to Mont Blanc or to Niagara without the journey or the expense. When I was a boy I lived in the country, and had constructed for myself a reading-room amid the massive limbs of an old chestnut-tree. There I retired, and spent long mornings in reading the plays of Shakspeare, the “Paradise Lost,” the songs of Burns, the poems of Wordsworth or of Walter Scott. I immersed myself in them. The hours passed by, the sun sank lower toward his setting, the shadows moved on; entranced in my book, I read and noticed nothing. To read a good book thus is an event in one’s life.
I once spent a long day in reading the Book of Job in the translation of Noyes. I had never read it before from the beginning to the end. It was a day much to be remembered. I beg of you to take such books as these when you have time enough, and read them through; else you cannot know how great they are. Such books are not meant to be read as serials, or to be issued in monthly numbers. To read Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” take a long summer’s day. Go into the country, and sit in the woods alone. Read on and on, and give the whole day to it. Only so can you realize the majesty of that muse,—
“Sailing with supreme dominion
Through the azure depths of air,”
— the genius which paints in turn the sublime horrors of hell, the tender beauty of paradise,—
“The spirits and Intelligences fair
And angels waiting on the Almighty’s chair.”
In reading a book, you will notice that besides the thoughts, besides the visible moral, it has a soul, a leaven of character. The words of a book may be very moral, but the tone immoral. The words may be religious, but the tone sceptical. For the religion may be a mere smooth, cold crust over a deep running tendency to doubt; the morality may be exhortation to correct conduct coming out of a spirit which does not believe in right or wrong. That book, to me, is not moral which is stuffed with moral maxims, or in which good people end by getting rich and prosperous; but that which makes goodness seem both beautiful and possible; which makes it seem worth while to live, that we may live generously and nobly. That book to me is religious, not which exhorts us solemnly to become pious under penalty of going to hell if we are not, but in which love to God and man seem natural, easy, and beautiful.
A book may be religious without being Christian. The religious feeling which pours itself out in expressions of awe, reverence, fear, remorse, trust, is nearly the same in all lands, all times, and all religions. Something of it is to be found in Buddhism, in Mohammedanism, among the Hindus and the Chinese. But Christianity adds the element of faith in God as a living friend, close to us. The spirit of Christianity is the spirit of Jesus. When a book has not the spirit of Christ, it is none of his, though it may be full of religious notions, and may be popular enough to reach a hundred editions. The book which has in it the spirit of Christ is an apostle of Christianity, though it be a novel by Dickens, or a poem by Tennyson.
Biography, history, and travels give us more information than any other kind of works. They should be read together. One illustrates the other. And I think these are the books to read in classes. The best way of learning history is to have a class, in which a certain period of history shall be the subject of the lesson, and each member of the class read in a different book about that period. Then, when they come together, each has something to tell to the others, and something to learn from them. And, in like manner, it is well to form classes to read other works and pursue other studies, for so the stimulus of society and co-operation aids the solitary study which accompanies it.
I will close these remarks with a few rules to assist in reading to advantage.
1. Read what interests you. Interesting books are those which do us good. Unless a book interests us, we cannot fix our attention to it. Unless we attend to it, we do not understand it, or take it in. Then, we are wasting our time on a merely mechanical process, and are deceiving ourselves with a show devoid of substance.
The best books are the most interesting. Those which are clearest, most intelligible, best expressed, the logic of which is the most convincing; which are deepest, broadest, loftiest. Therefore, read the books on subjects which interest you, by the best writers on those subjects. And these are also interesting to that degree that, having once read them, you will never forget them.
The most interesting books, as regards their subjects, are well-written biographies and well-written books of travels. The one shows us human nature, the other the world and life. Therefore the undying charm of such works as “Plutarch’s Lives,” Xenophon’s “Memorabilia of Socrates,” Johnson’s “Lives of the Poets,” the biographical essays by Macaulay and Carlyle, and the like.
This rule of reading what is interesting is so important, that it is a good appendix to the rule to stop reading when we find we cannot fix our attention and are reading mechanically. For to read without attention is to form a habit of inattention. To read without interest, will tend to a loss of interest in all reading. To go through the mechanical form of reading when our mind is not in it, weakens the mental powers, and does not strengthen them.
Therefore, select the best and most interesting books to read.
2. Read actively, not passively. A person may be deeply interested in a sensational story, but it is often a purely passive interest. He does not think about what he is reading. The result is a momentary excitement, and after it is over he has received injury rather than good from it. He is less fit to think or to act than he was before.
We should always, in reading, exercise memory, judgment, and the faculties of comparison and reason. We should repeat in our own words the substance of what we read, take notes of it, converse about it, fix it in our memory, discuss it with others, and compare it with other books on the same subjects. This takes time; but it is far better to read a few books carefully and thoroughly, than many books superficially. Good books should be read again and again, and thought about, talked about, considered and re-considered. So, at last, what we read becomes our own.
3. Therefore, read with some system and method. Arrange circumstances so as to keep yourself up to your work. One method is for two persons to read the same book, and to meet together to talk about it. I read a large part of Goethe and Schiller and some other writers in this way, in company with Margaret Fuller, spending two or three evenings every week at her house, talking with her about what we had been reading. An extension of this method is to form a class to read on certain subjects; for example, a new book, a period of history, a country and people, a system of philosophy, a science, and then to meet and discuss together this common subject. Such a class might be formed in connection with every book-club. Where this cannot be done, a person might, at least, have a note-book, and write down the heads of what he reads, and his own thoughts about it. To these notes he would afterward refer with pleasure and advantage.
If a person, in the course of some years, should read in this way such writers as Shakspeare, Milton, Bacon, Locke, Gibbon, Wordsworth, and our best American writers, he would, by this method alone, acquire a good education and a large intellectual development. Any one important book read in this way would enlarge amazingly the sphere of one’s knowledge. I knew a gentleman who read thus “Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution;” looking up every event, person, and place referred to, and taking notes of all, and thus he became thoroughly versed in the whole history of modern Europe.
Let us be thankful for books. I sympathize with Charles Lamb, who said that he wished to ask a “grace before reading” more than a “grace before dinner.” Let us thank God for books. When I consider what some books have done for the world, and what they are doing, how they keep up our hope, awaken new courage and faith, soothe pain, give an ideal life to those whose homes are cold and hard, bind together distant ages and foreign lands, create new worlds of beauty, bring down truth from heaven, —I give eternal blessings for this gift, and pray that we may all use it aright, and abuse it never. Thank God for books, —
“Those stately arks, that from the deep
Garner the life for worlds to be;
And, with their glorious burden, sweep
Adown dark Time’s untravelled sea.”
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* I have made made minor edits to the text for the benefit of modern readers — webmaster.