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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Pleasures of Reading

By Arthur James, Earl of Balfour (1848–1930)

From his Rectorial Address before the University of Glasgow

I CONFESS to have been much perplexed in my search for a topic on which I could say something to which you would have patience to listen, or on which I might find it profitable to speak. One theme however there is, not inappropriate to the place in which I stand, nor I hope unwelcome to the audience which I address. The youngest of you have left behind that period of youth during which it seems inconceivable that any book should afford recreation except a story-book. Many of you are just reaching the period when, at the end of your prescribed curriculum, the whole field and compass of literature lies outspread before you; when, with faculties trained and disciplined, and the edge of curiosity not dulled or worn with use, you may enter at your leisure into the intellectual heritage of the centuries.

Now the question of how to read and what to read has of late filled much space in the daily papers, if it cannot strictly speaking be said to have profoundly occupied the public mind. But you need be under no alarm. I am not going to supply you with a new list of the hundred books most worth reading, nor am I about to take the world into my confidence in respect of my “favorite passages from the best authors.” Nor again do I address myself to the professed student, to the fortunate individual with whom literature or science is the business as well as the pleasure of life. I have not the qualifications which would enable me to undertake such a task with the smallest hope of success. My theme is humble, though the audience to whom I desire to speak is large: for I speak to the ordinary reader with ordinary capacities and ordinary leisure, to whom reading is, or ought to be, not a business but a pleasure; and my theme is the enjoyment—not, mark you, the improvement, nor the glory, nor the profit, but the enjoyment—which may be derived by such an one from books.

It is perhaps due to the controversial habits engendered by my unfortunate profession, that I find no easier method of making my own view clear than that of contrasting with it what I regard as an erroneous view held by somebody else; and in the present case the doctrine which I shall choose as a foil to my own, is one which has been stated with the utmost force and directness by that brilliant and distinguished writer, Mr. Frederic Harrison. He has, as many of you know, recently given us, in a series of excellent essays, his opinion on the principles which should guide us in the choice of books. Against that part of his treatise which is occupied with specific recommendations of certain authors I have not a word to say. He has resisted all the temptations to eccentricity which so easily beset the modern critic. Every book which he praises deserves his praise, and has long been praised by the world at large. I do not, indeed, hold that the verdict of the world is necessarily binding on the individual conscience. I admit to the full that there is an enormous quantity of hollow devotion, of withered orthodoxy divorced from living faith, in the eternal chorus of praise which goes up from every literary altar to the memory of the immortal dead. Nevertheless every critic is bound to recognize, as Mr. Harrison recognizes, that he must put down to individual peculiarity any difference he may have with the general verdict of the ages; he must feel that mankind are not likely to be in a conspiracy of error as to the kind of literary work which conveys to them the highest literary enjoyment, and that in such cases at least securus judicat orbis terrarum.

But it is quite possible to hold that any work recommended by Mr. Harrison is worth repeated reading, and yet to reject utterly the theory of study by which these recommendations are prefaced. For Mr. Harrison is a ruthless censor. His index expurgatorius includes, so far as I can discover, the whole catalogue of the British Museum, with the exception of a small remnant which might easily be contained in about thirty or forty volumes. The vast remainder he contemplates with feelings apparently not merely of indifference, but of active aversion. He surveys the boundless and ever-increasing waste of books with emotions compounded of disgust and dismay. He is almost tempted to say in his haste that the invention of printing has been an evil one for humanity. In the habits of miscellaneous reading, born of a too easy access to libraries, circulating and other, he sees many soul-destroying tendencies; and his ideal reader would appear to be a gentleman who rejects with a lofty scorn all in history that does not pass for being first-rate in importance, and all in literature that is not admitted to be first-rate in quality.

Now, I am far from denying that this theory is plausible. Of all that has been written, it is certain that the professed student can master but an infinitesimal fraction. Of that fraction the ordinary reader can master but a very small part. What advice, then, can be better than to select for study the few masterpieces that have come down to us, and to treat as non-existent the huge but undistinguished remainder? We are like travelers passing hastily through some ancient city; filled with memorials of many generations and more than one great civilization. Our time is short. Of what may be seen we can only see at best but a trifling fragment. Let us then take care that we waste none of our precious moments upon that which is less than the most excellent. So preaches Mr. Frederic Harrison; and when a doctrine which put thus may seem not only wise but obvious, is further supported by such assertions that habits of miscellaneous reading “close the mind to what is spiritually sustaining” by “stuffing it with what is simply curious,” or that such methods of study are worse than no habits of study at all because they “gorge and enfeeble” the mind by “excess in that which cannot nourish,” I almost feel that in venturing to dissent from it, I may be attacking not merely the teaching of common sense but the inspirations of a high morality.

Yet I am convinced that for most persons the views thus laid down by Mr. Harrison are wrong; and that what he describes, with characteristic vigor, as “an impotent voracity for desultory information,” is in reality a most desirable and a not too common form of mental appetite. I have no sympathy whatever with the horror he expresses at the “incessant accumulation of fresh books.” I am never tempted to regret that Gutenberg was born into the world. I care not at all though the “cataract of printed stuff,” as Mr. Harrison calls it, should flow and still flow on until the catalogues of our libraries should make libraries themselves. I am prepared, indeed, to express sympathy almost amounting to approbation for any one who would check all writing which was not intended for the printer. I pay no tribute of grateful admiration to those who have oppressed mankind with the dubious blessing of the penny post. But the ground of the distinction is plain. We are always obliged to read our letters, and are sometimes obliged to answer them. But who obliges us to wade through the piled-up lumber of an ancient library, or to skim more than we like off the frothy foolishness poured forth in ceaseless streams by our circulating libraries? Dead dunces do not importune us; Grub Street does not ask for a reply by return of post. Even their living successors need hurt no one who possesses the very moderate degree of social courage required to make the admission that he has not read the last new novel or the current number of a fashionable magazine.

But this is not the view of Mr. Harrison. To him the position of any one having free access to a large library is fraught with issues so tremendous that, in order adequately to describe it, he has to seek for parallels in two of the most highly-wrought episodes in fiction: the Ancient Mariner, becalmed and thirsting on the tropic ocean; Bunyan’s Christian in the crisis of spiritual conflict. But there is here, surely, some error and some exaggeration. Has miscellaneous reading all the dreadful consequences which Mr. Harrison depicts? Has it any of them? His declaration about the intellect being “gorged and enfeebled” by the absorption of too much information, expresses no doubt with great vigor an analogy, for which there is high authority, between the human mind and the human stomach; but surely it is an analogy which may be pressed too far. I have often heard of the individual whose excellent natural gifts have been so overloaded with huge masses of undigested and indigestible learning that they have had no chance of healthy development. But though I have often heard of this personage, I have never met him, and I believe him to be mythical. It is true, no doubt, that many learned people are dull; but there is no indication whatever that they are dull because they are learned. True dullness is seldom acquired; it is a natural grace, the manifestations of which, however modified by education, remain in substance the same. Fill a dull man to the brim with knowledge, and he will not become less dull, as the enthusiasts for education vainly imagine; but neither will he become duller, as Mr. Harrison appears to suppose. He will remain in essence what he always has been and always must have been. But whereas his dullness would, if left to itself, have been merely vacuous, it may have become, under careful cultivation, pretentious and pedantic.

I would further point out to you that while there is no ground in experience for supposing that a keen interest in those facts which Mr. Harrison describes as “merely curious” has any stupefying effect upon the mind, or has any tendency to render it insensible to the higher things of literature and art, there is positive evidence that many of those who have most deeply felt the charm of these higher things have been consumed by that omnivorous appetite for knowledge which excites Mr. Harrison’s especial indignation. Dr. Johnson, for instance, though deaf to some of the most delicate harmonies of verse, was without question a very great critic. Yet in Dr. Johnson’s opinion, literary history, which is for the most part composed of facts which Mr. Harrison would regard as insignificant, about authors whom he would regard as pernicious, was the most delightful of studies. Again, consider the case of Lord Macaulay. Lord Macaulay did everything Mr. Harrison says he ought not to have done. From youth to age he was continuously occupied in “gorging and enfeebling” his intellect, by the unlimited consumption of every species of literature, from the masterpieces of the age of Pericles to the latest rubbish from the circulating library. It is not told of him that his intellect suffered by the process; and though it will hardly be claimed for him that he was a great critic, none will deny that he possessed the keenest susceptibilities for literary excellence in many languages and in every form. If Englishmen and Scotchmen do not satisfy you, I will take a Frenchman. The most accomplished critic whom France has produced is, by general admission, Ste.-Beuve. His capacity for appreciating supreme perfection in literature will be disputed by none; yet the great bulk of his vast literary industry was expended upon the lives and writings of authors whose lives Mr. Harrison would desire us to forget, and whose writings almost wring from him the wish that the art of printing had never been discovered.

I am even bold enough to hazard the conjecture (I trust he will forgive me) that Mr. Harrison’s life may be quoted against Mr. Harrison’s theory. I entirely decline to believe, without further evidence, that the writings whose vigor of style and of thought have been the delight of us all are the product of his own system. I hope I do him no wrong, but I cannot help thinking that if we knew the truth, we should find that he followed the practice of those worthy physicians who, after prescribing the most abstemious diet to their patients, may be seen partaking freely, and to all appearances safely, of the most succulent and the most unwholesome of the forbidden dishes.

It has to be noted that Mr. Harrison’s list of the books which deserve perusal would seem to indicate that in his opinion, the pleasures to be derived from literature are chiefly pleasures of the imagination. Poets, dramatists, and novelists form the chief portion of the somewhat meagre fare which is specifically permitted to his disciples. Now, though I have already stated that the list is not one of which any person is likely to assert that it contains books which ought to be excluded, yet, even from the point of view of what may be termed æsthetic enjoyment, the field in which we are allowed to take our pleasures seems to me unduly restricted.

Contemporary poetry, for instance, on which Mr. Harrison bestows a good deal of hard language, has and must have, for the generation which produces it, certain qualities not likely to be possessed by any other. Charles Lamb has somewhere declared that a pun loses all its virtues as soon as the momentary quality of the intellectual and social atmosphere in which it was born has changed its character. What is true of this, the humblest effort of verbal art, is true in a different measure and degree of all, even of the highest, forms of literature. To some extent every work requires interpretation to generations who are separated by differences of thought or education from the age in which it was originally produced. That this is so with every book which depends for its interest upon feelings and fashions which have utterly vanished, no one will be disposed, I imagine, to deny. Butler’s ‘Hudibras,’ for instance, which was the delight of a gay and witty society, is to me at least not unfrequently dull. Of some works, no doubt, which made a noise in their day it seems impossible to detect the slightest race of charm. But this is not the case with ‘Hudibras.’ Its merits are obvious. That they should have appealed to a generation sick of the reign of the “Saints” is precisely what we should have expected. But to us, who are not sick of the reign of the Saints, they appeal but imperfectly. The attempt to reproduce artificially the frame of mind of those who first read the poem is not only an effort, but is to most people, at all events, an unsuccessful effort. What is true of ‘Hudibras’ is true also, though in an inconceivably smaller degree, of those great works of imagination which deal with the elemental facts of human character and human passion. Yet even on these, time does, though lightly, lay his hand. Wherever what may be called “historic sympathy” is required, there will be some diminution of the enjoyment which those must have felt who were the poet’s contemporaries. We look, so to speak, at the same splendid landscape as they, but distance has made it necessary for us to aid our natural vision with glasses, and some loss of light will thus inevitably be produced, and some inconvenience from the difficulty of truly adjusting the focus. Of all authors, Homer would, I suppose, be thought to suffer least from such drawbacks. But yet in order to listen to Homer’s accents with the ears of an ancient Greek, we must be able, among other things, to enter into a view about the gods which is as far removed from what we should describe as religious sentiment, as it is from the frigid ingenuity of those later poets who regarded the deities of Greek mythology as so many wheels in the supernatural machinery with which it pleased them to carry on the action of their pieces. If we are to accept Mr. Herbert Spencer’s views as to the progress of our species, changes of sentiment are likely to occur which will even more seriously interfere with the world’s delight in the Homeric poems. When human beings become so nicely “adjusted to their environment” that courage and dexterity in battle will have become as useless among civic virtues as an old helmet is among the weapons of war; when fighting gets to be looked upon with the sort of disgust excited in us by cannibalism; and when public opinion shall regard a warrior much in the same light that we regard a hangman,—I do not see how any fragment of that vast and splendid literature which depends for its interest upon deeds of heroism and the joy of battle is to retain its ancient charm.

About these remote contingencies, however, I am glad to think that neither you nor I need trouble our heads; and if I parenthetically allude to them now, it is merely as an illustration of a truth not always sufficiently remembered, and as an excuse for those who find in the genuine, though possibly second-rate, productions of their own age, a charm for which they search in vain among the mighty monuments of the past.

But I leave this train of thought, which has perhaps already taken me too far, in order to point out a more fundamental error, as I think it, which arises from regarding literature solely from this high æsthetic standpoint. The pleasures of imagination, derived from the best literary models, form without doubt the most exquisite portion of the enjoyment which we may extract from books; but they do not, in my opinion, form the largest portion if we take into account mass as well as quality in our calculation. There is the literature which appeals to the imagination or the fancy, some stray specimens of which Mr. Harrison will permit us to peruse; but is there not also the literature which satisfies the curiosity? Is this vast storehouse of pleasure to be thrown hastily aside because many of the facts which it contains are alleged to be insignificant, because the appetite to which they minister is said to be morbid? Consider a little. We are here dealing with one of the strongest intellectual impulses of rational beings. Animals, as a rule, trouble themselves but little about anything unless they want either to eat it or to run away from it. Interest in and wonder at the works of nature and the doings of man are products of civilization, and excite emotions which do not diminish but increase with increasing knowledge and cultivation. Feed them and they grow; minister to them and they will greatly multiply. We hear much indeed of what is called “idle curiosity”; but I am loth to brand any form of curiosity as necessarily idle. Take, for example, one of the most singular, but in this age one of the most universal, forms in which it is accustomed to manifest itself: I mean that of an exhaustive study of the contents of the morning and evening papers. It is certainly remarkable that any person who has nothing to get by it should destroy his eyesight and confuse his brain by a conscientious attempt to master the dull and doubtful details of the European diary daily transmitted to us by “Our Special Correspondent.” But it must be remembered that this is only a somewhat unprofitable exercise of that disinterested love of knowledge which moves men to penetrate the Polar snows, to build up systems of philosophy, or to explore the secrets of the remotest heavens. It has in it the rudiments of infinite and varied delights. It can be turned, and it should be turned into a curiosity for which nothing that has been done, or thought, or suffered, or believed, no law which governs the world of matter or the world of mind, can be wholly alien or uninteresting.

Truly it is a subject for astonishment that, instead of expanding to the utmost the employment of this pleasure-giving faculty, so many persons should set themselves to work to limit its exercise by all kinds of arbitrary regulations. Some there are, for example, who tell us that the acquisition of knowledge is all very well, but that it must be useful knowledge; meaning usually thereby that it must enable a man to get on in a profession, pass an examination, shine in conversation, or obtain a reputation for learning. But even if they mean something higher than this, even if they mean that knowledge to be worth anything must subserve ultimately if not immediately the material or spiritual interests of mankind, the doctrine is one which should be energetically repudiated. I admit, of course, at once, that discoveries the most apparently remote from human concerns have often proved themselves of the utmost commercial or manufacturing value. But they require no such justification for their existence, nor were they striven for with any such object. Navigation is not the final cause of astronomy, nor telegraphy of electro-dynamics, nor dye-works of chemistry. And if it be true that the desire of knowledge for the sake of knowledge was the animating motive of the great men who first wrested her secrets from nature, why should it not also be enough for us, to whom it is not given to discover, but only to learn as best we may what has been discovered by others?

Another maxim, more plausible but equally pernicious, is that superficial knowledge is worse than no knowledge at all. That “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” is a saying which has now got currency as a proverb stamped in the mint of Pope’s versification; of Pope, who with the most imperfect knowledge of Greek translated Homer, with the most imperfect knowledge of the Elizabethan drama edited Shakespeare, and with the most imperfect knowledge of philosophy wrote the ‘Essay on Man.’ But what is this “little knowledge” which is supposed to be so dangerous? What is it “little” in relation to? If in relation to what there is to know, then all human knowledge is little. If in relation to what actually is known by somebody, then we must condemn as “dangerous” the knowledge which Archimedes possessed of mechanics, or Copernicus of astronomy; for a shilling primer and a few weeks’ study will enable any student to outstrip in mere information some of the greatest teachers of the past. No doubt, that little knowledge which thinks itself to be great may possibly be a dangerous, as it certainly is a most ridiculous thing. We have all suffered under that eminently absurd individual who on the strength of one or two volumes, imperfectly apprehended by himself, and long discredited in the estimation of everyone else, is prepared to supply you on the shortest notice with a dogmatic solution of every problem suggested by this “unintelligible world” or the political variety of the same pernicious genus, whose statecraft consists in the ready application to the most complex question of national interest of some high-sounding commonplace which has done weary duty on a thousand platforms, and which even in its palmiest days was never fit for anything better than a peroration. But in our dislike of the individual, do not let us mistake the diagnosis of his disease. He suffers not from ignorance but from stupidity. Give him learning and you make him not wise, but only more pretentious in his folly.

I say then that so far from a little knowledge being undesirable, a little knowledge is all that on most subjects any of us can hope to attain; and that, as a source not of worldly profit but of personal pleasure, it may be of incalculable value to its possessor. But it will naturally be asked, “How are we to select from among the infinite number of things which may be known, those which it is best worth while for us to know?” We are constantly being told to concern ourselves with learning what is important, and not to waste our energies upon what is insignificant. But what are the marks by which we shall recognize the important, and how is it to be distinguished from the insignificant. A precise and complete answer to this question which shall be true for all men cannot be given. I am considering knowledge, recollect, as it ministers to enjoyment; and from this point of view each unit of information is obviously of importance in proportion as it increases the general sum of enjoyment which we obtain, or expect to obtain, from knowledge. This, of course, makes it impossible to lay down precise rules which shall be an equally sure guide to all sorts and conditions of men; for in this, as in other matters, tastes must differ, and against real difference of taste there is no appeal.

There is, however, one caution which it may be worth your while to keep in view:—Do not be persuaded into applying any general proposition on this subject with a foolish impartiality to every kind of knowledge. There are those who tell you that it is the broad generalities and the far-reaching principles which govern the world, which are alone worthy of your attention. A fact which is not an illustration of a law, in the opinion of these persons appears to lose all its value. Incidents which do not fit into some great generalization, events which are merely picturesque, details which are merely curious, they dismiss as unworthy the interest of a reasoning being. Now, even in science this doctrine in its extreme form does not hold good. The most scientific of men have taken profound interest in the investigation of facts from the determination of which they do not anticipate any material addition to our knowledge of the laws which regulate the Universe. In these matters, I need hardly say that I speak wholly without authority. But I have always been under the impression that an investigation which has cost hundreds of thousands of pounds; which has stirred on three occasions the whole scientific community throughout the civilized world; on which has been expended the utmost skill in the construction of instruments and their application to purposes of research (I refer to the attempts made to determine the distance of the sun by observation of the transit of Venus),—would, even if they had been brought to a successful issue, have furnished mankind with the knowledge of no new astronomical principle. The laws which govern the motions of the solar system, the proportions which the various elements in that system bear to one another, have long been known. The distance of the sun itself is known within limits of error relatively speaking not very considerable. Were the measuring rod we apply to the heavens based on an estimate of the sun’s distance from the earth which was wrong by (say) three per cent., it would not to the lay mind seem to affect very materially our view either of the distribution of the heavenly bodies or of their motions. And yet this information, this piece of celestial gossip, would seem to have been the chief astronomical result expected from the successful prosecution of an investigation in which whole nations have interested themselves.

But though no one can, I think, pretend that science does not concern itself, and properly concern itself, with facts which are not to all appearance illustrations of law, it is undoubtedly true that for those who desire to extract the greatest pleasure from science, a knowledge, however elementary, of the leading principles of investigation and the larger laws of nature, is the acquisition most to be desired. To him who is not a specialist, a comprehension of the broad outlines of the universe as it presents itself to his scientific imagination is the thing most worth striving to attain. But when we turn from science to what is rather vaguely called history, the same principles of study do not, I think, altogether apply, and mainly for this reason: that while the recognition of the reign of law is the chief amongst the pleasures imparted by science, our inevitable ignorance makes it the least among the pleasures imparted by history.

It is no doubt true that we are surrounded by advisers who tell us that all study of the past is barren, except in so far as it enables us to determine the principles by which the evolution of human societies is governed. How far such an investigation has been up to the present time fruitful in results, it would be unkind to inquire. That it will ever enable us to trace with accuracy the course which States and nations are destined to pursue in the future, or to account in detail for their history in the past, I do not in the least believe. We are borne along like travelers on some unexplored stream. We may know enough of the general configuration of the globe to be sure that we are making our way towards the ocean. We may know enough, by experience or theory, of the laws regulating the flow of liquids, to conjecture how the river will behave under the varying influences to which it may be subject. More than this we cannot know. It will depend largely upon causes which, in relation to any laws which we are even likely to discover may properly be called accidental, whether we are destined sluggishly to drift among fever-stricken swamps, to hurry down perilous rapids, or to glide gently through fair scenes of peaceful cultivation.

But leaving on one side ambitious sociological speculations, and even those more modest but hitherto more successful investigations into the causes which have in particular cases been principally operative in producing great political changes, there are still two modes in which we can derive what I may call “spectacular” enjoyment from the study of history. There is first the pleasure which arises from the contemplation of some great historic drama, or some broad and well-marked phase of social development. The story of the rise, greatness, and decay of a nation is like some vast epic which contains as subsidiary episodes the varied stories of the rise, greatness, and decay of creeds, of parties, and of statesmen. The imagination is moved by the slow unrolling of this great picture of human mutability, as it is moved by the contrasted permanence of the abiding stars. The ceaseless conflict, the strange echoes of long-forgotten controversies, the confusion of purpose, the successes in which lay deep the seeds of future evils, the failures that ultimately divert the otherwise inevitable danger, the heroism which struggles to the last for a cause foredoomed to defeat, the wickedness which sides with right, and the wisdom which huzzas at the triumph of folly,—fate, meanwhile, amidst this turmoil and perplexity, working silently towards the predestined end,—all these form together a subject the contemplation of which need surely never weary.

But yet there is another and very different species of enjoyment to be derived from the records of the past, which requires a somewhat different method of study in order that it may be fully tasted. Instead of contemplating as it were from a distance the larger aspects of the human drama, we may elect to move in familiar fellowship amid the scenes and actors of special periods. We may add to the interest we derive from the contemplation of contemporary politics, a similar interest derived from a not less minute, and probably more accurate, knowledge of some comparatively brief passage in the political history of the past. We may extend the social circle in which we move, a circle perhaps narrowed and restricted through circumstances beyond our control, by making intimate acquaintances, perhaps even close friends, among a society long departed, but which, when we have once learnt the trick of it, we may, if it so pleases us, revive.

It is this kind of historical reading which is usually branded as frivolous and useless; and persons who indulge in it often delude themselves into thinking that the real motive of their investigation into bygone scenes and ancient scandals is philosophic interest in an important historical episode, whereas in truth it is not the philosophy which glorifies the details, but the details which make tolerable the philosophy. Consider, for example, the case of the French Revolution. The period from the taking of the Bastile to the fall of Robespierre is about the same as that which very commonly intervenes between two of our general elections. On these comparatively few months, libraries have been written. The incidents of every week are matters of familiar knowledge. The character and the biography of every actor in the drama has been made the subject of minute study; and by common admission there is no more fascinating page in the history of the world. But the interest is not what is commonly called philosophic, it is personal. Because the Revolution is the dominant fact in modern history, therefore people suppose that the doings of this or that provincial lawyer, tossed into temporary eminence and eternal infamy by some freak of the revolutionary wave, or the atrocities committed by this or that mob, half drunk with blood, rhetoric, and alcohol, are of transcendent importance. In truth their interest is great, but their importance is small. What we are concerned to know as students of the philosophy of history is, not the character of each turn and eddy in the great social cataract, but the manner in which the currents of the upper stream drew surely in towards the final plunge, and slowly collected themselves after the catastrophe again, to pursue at a different level their renewed and comparatively tranquil course.

Now, if so much of the interest of the French Revolution depends upon our minute knowledge of each passing incident, how much more necessary is such knowledge when we are dealing with the quiet nooks and corners of history; when we are seeking an introduction, let us say, into the literary society of Johnson, or the fashionable society of Walpole. Society, dead or alive, can have no charm without intimacy, and no intimacy without interest in trifles which I fear Mr. Harrison would describe as “merely curious.” If we would feel at our ease in any company, if we wish to find humor in its jokes, and point in its repartees, we must know something of the beliefs and the prejudices of its various members, their loves and their hates, their hopes and their fears, their maladies, their marriages, and their flirtations. If these things are beneath our notice, we shall not be the less qualified to serve our Queen and country, but need make no attempt to extract pleasure from one of the most delightful departments of literature.

That there is such a thing as trifling information I do not of course question; but the frame of mind in which the reader is constantly weighing the exact importance to the universe at large of each circumstance which the author presents to his notice, is not one conducive to the true enjoyment of a picture whose effect depends upon a multitude of slight and seemingly insignificant touches, which impress the mind often without remaining in the memory. The best method of guarding against the danger of reading what is useless is to read only what is interesting; a truth which will seem a paradox to a whole class of readers, fitting objects of our commiseration, who may be often recognized by their habit of asking some adviser for a list of books, and then marking out a scheme of study in the course of which all are to be conscientiously perused. These unfortunate persons apparently read a book principally with the object of getting to the end of it. They reach the word Finis with the same sensation of triumph as an Indian feels who strings a fresh scalp to his girdle. They are not happy unless they mark by some definite performance each step in the weary path of self-improvement. To begin a volume and not to finish it would be to deprive themselves of this satisfaction; it would be to lose all the reward of their earlier self-denial by a lapse from virtue at the end. To skip, according to their literary code, is a species of cheating; it is a mode of obtaining credit for erudition on false pretenses; a plan by which the advantages of learning are surreptitiously obtained by those who have not won them by honest toil. But all this is quite wrong. In matters literary, works have no saving efficacy. He has only half learnt the art of reading who has not added to it the even more refined accomplishments of skipping and of skimming; and the first step has hardly been taken in the direction of making literature a pleasure until interest in the subject, and not a desire to spare (so to speak) the author’s feelings, or to accomplish an appointed task, is the prevailing motive of the reader.

I have now reached, not indeed the end of my subject, which I have scarcely begun, but the limits inexorably set by the circumstances under which it is treated. Yet I am unwilling to conclude without meeting an objection to my method of dealing with it, which has I am sure been present to the minds of not a few who have been good enough to listen to me with patience. It will be said that I have ignored the higher functions of literature; that I have degraded it from its rightful place, by discussing only certain ways in which it may minister to the entertainment of an idle hour, leaving wholly out of sight its contributions to what Mr. Harrison calls our “spiritual sustenance.” Now, this is partly because the first of these topics and not the second was the avowed subject of my address; but it is partly because I am deliberately of opinion that it is the pleasures and not the profits, spiritual or temporal, of literature which most require to be preached in the ear of the ordinary reader. I hold indeed the faith that all such pleasures minister to the development of much that is best in man—mental and moral; but the charm is broken and the object lost if the remote consequence is consciously pursued to the exclusion of the immediate end. It will not, I suppose, be denied that the beauties of nature are at least as well qualified to minister to our higher needs as are the beauties of literature. Yet we do not say we are going to walk to the top of such and such a hill in order to drink in “spiritual sustenance.” We say we are going to look at the view. And I am convinced that this, which is the natural and simple way of considering literature as well as nature, is also the true way. The habit of always requiring some reward for knowledge beyond the knowledge itself, be that reward some material prize or be it what is vaguely called self-improvement, is one with which I confess I have little sympathy, fostered though it is by the whole scheme of our modern education. Do not suppose that I desire the impossible. I would not if I could destroy the examination system. But there are times, I confess, when I feel tempted somewhat to vary the prayer of the poet, and to ask whether Heaven has not reserved, in pity to this much-educating generation, some peaceful desert of literature as yet unclaimed by the crammer or the coach; where it might be possible for the student to wander, even perhaps to stray, at his own pleasure without finding every beauty labeled, every difficulty engineered, every nook surveyed, and a professional cicerone standing at every corner to guide each succeeding traveler along the same well-worn round. If such a wish were granted, I would further ask that the domain of knowledge thus “neutralized” should be the literature of our own country. I grant to the full that the systematic study of some literature must be a principal element in the education of youth. But why should that literature be our own? Why should we brush off the bloom and freshness from the works to which Englishmen and Scotchmen most naturally turn for refreshment,—namely, those written in their own language? Why should we associate them with the memory of hours spent in weary study; in the effort to remember for purposes of examination what no human being would wish to remember for any other; in the struggle to learn something, not because the learner desires to know it, because he desires some one else to know that he knows it? This is the dark side of the examination system; a system necessary and therefore excellent, but one which does, through the very efficiency and thoroughness of the drill by which it imparts knowledge, to some extent impair the most delicate pleasures by which the acquisition of knowledge should be attended.

How great those pleasures may be, I trust there are many here who can testify. When I compare the position of the reader of to-day with that of his predecessor of the sixteenth century, I am amazed at the ingratitude of those who are tempted even for a moment to regret the invention of printing and the multiplication of books. There is now no mood of mind to which a man may not administer the appropriate nutriment or medicine at the cost of reaching down a volume from his bookshelf. In every department of knowledge infinitely more is known, and what is known is incomparably more accessible, than it was to our ancestors. The lighter forms of literature, good, bad, and indifferent, which have added so vastly to the happiness of mankind, have increased beyond powers of computation; nor do I believe that there is any reason to think that they have elbowed out their more serious and important brethren. It is perfectly possible for a man, not a professed student, and who only gives to reading the leisure hours of a business life, to acquire such a general knowledge of the laws of nature and the facts of history that every great advance made in either department shall be to him both intelligible and interesting; and he may besides have among his familiar friends many a departed worthy whose memory is embalmed in the pages of memoir or biography. All this is ours for the asking. All this we shall ask for, if only it be our happy fortune to love for its own sake the beauty and the knowledge to be gathered from books. And if this be our fortune, the world may be kind or unkind, it may seem to us to be hastening on the wings of enlightenment and progress to an imminent millennium, or it may weigh us down with the sense of insoluble difficulty and irremediable wrong; but whatever else it be, so long as we have good health and a good library, it can hardly be dull.