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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 Use and Selection of Books

By Frederic Harrison (1831–1923)

From ‘The Choice of Books, and Other Literary Pieces’

IT is most right that in the great republic of letters there should be freedom of intercourse and a spirit of equality. Every reader who holds a book in his hand is free of the inmost minds of men past and present; their lives both within and without the pale of their uttered thoughts are unveiled to him; he needs no introduction to the greatest; he stands on no ceremony with them; he may, if he be so minded, scribble “doggerel” on his Shelley, or he may kick Lord Byron, if he please, into a corner. He hears Burke perorate, and Johnson dogmatize, and Scott tell his border tales, and Wordsworth muse on the hillside, without the leave of any man or the payment of any toll. In the republic of letters there are no privileged orders or places reserved. Every man who has written a book, even the diligent Mr. Whitaker, is in one sense an author; “a book’s a book although there’s nothing in’t;” and every man who can decipher a penny journal is in one sense a reader. And your “general reader,” like the grave-digger in Hamlet, is hail-fellow with all the mighty dead: he pats the skull of the jester, batters the cheek of lord, lady, or courtier, and uses “imperious Cæsar” 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 agreeable rascal by our firesides,—we who will take up any pleasant fellow’s printed memoirs, we who delight in the agreeable 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 consumes in a year,—all the idle tales of which the very names and the story are forgotten in a week, the bookmaker’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 street; the flirtations of their maiden aunts; and the circumstances surrounding the birth of their grandmother’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 companions out of the street, as easily as an idler in a tavern. “I came across such-and-such a book that I never heard mentioned,” 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, about we care not what. Yet if a printer and a bookseller can be induced to make this gabble as immortal as print and publication 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 discoursing on the whole duty of man. I take that part of our reading which by itself is no doubt harmless, entertaining, and even gently instructive. But of this enormous 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 proportion 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 honorable, precious, and satisfying. Alas! books cannot be more than the men who write them; and as a fair proportion 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, pictures, fiddles, bonnets, and other products of human industry. 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 indifferent; 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 difficulties 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 possible 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 exposed 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 products 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 extended 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 altogether favorable to the knowing of the best. I listen with mixed satisfaction to the pæans 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 fulfill that promise? The Nile is the source of the Egyptian’s bread, and without it he perishes of hunger. But the Nile may be rather too liberal in his flood, and then the Egyptian runs imminent 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 practically so troublesome to find out that which it is of vital importance 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 impossibility 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 should 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 Paternoster Row the sublime picture of our Milton in his early retirement at Horton, when, musing over his coming flight to the epic heaven, practicing 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 systematically 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 inundation of graceful academic verse, sugary stanzas of ladylike 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 conceived, 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. Possibly 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 entertained 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 prodigious, 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 sea-shore, as much as our living friend differs from a dead rat. We know that much in the myriad-peopled 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 remnants 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….

    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 nothing. To turn over the pages of ten thousand volumes is to be practically indifferent to all that is good….

    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 inquirers 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 best. 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 Zoïlus 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, Calderón, Goethe, so much “Hebrew-Greek” to you; if your Homer and Virgil, your Molière and Scott, rest year after year undisturbed on their shelves beside your school trigonometry and your old college textbooks; if you have never opened the ‘Cid,’ the ‘Nibelungen,’ ‘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 digestion 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 the ‘Paradise Lost’ is a task as irksome as it would be to decipher an ill-written manuscript in a language that is almost forgotten. But although we are not to be always reading epics, and are chiefly in the mood for slighter things, to be absolutely unable to read Milton or Dante with enjoyment is to be in a very bad way. Aristophanes, Theocritus, Boccaccio, Cervantes, Molière, are often as light as the driven foam; but they are not light enough for the general reader. Their humor is too bright and lovely for the groundlings. They are, alas! “classics,” somewhat apart from our every-day ways; they are not banal enough for us: and so for us they slumber “unknown in a long night,” just because they are immortal poets and are not scribblers of to-day.

    When will men understand that the reading of great books is a faculty to be acquired, not a natural gift, at least not to those who are spoiled by our current education and habits of life? Ceci tuera cela, the last great poet might have said of the first circulating library. An insatiable appetite for new novels makes it as hard to read a masterpiece as it seems to a Parisian boulevardier to live in a quiet country. Until a man can truly enjoy a draught of clear water bubbling from a mountain-side, his taste is in an unwholesome state. And so he who finds the Heliconian spring insipid should look to the state of his nerves. Putting aside the iced air of the difficult mountain-tops of epic, tragedy, or psalm, there are some simple pieces which may serve as an unerring test of a healthy or a vicious taste for imaginative work. If the ‘Cid,’ the ‘Vita Nuova,’ the ‘Canterbury Tales,’ Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnets,’ and ‘Lycidas’ pall on a man; if he care not for Malory’s ‘Morte d’Arthur’ and the ‘Red Cross Knight’; if he thinks ‘Crusoe’ and the ‘Vicar’ books for the young; if he thrill not with the ‘Ode to the West Wind’ and the ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’; if he have no stomach for ‘Christabel’ or the lines written on ‘The Wye above Tintern Abbey,’—he should fall on his knees and pray for a cleanlier and quieter spirit.

    The intellectual system of most of us in these days needs “to purge and to live cleanly.” Only by such a course of treatment shall we bring our minds to feel at peace with the grand pure works of the world. Something we ought all to know of the masterpieces of antiquity, and of the other nations of Europe. To understand a great national poet such as Dante, Calderón, Corneille, or Goethe, is to know other types of human civilization in ways which a library of histories does not sufficiently teach. The great masterpieces of the world are thus, quite apart from the charm and solace they give us, the master instruments of a solid education.