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An essay by James Runciman

The Surfeit Of Books

Title:     The Surfeit Of Books
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

Sir John Lubbock once spoke to a company of working-men, and gave them some advice on the subject of reading. Sir John is the very type of the modern cultured man; he has managed to learn something of everything. Finance is of course his strong point; but he stands in the first rank of scientific workers; he is a profound political student; and his knowledge of literature would suffice to make a great reputation for any one who chose to stand before the world as a mere literary specialist alone. This consummate all-round scholar picked out one hundred books which he thought might be read with profit, and, after reciting his appalling list, he cheerfully remarked that any reader who got through the whole set might consider himself a well-read man. I most fervently agree with this opinion. If any student in the known world contrived to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest Sir John's hundred works, he would be equipped at all points; but the trouble is that so few of us have time in the course of our brief pilgrimage to master even a dozen of the greatest books that the mind of man has put forth. Moreover, if we could swallow the whole hundred prescribed by our gracious philosopher, we should really be very little the better after performing the feat. A sort of literary indigestion would ensue, and the mind of the learned sufferer would rest under a perpetual nightmare until charitable oblivion dulled the memory of the enormous mass of talk. Sir John thinks we should read Confucius, the Hindoo religious poetry, some Persian poetry, Thucydides, Tacitus, Cicero, Homer, Virgil, a little--a very little--Voltaire, Moliere, Sheridan, Locke, Berkeley, George Lewes, Hume, Shakspere, Bunyan, Spenser, Pope, Fielding, Macaulay, Marivaux--Alas, is there any need to pursue the catalogue to the bitter end? Need I mention Gibbon, or Froude, or Lingard, or Freeman, or the novelists? To my mind the terrific task shadowed forth by the genial orator was enough to scare the last remnant of resolution from the souls of his toil-worn audience. A man of leisure might skim the series of books recommended; but what about the striving citizens whose scanty leisure leaves hardly enough time for the bare recreation of the body? Is it not a little cruel to tell them that such and such books are necessary to perfect culture, when we know all the while that, even if they went without sleep, they could hardly cover such an immense range of study? Many men and women yearn after the higher mental life and are eager for guidance; but their yearnings are apt to be frozen into the stupor of despair if we raise before them a standard which is hopelessly unattainable by them. I should not dream of approving the saying of Lord Beaconsfield: "Books are fatal; they are the curse of the human race. Nine-tenths of existing books are nonsense, and the clever books are the refutation of that nonsense." Lord Beaconsfield did not believe in the slap-dash words which he put into the mouth of Mr. Phoebus, nor did he believe that the greatness of the English aristocracy arises from the facts that "they don't read books, and they live in the open air." The great scoffer once read for twelve hours every day during an entire year, and his general knowledge of useful literature was quite remarkable. But, while rejecting epigrammatic fireworks, I am bound to say that the habit of reading has become harmful in many cases; it is a sort of intellectual dram-drinking, and it enervates the mind as alcohol enervates the body. If a man's function in life is to learn, then by all means let him be learned. When Macaulay took the trouble to master thousands of rubbishy pamphlets, poems, plays, and fictions, in order that he might steep his mind in the atmosphere of a particular period in history, he was quite justified. The results of his research were boiled down into a few vivid emphatic pages, and we had the benefit of his labour. When Carlyle spent thirteen mortal years in grubbing among musty German histories that nearly drove him mad with their dulness, the world reaped the fruit of his dreary toil, and we rejoiced in the witty, incomparable life of Frederick II. When poor Emanuel Deutsch gave up his brilliant life to the study of the obscurest chapters in the Talmud, he did good service to the human race, for he placed before us in the most lucid way a summary of the entire learning of a wondrous people. It was good that these men should fulfil their function; it was right on their part to read widely, because reading was their trade. But there must be division of labour in the vast society of human beings, and any man who endeavours to neglect this principle, and who tries to fill two places in the social economy, does so at his peril.

Living cheek by jowl with us, there are hundreds and thousands of persons who are ruining their minds by a kind of literary debauch. They endeavour to follow on the footsteps of the specialists; they struggle to learn a little of everything, and they end by knowing nothing. They commit mental suicide: and, although no disgrace attaches to this species of self-murder, yet disgrace is not the only thing we have to fear in the course of our brief pilgrimage. We emerge from eternity, we plunge into eternity; we have but a brief space to poise ourselves in the light ere we drop into the gulf of doom, and our duty is to be miserly over every moment and every faculty that is vouchsafed to us. The essentials of thought and knowledge are contained in a very few books, and the most toilsome drudge who ever preached a sermon, drove a rivet, or swept a floor may become perfectly educated by exercising a wise self-restraint, by resolutely refusing to be guided by the ambitious advice of airy cultured persons, and by mastering a few good books to the last syllable. Mr. Ruskin is one of our greatest masters of English, and his supremacy as a thinker is sufficiently indicated by Mazzini's phrase--"Ruskin has the most analytic mind in Europe." No truer word was ever spoken than this last, for, in spite of his dogmatic disposition, Mr. Ruskin does utter the very transcendencies of wisdom. Now this glorious writer of English, this subtlest of thinkers, was rigidly kept to a very few books until he reached manhood. Under the eye of his mother he went six times through the Bible, and learned most of the Book by heart. This in itself was a discipline of the most perfect kind, for the translators of the Bible had command of the English tongue at the time when it was at its noblest. Then Mr. Ruskin read Pope again and again, thus unconsciously acquiring the art of expressing meaning with a complete economy of words. In the evening he heard the Waverley Novels read aloud until he knew the plot, the motive, the ultimate lesson of all those beautiful books. When he was fourteen years old, he read one or two second-rate novels over and over again; and even this was good training, in that it showed him the faults to be avoided. Before his boyhood was over, he read his Byron with minute attention, and once more he was introduced to a master of expression. Byron is a little out of fashion now, alas! and yet what a thinker the man was! His lightning eye pierced to the very heart of things, and his intense grip on the facts of life makes his style seem alive. No wonder that the young Ruskin learned to think daringly under such a master! Now many people fancy that our great critic must be a man of universal knowledge. What do they think of this narrow early training? The use and purport of it all are plain enough to us, for we see that the gentle student's intellect was kept clear of lumber; his thoughts were not battened down under mountains of other men's, and, when he wanted to fix an idea, he was not obliged to grope for it in a rubbish heap of second-hand notions. Of course he read many other authors by slow degrees; but, until his manhood came, his range was restricted. The flawless perfection of his work is due mainly to his mother's sedulous insistence on perfection within strict bounds. Again, and keeping still to authors, Charles Dickens knew very little about books. His keen business-like intellect perceived that the study of life and of the world's forces is worth more than the study of letters, and he also kept himself clear of scholarly lumber. He read Fielding, Smollett, Gibbon, and, in his later life, he was passionately fond of Tennyson's poetry; but his greatest charm as a writer and his success as a social reformer were both gained through his simple power of looking at things for himself without interposing the dimness that falls like a darkening shadow on a mind that is crammed with the conceptions of other folk. Look at the practical men! Nasmyth scarcely read at all; Napoleon always spoke of literary persons as "ideologists;" Stephenson was nineteen before he mastered his Bible; Mahomet was totally uneducated; Gordon was content with the Bible, "Pilgrim's Progress," and Thomas a Kempis; Hugh Miller became an admirable editor without having read twoscore books in his lifetime. Go right through the names on the roll of history, and it will be found that in all walks of life the men who most influenced their generation despised superfluous knowledge. They learned thoroughly all that they thought it necessary to learn within a very limited compass; they learned, above all, to think; and they then were ready to speak or act without reference to any authority save their own intellect. If we turn to the great book-men, we find mostly a deplorable record of failure and futility. Their lives were passed in making useless comments on the works of others. Look at the one hundred and eighty volumes of the huge catalogue in which are inscribed the names of Shakspere's commentators. Most of these poor laborious creatures were learned in the extreme, and yet their work is humiliating to read, so gross is its pettiness, so foolish is its wire-drawn scholarship. Over all the crowd of his interpreters the royal figure of the poet towers in grand unlearned simplicity. He knew Plutarch, and he thought for himself; his commentators knew everything, and did not think at all. Compare the supreme poet's ignorance with the other men's extravagant erudition! Think of the men whom I may call book-eaters! Dr. Parr was a driveller; Porson was a sort of learned pig who routed up truffles in the classic garden; poor Buckle became, through stress of books, a shallow thinker; Mezzofanti, with his sixty-four languages and dialects, was perilously like a fool; and more than one modern professor may be counted as nothing else but a vain, over-educated boor.

Another word, which may seem like heresy. I contend that the main object of reading--after a basis of solid culture has been acquired--is to gain amusement. No one was ever the worse for reading good novels, for human fortunes will always interest human beings. I would say keep clear of Sir John Lubbock's terrific library, and seek a little for pleasure. You have authoritative examples before you. Prince Bismarck, once the arbiter of the world, reads Miss Braddon and Gaboriau; Professor Huxley, the greatest living biologist, reads novels wholesale; the grim Moltke read French and English romances; Macaulay used fairly to revel in the hundreds of stories that he read till he knew them by heart. With these and a hundred other examples before us, the humblest and most laborious in the community may without scruple read the harmless tales of fictitious joys and sorrows, after they have secured that narrow minute training which alone gives grasp and security to the intellect.

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James Runciman's essay: Surfeit Of Books