Friday, January 06, 2017

How to read ... as good now as it was in 1883

... you should find out what you want to read, find out what you want to know about, find out what subjects most interest you-and then, when you have found out, read the best books on this subject. Don't layout a course of reading, or, if you do, rest assured that before it is finished you will be laid out. A course of reading is like an encyclopedia; it is meant to take in everything. Now, anybody who believes that he can take in everything will be taken in himself. The mass of accumulated knowledge is now enormous, and to take even a cursory view of it all is only possible for a very well-educated man. To know something of everything is getting, day by day, to be a harder task. But to know almost everything about something is more nearly within everybody's reach. To know absolutely everything on a given subject is not possible even to the specialist, but to get a good grasp of a subject, be it scientific, or historical, or literary, to know what is best worth knowing about it- this can be done by almost anybody with good will and a little perseverance. And what a gain it is when you once have it! What a satisfaction it is to feel that of one subject, at least, you are master! Other people may know more of other things, but, if they once come on your ground, you are at home, and can receive them with easy hospitality. The mastery of one subject is the basis of culture. Besides knowing how much there is to know on any subject, measuring the depth of your own ignorance is a very wholesome mental discipline, and tends to make you listen more attentively to others on subjects which you know them to have studied. (Incidentally it is to be said that a due appreciation of the value of the opinion of specialists is a need in this country-as the greenback craze goes to show.)

Now, the way to master a subject is to begin at the beginning. Suppose you want to know about Greek literature. You have noted one of Macaulay's or Matthew Arnold's glowing tributes to the noble simplicity of Grecian writing, and you want to read about it. Get Jebb's "Primer of Greek Literature," which is almost as good as Stopford Brooke's" Primer of English Literature"- as high praise as one can give any book of the kind. This will tell you the conditions under which the Greeks worked. Then if you are attracted toward any other writer, and want to know more about him, get the volume in which he and his works and discussed at length in the series of "Ancient Classics for English Readers." By the time you have read that, you will know whether you really want to study this Greek author or not, whether you are capable of appreciating him, and, therefore, whether your time and attention can be given to him to advantage.

The one thing young readers need most to be warned against is the reading of standard classics which they do not appreciate, which they do not like, and which they are really bored by. If you can not appreciate a great author, if he tires you, if he does not interest you, put him down and begin again more humbly. In time, if you keep on cultivating your taste, you can take him up again with a greater hope of success. If you can not read "Paradise Lost" with enjoyment, while you can enjoy" Beautiful Snow," do not try to read" Paradise Lost" just yet. Try the works of other old poets; perhaps you may find something which you do like as well as "Beautiful Snow." You may rest assured that it will be better.

As soon as the taste for reading is formed, that taste begins to improve, and its improvement should be sedulously cultivated. Every man who has read a great deal will tell you that he has left far behind him the books he admired when he began. What he admired at twenty is far inferior to what he admires at thirty or forty. He is constantly going up a literary ladder. Now, it makes little matter on what round of the lander the reader begins, so long as he climbs. It is the act of climbing which is beneficial, not the elevation attained. If you are a boy, and you read for excitement, for adventure, and for this reason take a story-paper, give it up, and try one of Mr. Towle's series of books about the" Heroes of History," or one of Dr. Eggleston's "Lives of Famous Indians." I think you would find these, if not so feverish and breathless as the story-paper, full of real interest and healthy excitement. The advantage of getting an interest in these figures from real life is that you are not limited to the one book about them; if you want to find out more, there are other books to be consulted, and, more than all, there is some real knowledge gained, for you to add to. If Mr. Towle's " Pizarro" attracts you, go from that to Prescott's narrative of the conquest of Peru; and from that you may be led to his other histories of the Spanish dominion in America, and Prescott may thus introduce you to Irving and to Motley. And, when you have got so far, the whole field of European history is open before you. The one rule to begin is: Get the best-the best, that is, that you can read with satisfaction, and then go onward and upward.

And this brings us to the third class-those who know what to read, but desire advice as to how to get the best results from their reading. Having formed the habit of reading, and having thus got your foot on the ladder of literary culture, how are you to get the most result from these? First of all, always think over a book when you have finished it. Criticize it. Form your own opinion of it. If you liked it, ask yourself why you liked it. If you disliked it, ask yourself why you did not like it. See if the fault was in the book or in you. If you were greatly interested, try and find out whether this was due to the author or to the subject. In short, consider carefully the impression the book has left on yo~. No matter how poor a book may be, the cheapest bit of cheap fiction, you ought to form an opinion about it, and be able to give some sort of a reason for it. It may not be easy at first, but practice makes perfect.

Then, if you can find somebody else who has read the book, talk it over; exchange your impression for his impression, and see whether, on sober second thought, he is more nearly right than you or not. Books which have been read by all of a family are excellent topics for general talk at table. And the listening to such talk is often of great influence on children. Children are naturally desirous of doing like grown folks; and, seeing that grown folks read and talk about books, makes them desirous to read books also, that they may have something to talk about too.

Try to correct your opinion of a book and to refreshen it by reading about it. If you have been reading a great author, see what the great critics have been saying of him. If you have been reading an essay on a great author or a biography of him, take up his own works next, that you may gain the benefit of the interest around about him. If you have been reading any special history, try and see .how it fits into the general history of the world: and for this purpose I know no books to be compared with Mr. Freeman's" Primer of European History" and his" First Sketch of History." These begin at the beginning, and tell the march of events to our generation. They are too slight and too much in outline-too rigid, indeed, to be the best works for one ignorant in history; but for reviewing one's knowledge, for tying together the information one has got from special histories, I know no better books.

Then, as you are reading a book, it is well to mark important passages. If the book is your own-and a man should own as many good books as he can-make a light mark with a hard pencil in the margin of the passage. If the book is not yours, put in a slip of paper. When you have ended the book, read over the marked passages, and index those which on this second reading seem worthy of it, or likely in any way to be of use to you. If the book is yours, turn to the blank page at the end and give a hint of the passage and the page it is on; thus:

John Brown. p. 21,
Shakespearean quotation, p. 47,
Anecdote of a wise dog, p. 93,

and so on. If the book is not yours, take a page in a notebook, or a sheet of note-paper, and make your index on that, heading it with the title of the book, or begin a Commonplace Book.

Mr. Joseph Cook tells us that he marks important passages with a line on the outer margin of the book he is reading, more important with a double line, and most important with a triple line; while passages that he disagrees with or disapproves of are marked in like manner with one, two, or three lines on the inner margin. He advises the committing to memory of all three-line passages. The reader should also strenuously cultivate the habit of searching diligently in dictionaries and encyclopedia and gazetteers, and in whatever books of reference he can get access to. He should let no allusion pass without an effort to find out what it means. Macaulay bristles with allusions, but there are scarcely any that a quick reader can not dig out of an encyclopedia in a few minutes. And, when found, make a note of it-as Cap'n Cuttle tells us. It is this faculty of filling up the breaks in his information which marks the man of education. It was the Bishop of Manchester who gave a good definition of the educated man: "When a man goes out into the world knowing when he does know a thing, knowing when he does not know a thing, and knowing how knowledge is to be acquired, I call him a perfectly educated man."

It will astonish a beginner to find out how soon the habit of looking up things will beget a facility. As John Hill Burton says, in the Bookhunter, "all inquirers, like pointers, have a sort of instinct, sharpened by training and practice, the power and acuteness of which astonish the unlearned." It is this" reading with the fingers," this turning over of the pages rapidly and alighting on the exact spot where the thing wanted is to be found-this is the best test of active scholarship. "It is what enabled Bayle to collect so many flowers of literature-all so interesting, and yet all found in comers so distant and obscure."

THE HOME LIBRARY, Arthur Penn. D. Appleton and Company, New York: 1883, Pp. 32-38.

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