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All books may be divided into two classes, --- books of the hour, and books of all time. Yat it is not merely the bad book that does not last, and the good one that does. There are good books for the hour and good ones for all time; bad books for the hour and bad ones for all time. I must define the two kinds before I go on.
The good book of the hour, then, — I do not speak of the bad ones, – is simply the useful or pleasant talk of some person printed for you. Very useful often, telling you what you need to know; very pleasant often, as sensible friends' present talk would be. These bright accounts of travels, good-humored and witty discussions of question, lively or pathetic story-telling in the form of novel, firm fact-telling all these books of the hour are the peculiar possession of the present age.
We ought to be entirely thankful for them, and entirely ashamed of ourselves if we make no good use of them. But we make the worst possible use, if we allow them to usurp the place of true books; for, strictly speaking, they are not books at all, but merely letters or newspapers in good print.
Our friend's letter may be delightful, or necessary, to-day; whether worth keeping or not, is to be considered. The newspaper may be entirely proper at breakfast time, but it is not reading for all day. So, though bound up in a volume, the long letter which gives you so pleasant an account of the inns and roads and weather last year at such a place, or which tells you that amusing story, or relates such and such circumstances of interest, may not be, in the real sense of the word, a “book” at all, nor, in the real sense, to be “ read.”
A book is not a talked thing, but a written thing. The book of talk is printed only because its author cannot speak to thousands of people at once; if be could, he would — the volume is mere multiplication of the voice. You cannot talk to your friend in India; if you could, you would; you write instead : that is merely a way of carrying the voice. But a book is written, not to multiply the voice merely, not to carry it merely, but to preserve it. The author has something to say which he perceives to be true and useful, or helpfully beautiful. So far as he knows, no one has yet said it; so far as he knows, no one can say it. He is bound to say it, clearly and in a melodious manner if he may; clearly, at all events.
In the sum of his life he finds this to be the thing, or group of things, manifest to him; this the piece of
true knowledge, or sight, which his share of sunshine and earth has allowed him to seize. He would set it down forever ; carve it on a rock, if he could, saying, “ This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate and drank and slept, loved and hated, like another; my life was as the vapor, and is not; but this I saw and knew: this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.” That is his “ writing "; that is a “ book.”
Now books of this kind have been written in all ages by their greatest men by great leaders, great statesmen, great thinkers. These are all at your choice; and life is short. You have heard as much before ; yet have you measured and mapped out this short life and its possibilities? Do you know, if you read this, that you cannot read that — that what you lose to-day you cannot gain to-morrow?
Will you go and gossip with the housemaid, or the stable boy, when you may talk with queens and kings? Do you ask to be the companion of nobles? Make yourself noble, and you shall be. Do you long for the conversation of the wise ? Learn to understand it and you shall hear it. But on other terms ? — no. If
you will not rise to them, they cannot stoop to you.
Very ready we are to say of a book, “How good this is — that is just what I think !” But the right feeling is, “ How strange that is ! I never thought of that before, and yet I see it is true; or if I do not now, I hope I shall some day.” But whether you feel thus or not, at least be sure that you go to the author to get at his meaning, not to find yours. And be sure also, if the author is worth anything, that you will not get at his meaning all at once; nay, that at his whole meaning you may not for a long time arrive in any wise. Not that he does not say what he means, and in strong words too; but he cannot say it all, and, what is more strange, will not, but in a hidden way in order that he may be sure you want it.
When, therefore, you come to a good book, you must ask yourself, “Am I ready to work as an Australian miner would ? Are my pickaxes in good order, and am I in good trim myself, my sleeves well up to the elbow, and my breath good, and my temper?” For your pickaxes are your own care, wit, and learning; your smelting furnace is your own thoughtful soul. Do not hope to get at any good author's meaning without these tools and that fire; often you will need sharpest, finest carving, and the most careful melting, before you can gather one grain of the precious gold. ...
I cannot, of course, tell you what to choose for your library, for every several mind needs different books; but there are some books which we all need,
and which if you read as much as you ought, you will not need to have your shelves enlarged to right and left for purposes of study.
If you want to understand any subject whatever, read the best book upon it you can hear of.
A common book will often give you amusement, but it is only a noble book which will give you dear friends.
Avoid that class of literature which has a knowing tone; it is the most poisonous of all.
Every good book, or piece of book, is full of admiration and awe; and it always leads you to reverence or love something with your whole heart. It may become necessary
you, as you advance in life, to set your hand to things that need to be altered in the world; but for a young person the safest temper is one of reverence, and the safest place one of obscurity.
Certainly at present, and perhaps through all your life, your teachers are wisest when they make you content in quiet virtue; and that literature and art are best for you which point out in common life and familiar things the objects for hopeful labor and for humble love.