Of Books

— Time has brought about a striking change from the ancient days, when reading was a study, to these, when it is to most people merely an elevated and favorite form of amusement. Many books, the varied character of those books, and the spread of general culture alike contribute to the change, the diversity of our modern literature most of all. For we may each of us now discover some class of books which suits our individual taste without making such demand upon our intellectual powers as to place our reading beyond the limits of amusement. The ordinary reader looks no further than this ; and of these ordinary readers there are enough in the world to keep authors fairly busy. Not that I would depreciate the special function of those writings that amuse. Can one be too grateful for the art that so often brings ease from sorrow, change of thought, forgetfulness of pain ? An excellent but despotic nurse I know endeavors to control the reading of at least the submissive among her patients. I remember her telling me, upon one occasion, of a shocking frivolity displayed by the friend of a sufferer from a lingering illness. “ She sent round a parcel of books for the invalid’s reading, and when I opened it, why, I found they were all paper-covered novels ! So I just put them aside without saying a word about them, and let the poor thing have a few good religious books of my own instead. To think of sending novels to a person on what might be her death-bed ! ” The patient did die, certainly ; but there has always remained a lingering doubt in my mind whether the change of books might not have been somewhat to blame.

The power of books is now being very completely illustrated by those replies to the query propounded to our distinguished men, which appear under the heading of “ Books that have influenced me.” Perhaps there are many of us who, without being in the least distinguished, might furnish something interesting and valuable in its degree in a candid reviewal of the books that have influenced us. To the littérateur such inquiry seems to have a singular charm. Naturally it takes somewhat the form of personal confessions. A man must inevitably show something of his own character, betray the workings of his inner self, merely in signifying his personal choice of books; still more in making clear the effect produced upon his life by them. But this may perhaps be only a further attraction. Men like to talk about themselves, and other men, as a rule, enjoy such talk. There is scarcely a literary man who has won more of real affection from thousands of unknown readers than has Oliver Wendell Holmes ; and this warm feeling for the man is born, in spite of all intervening of distance, varying receptiveness of thought, or difference of time and place and circumstance, from his capacity for pleasant, pathetic, or gossipy self-revelation. You remember how he heads one special chapter of the Autocrat, and adds that the sentence should have been saved for a motto on the titlepage, — “ Aqui está encerada el alma del licenciado Pedro Garcia.” “ Here lies buried the soul ” might well be written on the title-page of many a book which bears with it the conscious, or possibly unaware, utterances of soul-confession. The desk is the greatest of confessionals. There is expressed the yearning desire in the heart of man to be by others completely understood, — a vain longing, while as yet no man can attain to the fulfillment of that precept, “ Know thyself; ” but still he hopes, and those to whom the mighty gift of thought-expression comes still send out their messages, in trust that somewhere, even if but here and there, one solitary response from that “ great unknown world of souls ” may answer the spirit and understanding of these his fellow-men.

It is curious to think of the different place books occupy in the lives of different persons. To some they are a daily necessity; to others reading at all is merely an incidental embroidery upon life, pleasant in its way, but to be dispensed with quite easily if need be. However, the present movement is more and more in the direction of literary study. The sage of Erewhon advocated the extinction of machines upon the ground of their otherwise eventual supremacy over man. “ How many men,” he asked, “ are now living in a state of bondage to machines ? How many spend their lives from the cradle to the grave in tending them night and day ? Is it not plain that the machines are gaining ground upon us when we reflect on the increasing number of those who are bound down to them as slaves, and of those who devote their whole souls to the advancement of the mechanical kingdom ? ” The sage might perhaps have feared for us the growing supremacy of books. Each year now sees a further broadening of the literary kingdom, an increase in the number of those who devote their lives to literary effort. It is to be hoped the world will never think it needful to resort; to such strong measures for man’s defense as those adopted at Erewhon, in the wholesale destruction of machines. Imagine the emptiness of life when there remained no familiar book-shelves, no libraries where the distrusted volumes might gather to conspire against the place of humankind ; the woe of authors who found their occupation gone, and of devoted readers left forlorn in a world devoid of books and writers, poets, novelists, and — essayists !