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Authors: Newell Dwight Hillis

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BOOK: A Man's Value to Society
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"All that mankind has done, thought or been is lying as in magic preservation in the pages of books. They are the chosen possession of men."--

"We need to be reminded every day how many are the books of inimitable glory, which, with all our eagerness after reading, we have never taken into our hands. It will astonish most of us to find how much of our very industry is given to the books which have no worth, how often we rake in the litter of the printing press, whilst a crown of gold and rubies is offered us in vain."--
F. Harrison.



Paul was at once a thinker, a theologian, and a statesman, because he was always a scholar. One duty he never neglected--the duty of self-culture through reading. Certain companions were ever with him--his favorite authors. Imprisoned in Rome, the burden of his letters to his young friend in Ephesus was books and the duty of reading. Himself a Hebrew, by much study he became a cosmopolitan and a citizen of the wide-lying universe. Like Emerson, he believed that "the scholar was a favorite of heaven and earth, the excellency of his country, and the happiest of men." Saner intellect than his never trod this earth, and could he speak to our age, with its fret and fever, his message would certainly include some words about the companionship of good books.

The supreme privilege of our generation is not rapid transit, nor the increase of comforts and luxuries. Modern civilization hath its flower and fruitage in books and culture for all through reading. Should the dream of the astronomer ever come true, and science establish a code of electric signals with the people of Mars, our first message would not be about engines, nor looms, nor steamships. Not the telephone by which men speak across continents, but the book by which living men and dead men converse across centuries, would be the burden of the first message. President Porter once said that the savage visiting London with Livingstone appreciated everything except the libraries. The poor black man understood the gallery, for the face of his child answered to that of Raphael's cherub and seraph. He understood the cathedral, with its aisles and arches, for it reminded him of his own altars and funeral hymns. He understood the city, for it seemed like many little towns brought together in one. But the great library, crowded from floor to ceiling with books, the strange, white pages over which bowed the reader, while smiles flitted across his face as one sun-spot chases another over the warm April hills, the black marks causing the reader's tears to flow down upon the open page, made up a mystery the poor savage could not understand. No explanation availed for the necromancy of the library.

For wise men the joys of reading are life's crowning pleasures. Books are our universities, where souls are the professors. Books are the looms that weave rapidly man's inner garments. Books are the levelers--not by lowering the great, but by lifting up the small. A book literally fulfills the story of the Wandering Jew, who sits down by our side and like a familiar friend tells us what he hath seen and heard through twenty centuries of traveling through Europe. Newton's "Principia" means that at last stars and suns have broken into voice. Agassiz's zoölogy causes each youth to be a veritable Noah, to whom it is given to behold all insects and beasts and birds going two by two into the world's great ark. God hath given us four inferior teachers, including travel, occupation, industry, conversation, and four teachers superior, including love, grief, death--but chiefly books.

Wisdom and knowledge are derived from sources many and various. Like ancient Thebes, the soul is a city having gates on every side. There is the eye gate, and through it pass friends, a multitude of strangers, the forests, the fields, the marching clouds. There is the ear gate, and therein go trooping all sweet songs, all conversation and eloquence, all laughter with Niobe's woe and grief. There is conversation, and thereby we cross the threshold of another's mind, and wander through the halls of memory and the chambers of imagination. But these faculties are limited. The ear was made for one sweet song, not for a thousand. Conversation is with one friend living, not with Pliny and Pericles. The vision stays upon yonder horizon; but beyond the line where earth and sky do meet are distant lands and historic scenes; beyond are battle-fields all stained with blood; beyond are the Parthenon and the pyramids. So books come in to increase the power of vision. Books cause the arctics and the tropics, the mountains and hills, all the generations with their woes and wars, their achievements for liberty and religion, to pass before the mind for instruction and delight. And when books have made men contemporaneous with Socrates and Cicero, with Emerson and Lowell, when they have made man a citizen of every clime and country, they go on to add advantages still more signal. When the royal messenger brought Newton the announcement of the honor bestowed upon him by the Queen, the astronomer was so busy with his studies relating to the "Principia" that he begrudged his visitor even an hour of his time.

The great man was too busy writing for thousands to talk long with a single individual about his discoveries of light and color and his proofs of the moon ever falling toward the earth. Not even to his best friends could the astronomer unfold through conversation what he gives us in his "Principia." When an American author called upon Carlyle he found him in a very peevish mood. Through two hours he listened to this student of heroes and heroism pour forth a savage tirade against all men and things. Never again was the American poet able to associate with Carlyle that fine poise, sanity, and reserve power that belong to the greatest. In his books Carlyle gives his friends, not the peevishness of an evening, but the best moods of all his life, winnowing his intellectual harvests.

Recently an author has given the world reminiscences called "Evenings" with Browning and Tennyson, with Bright and Gladstone. Yet an evening avails only for a few pleasantries, a few anecdotes, a few reminiscences. As well speak of spending an afternoon with Egypt or making an evening call upon Rome. Yet a volume of "In Memoriam" or "The Idylls of the King" enables one to overhear the richest and most masterly thoughts that occupied Tennyson through the best creative years in his career. So striking are the advantages books have over conversation that the brief biography of the Carpenter's Son makes us better acquainted with Jesus Christ than the citizens of Samaria or Bethlehem could possibly have been. To some Nicodemus it was given to hear Him discourse on the new heart; some lawyer heard His story of the good Samaritan; others midst the press and throng caught a part of the tale of the prodigal son. But the momentary glimpse, the fragmentary word, the rumors strange and contradictory, yielded only confusion and mental unrest. But this brief biography exhibits to us His entire career, sets each eager listener down beside Christ while He unrolls each glowing parable, each glorious precept, each call to inspiration and the higher life. Thus books acquaint us with the best men in their best moods.

Books have two advantages. Chiefly they are tools for the mind. The foot's step is short, but the engine lengthens the stride and hastens it. The smith's blow is weak, but the trip-hammer multiplies the might of man's hand. Thus books are mental machines, enabling the mind of man to reap in many harvest fields and multiply the mental treasures. It takes years for Humboldt to search out the wonders of the Andes Mountains and other years for Livingstone to thread his way through the jungles of Africa. But a book, during two or three evenings by the fireside, enables man to journey through the Dark Continent without the dangers of fever, without experiencing the pain from the lion leaping out of the thicket to mutilate the arm of Livingstone. With a book we tramp over the mountains of two continents without once suffering the heavy fall over the precipice that weakened Humboldt. Books enable us to visit climes, cities, civilizations ancient and modern, that without them could never be seen during man's years, so few, and by man's strength, so insufficient. Great men and rich increase their influence by surrounding themselves by servants who fulfill their commands.

Each president and prime minister strengthens himself by a cabinet. But what if the peasant or workman could surround himself with a group of counselors and advisers that included a hundred of the greatest intellects of his generation? What if some Herschel should approach the youth to say, "You need your night's rest for sleep; but for you I will give the years for studying the stars and their movements?" What if some Dana should say, "For you I will decipher the handwriting upon the rocks, trace the movement of the ice plows, search out the influence of the flames as they turn rocks into soil for vineyards?" What if some Audubon should say, "For you I will go through all the forests to find out the life and history of the winged creatures, from the humming-bird to hawk and eagle?" What if Niebuhr should say, "For you I will decipher the monuments, all ruins and obelisks, all man's parchments and manuscripts for setting forth man's upward progress through the centuries?" But this is precisely what books do for us.

Saving man's time and strength, books also increase his manhood and multiply his brain forces. With them, a man of fourscore years ends his career wiser than, without them, he could have been, though he had lived and wrought through ten thousand summers and winters. This is what Emerson means when he says, "Give me a book, health and a June day, and I will make the pomp of kings ridiculous." When the Athenian youth, beloved of the gods, went forth upon his journey, one friend brought him a wondrous armor, proof against arrows; another brought a horse of marvelous swiftness; another brought a bow of great size and strength. Thus armed, the youth conquered his enemies. But when books have armed man against his foes, they go on to change his enemies into friends; they shield him against ignorance; they free him from superstition; they clothe him with gratitude. Thank God for books, cheering our solitude, soothing our sickness, refining our passions, out of defeat leading us to victory! That youth can scarcely fail of character, happiness and success who, day by day, goes to school to sages and seers; who by night hears Dante and Milton discourse upon Paradise; who has for his mentors in office and counting-room some Franklin or Solomon. Experience, supplemented by books, teaches youth more in one year than experience alone will teach him in twenty.

Books also preserve for us the spirit of earth's great ones, just as the cellar of the king holds wines growing more precious with the lapse of years. From time to time God sends to earth some man with a supreme gift called genius. Passing through our life and world, he sees wondrous sights not beholden of our eyes, hears melodies too fine for our dulled hearing. What other men behold as bits of coal, his genius transmutes into diamonds. In the darkness he sleeps to see some "Midsummer Night's Dream;" in the day he wakens to behold the tragedy or comedy in his friend's career. While he muses, the fires of inspiration burn within him. When the time comes, the inner forces burst out in book or song or poem, just as the tulip bulb when April comes publishes its heart of fire and gold. The book he writes is the choicest wine in life, "the gold made fine in the fires of his genius." Seldom come these elect ones, just as the bush burned only once during Moses' many years in the desert. Many foot hills must be united to produce one vast mountain. Only one range of Rockies is needed to support many states. One Mississippi also can drain a continent.

Thinking of these great ones, Milton said: "The book is the life-blood of the master spirit." Just as the wisdom spoken into the phonograph makes marks there to be reproduced at will, so books preserve and repeat the eloquence of the greatest. Through his "Excursion," when Wordsworth says, "I go to the fields to-day," the youth may whisper, "and I go with thee." He may also accompany Layard, going forth to study the old tablets and the monuments; with Scott he may ride with Ivanhoe to castle and tournament; with Virgil and Dante he may shiver at the brink of the inky river or exult over the first glimpse of Paradise.

Well did Charles Lamb suggest that men should say grace--not only over the Christmas festival, but also over the table spread with good books. For man has no truer friends, Earth offers no richer banquet. When Southey grew old and dim of vision, he was seen to totter into his library. Moving about from shelf to shelf the aged scholar laid his hand upon one favorite book and then upon another, while a rare sweet smile passed over his face, just as we lay hand tenderly upon the shoulder of some dear friend. Through their books his old friends, the heroes of the past, had told Southey of their innermost dreams, their passions, their aspirations, what braced them in hours of battle, how they endured when death robbed them of their best. Poor and lonely, full oft the poet had talked with these volumes as with familiar friends. So before he died Southey said to his books "Good night," ere in that bright beyond he said "Good morning" to their authors.

This divine injunction as to the companionship of books bids us search out the use and purpose of reading. Primarily, books are to be read for information and mental strength. The hunger of the body for bread and fruit is not more real than the hunger of the intellect for facts and principles. Knowledge stands in as vital relation to the growth of reason as iron and phosphate to the enrichment of the blood. Ignorance is weakness. Success is knowing how. Ours is a world in which the last fact conquers. In addition to his own experience and reflection, the young artist must stand in some gallery that brings together all the best masters. Standing beside the Elgin marbles in the British Museum, the sculptor must bathe and soak himself in the Greek ideal and spirit, until the Greek thought throbs in his brain, and he feels the Greek enthusiasm for strength in round, lithe arms, and limbs made ready for the race.

But in a large, deep sense, books are the galleries in which spirits are caught and fastened upon the pages. Books are storehouses into which facts and principles have been harvested. Just as a bit of coal tells us what ferns and flowers grew in the far-off era, so the book gives us the very quintessence of man's thoughts about life and duty and death. Nor is there any other way of gaining these vital knowledges. Life is too short to obtain them through conversation or travel. Nor is any youth ready for his task until he has traced the rise and growth of houses, tools, governments, schools, industries, religions. He must also compare race with race, land with land, and star with star. Asked about his ideas of the value of education, a man distinguished in railway circles answered: "I have learned that each new fact has its money value. Other things being equal, the judgment of the man who knows the most must always prevail." But books alone can supplement experience, and give the information that makes man ready against his day of battle.

BOOK: A Man's Value to Society
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