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The Surfeit Of Books
by [?]

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.