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to every purpose under heaven'; and again, 'A wise man's heart discerneth both time and judgment,' wrote the Preacher of Judah. Yet mindful though we be of these ancient words of wisdom, how rarely do we apply them to our everyday reading! If we be in the mood for reading we pick up any book at random ; if it please us at the moment, we continue to read it. If it be distasteful to us, we put it aside immediately. Possibly we recollect, next time that our eyes light upon a volume so discarded, that it was once displeasing, and we never take it up again. So, it may be urged, our mind exercises the power of selection for us : we can only absorb at any given time the class of literary food for which our mind then happens to be hungry.
But the truth is far otherwise. If we take up and read a book at random, in nine cases out of ten we continue to read it simply because it entails no mental effort. We do not have to think of what we are reading; our eyes gallop over sentence after sentence, and so long as the language is colloquial and the facts are bald, all is well, and we can go on and on. It is not only the body that, unchecked, is inclined to be slothful. Unless we have as complete a control over our minds as we have over our limbs, it is quite impossible that our reading shall benefit us to its full extent.
There is another point of view also. 'Every
book that we take up without a purpose is an opportunity lost of taking up a book with a purpose.'1 And this does not mean that we should always be reading 'improving' books, that we must never read for recreation alone; for, we repeat, “there is a time to every purpose under heaven. But it does insist most emphatically that there should be a rhyme and a reason for reading any book at any time. There is a time for work and a time for play in reading no less than in the daily cycle of our lives. As to what shall constitute recreative reading, that is a matter which every man must decide for himself. We will venture to prophesy, however, that, by judicious selection and thoughtful reading, there will come a time when he will consider the reading of the great books to constitute the finest mental recreation in the world.
To return, however, to the great writers, those giants of whom we have said that it behoves us all to know something at least. Must we read them all? Let us leave 'must' out of the question; for our lifetime, however long it may be, will be scarcely sufficient to know and appreciate to the full these great masters of human thought. Yet at least it can be our aim ever to feed our minds only upon food of the finest quality and of a permanent nutritive value. But alas ! How terribly limited are our capacities both as regards time and opportunity! How narrow the bounds which confine our reading abilities! Though a list of the great writers contain all the constituents of an Epicurean feast, yet to most of us it resembles the menu of a Gargantuan banquet.
1 Mr. Frederic Harrison.
As to the classics of the old world, surely, it may be urged, in such an essentially practical age we can afford to neglect books so hopelessly out of date? Yet there can be no greater mistake than to imagine that the wisdom of the old world can ever be out of date, for it is the wisdom that has created the civilisation of the newer world. Countless generations of men may pass away and be utterly forgotten, but the principles of morality inherent in man's nature will endure for ever. And it is these great principles of all that is good and noble in our nature that is brought out and developed insensibly by the study of the classics in our youth. Moreover they are books that have been accepted by all the nations of Europe as containing the bases of human thought. Something at least we should all know of these great writers common to all civilised nations.
To most of us, however, there is an insurmountable barrier surrounding them, the matter of language. The knowledge of Greek and Latin that we acquired at school has become painfully rusty. Is it worth while slogging away laboriously with grammar and dictionary at the expense of valuable time which might otherwise be devoted
to the more modern classics in our own tongue ? Candidly, it is not. If we have retained sufficient of our Greek and Latin to read it at sight with but an occasional reference to the dictionary well and good; but otherwise it is a painful waste of time. Hamerton recommends that we read the ancients with the help of literal translations beside the original, in which way, he says, we 'may attain a closer acquaintance with ancient literature than would be possible by translation alone.' But to many an English version must be the only door by which they may enter Attica and Rome.
After all, it is for each one of us to decide how widely our time and opportunities shall permit us to wander on the slopes of Mount Parnassus. “The best time-savers are the love of soundness in all we learn to do, and a cheerful acceptance of inevitable limitations.'1 Yet it is better to have wandered on the lowermost slopes of the mountain than never to have entered ancient Greece at all.
Who nowadays, outside the universities, reads these ancient classics ? Where will you find a business man of thirty years of age whose delight in his leisure time is the reading of Horace or Homer? Here and there, perhaps, you may come across a man of classical education who still retains the love of ancient Greece and Rome, instilled into him in his youth, sufficiently to
1 P. G. Hamerton.
influence the course of his reading; but he is a rarity indeed. Among the many thousands of young men employed in business in the great cities, most of whom have learnt something at least of the classics in their youth, scarcely will you find one who will confess to having time for such literature. Yet all these thousands read many books each year, and can always find time to devour the latest popular novel.
It is chiefly a question of recreation versus education. Tired and jaded with the day's business, the young man of to-day has little inclination to devote his leisure time to study. Light frothy literature removes his thoughts from worldly cares, and by a complete change of subject stimulates a mind that has been enervated by concentration for hours on one particular theme. No effort is required, and, more important still, it does not make one think.
For daily reading in the train or over meals, with this purpose always in view, so far so good. But what of the many hours of leisure in every man's life, when no mental recreation is needed ? What does the average man read, then? It must be confessed that in nine cases out of ten his literature remains precisely the same. Doubtless the reason is simply because, having always been accustomed to reading the same kind of books, he knows no other sort. Mention Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley, and he stares at you aghast.