The Miracle Of Books
By James Hosmer Penniman
A book is a miracle wrought by human agency. What more wonderful than that the thought of a lifetime should be made visible and concentrated so as to be carried in the pocket; that black lines and dots upon a white page should bring before our minds the most beautiful images. More remarkable than the telegraph or the telephone, a book not only annihilates space but time, and carries the voice of David or Homer across the seas of the ages.
The miracle of the widow's cruse finds its literal realization in a book. We may take all we can from it but there is just as much left for others with the sole limitation that he gets the most from books who has the most knowledge; to him that hath is given.
No other property is so peculiarly our own as our intellectual possessions. They are always with us; no reversal of fortune can deprive us of them. If we share our knowledge with another we still have it, and perhaps in a more orderly and useful form as the result of contact with a different mind, and the belief in the immortality of the soul makes us sure that our mental acquisitions are taken with us beyond the grave. Education and culture would be of small value if they were to be terminated by the expiration of a few short years of life. Books are the only work of man that may be said to be omniscient. They are the stored-up memory of the race. As all our experience of life would vanish without memory, so all accurate knowledge of mankind would evaporate without books and we should have nothing to depend upon but tradition.
Without books we should know nothing of the workings of the mighty minds of Homer, Virgil, Dante; Shakespeare or Milton. Without them Caesar, Napoleon and Washington would be traditions. We can get but an imperfect idea of the history of our country except from books. Books alone make books possible, and nothing is more rare than a book which does not depend for its material on other books.
Books stereotype and petrify language so that while the spoken word is volatile and changeable we find in books the very words in which we took delight years ago. We may cause to pass through our minds the same thoughts in absolutely the same language that interested Dr. Johnson or Milton; we may even follow out the mental processes of Plato or Aristotle, and see what they enjoyed and note what they thought.
Books intensify thought; a book is better than conversation in that it may be brooded over, revised, extended, polished and continued from time to time, but it cannot answer questions except those anticipated by its author. A writer will put into a book thoughts that he would not or could not express in conversation, and through his books we may know intimately a man who was known only superficially by his most familiar contemporaries.
Books not only acquaint us with the thoughts of the great men of the past but they enable us to make permanent our own thoughts, so that if our ideas are worthy of being perpetuated those who live centuries hence may be as familiar with our minds as we are with the minds of Milton or Dante. A book enables the thought of one man to reach all other inquiring men in ages to come. Men of whom their world was not worthy have gained late recognition through their books; men whose minds were far in advance of their time have handed down their thoughts in books which have at last found appreciative readers.
The printing press has multiplied enormously our means of giving currency to ideas, but thought is no more powerful now than in the time of Plato or Aristotle. Men like these wrote books before the time of Christ which are still consulted on the subjects of which they treat. Many of the problems of life and death are as mysterious to us as they were to them.
Better than any other relics the books of a nation show what it really was.
The Dark Ages are called so because few books were written in them, and Africa is the Dark Continent because it has no literature.
No other works of man have done so much to spiritualize the race as books. The Laocoon is not as inspiring a creation as the Iliad, the Cologne Cathedral is not as civilizing as Dante's Divine Comedy, and it has been said that the works of Goethe have advanced the progress of mankind more than all the conquests of Napoleon. Books have more soul than any other human work. A house without books is as dark as a house without windows.
Literature is the most enduring of the fine arts. No painter, sculptor, or architect has erected so permanent a memorial as the poets have done. Statues may be broken, pictures may fade or be consumed by fire, even the pyramids may crumble away, but the thought contained in great books such as the Iliad and the Aeneid is more nearly eternal than marble or bronze. Lowell's Commemoration Ode forms a more durable monument to Harvard's dead heroes than Memorial Hall. There have been other actions as fine as the charge of the Light Brigade, but it is only those that the great poets have sung that are truly immortal in our memories.
"For deeds doe die, however noblie donne,
And thoughts doe as themselves decay;
But wise words, taught in numbers for to
Recorded by the Muses live for ay."
Among the most lasting works of men are mosaics; they are not easily broken, their colors do not fade and their outlines do not grow dim with time. In the museum of the Capitol at Rome is the famous mosaic of Pliny's doves, rendered familiar by so many copies: three or four doves perched on a broad-brimmed cup, absolutely as perfect in form and tint as when Pliny saw them two thousand years ago. Yet these tiny bits of stone joined by cement are not as permanent as the poems of Homer which have as much human interest today as they had when Alexander read them in the intervals of his pursuit of the Persians.
The plays of Shakespeare will last as long as the earth remains, and he said, "Not marble, nor the gilded monuments of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme."
The love of great books is in itself a mark of greatness. Biography teaches no more practical lesson than this; that the world's really noble men have spent little time in reading any books but the best, and that there has been a general agreement among them as to what the best books are. Socrates was familiar with Homer and Aesop. Alexander slept with Homer under his pillow. Montaigne alludes constantly to the Bible and to Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Seneca, Ovid and other classical authors. Bacon makes frequent quotations from the Bible and also shows a knowledge of Aesop, Cicero, Virgil, Ovid, Seneca, Montaigne and other great writers. Emerson notes the fact that Montaigne was in the libraries of Shakespeare and of Ben Jonson. Emerson read Chaucer, Montaigne, Plutarch and Plato while at college and knew Shakespeare almost by heart.
When we realize how few books the men of antiquity had we understand that they were obliged to read not many things but much. Homer probably had no books at all. Socrates had very few and even Cicero, the accomplished scholar, few in comparison with a modern library. He never read Dante or Milton or Shakespeare.
The habit of communing with great thoughts gives health and vigor to the mind. Men who habitually read the classics have a breadth of view and a toughness of mental fiber which cannot be obtained by those whose highest inspiration is derived from the newspaper and the last novel. Reading the best books gives an elevation of thought which raises above the level of common things, ennobles and makes fine the ordinary daily occupations, dignifies life and makes it worth living. The woman who keeps her Bible open while she is sewing and refreshes herself with the Psalms or the Gospels is deriving mental as well as spiritual nourishment; without such inspiration her labor would fade into the light of common day.
We need great books to take us out of ourselves, and to show us in true perspective our relations to the past, the present and the future. We may find from books if we have not learned from our own observation the true heroism that is present in the pain and poverty and distress of everyday life. "Books," said Emerson, "impart sympathetic activity to the moral powers. Go with mean people and you think life is mean. Then read Plutarch, and the world is a proud place, peopled with men of positive quality, with heroes and demigods standing around us, who will not let us sleep." Michael Angelo said "When I read Homer I look to see if I am not twenty feet tall."