The Use Of Books

By James Hosmer Penniman

"He that shall make search after knowledge, let him seek it where it is," said Montaigne of books.

Whatever your purpose, books will help you to accomplish it. They make the knowledge of mankind our own if we know how to avail ourselves of them. Only the wise can get the best out of books, they refuse to deliver their message to the ignorant.

Next to knowing a thing yourself the most necessary thing is knowing where to find it, and the method of getting at the information which is stored in books is an art that must be acquired.

It is an education to take up some subject and master it, examining all the books about it and weighing all the varying and conflicting opinions. You never realize the depth of human knowledge and the difficulty of judging what the truth is, until you have found out from your own experience the infinite labor of mastering one small division of one subject.

From catalogues and bibliographies you may make a list of the best works on the subject that you are investigating and you must then extract from these books what is of use to you and arrange it in a logical and orderly way.

You need not read all the books; some contain what you already know, and in many of them there is repetition of what you have seen elsewhere. You glance through one and find little to the purpose, the table of contents of another shows that here and there is matter that should be looked over, at last you come to a work by a great man, a master of the subject, every word of which must be read and pondered on.

From these books you obtain references to others that you did not know of; judgment must be shown in concentrating yourself on what is of real value, and in not going out of your way to explore alluring but useless by-paths. When you take many notes in blank books it is difficult to refer to them unless you have an index, the making and use of which requires time, but notes taken on one side of sheets of loose paper may easily be sorted into large envelopes according to the divisions of the subject, and as your investigations proceed and your knowledge widens new divisions may readily be made. There is a decided advantage in having all the notes of a kind together and when they are on separate pieces of paper they may be pasted or pinned in strips and their order changed at will. You may not have your notebook with you but a bit of blank paper can always be obtained. These notes may be a word or two here to remind you of an idea, a quotation there, accurately copied, and, most important of all, such original thoughts as have occurred to you. You will strengthen your mind and also improve your diction, by writing out fully the ideas that occur to you while reading. When you do this, you will not read so many books, but you will derive infinitely more good from those you do read. You will pay more attention and will be careful that what you read is worth noting.

Take notes freely and as much as possible in your own language. "Writing maketh an exact man." According to Dr. Watts, more is gained by writing out once than by reading five times. What you have taken notes of is thereby fixed in your mind and when you have classified your subject according to its natural divisions you have, in so doing, formed new associations which will help you to remember it.

When your materials are collected and arranged, your work is half done. What remains requires a mental faculty of a higher order--the power of coordination.

Just here the difference appears between a penny-a-liner and the author of a book of permanent value. Both men may be industrious, both may have good ideas, but the author has a breadth of mind which enables him to coordinate his knowledge; he pursues a connected chain of thought leading to definite conclusions, he has assimilated what he has found in books, reinforced it by his own observation and study, and the result is a compact and organic whole, a material addition to the knowledge of the world.

In the Fable for Critics, Lowell thus describes the unorderly worker among books:

"Twould be endless to tell you the things that he knew,
All separate facts, undeniably true,
But with him or each other they'd nothing to do,
No power of combining, arranging, discerning,
Digested the masses he learned into learning."

Try to see clearly the important divisions of a subject, to be fair minded, to draw your own conclusions, to distinguish between the probable and the improbable, to recognize the good points in each side of conflicting theories. Especially learn to classify and arrange the ideas you get from books and to unite them to what you already know.

If you can enjoy the study of some special subject connected with your occupation and keep at it long enough to make yourself master of it, you may by so doing educate yourself. You should not only study the actual operations, but you should also familiarize yourself with what has been written about them, and should make an effort to record a permanent advance made by your own exertions.

"Knowledge of books in a man of business, is as a torch in the hands of one who is willing and able to show those who are bewildered the way which leads to prosperity and welfare," says the Spectator. How much, for example, has been lost in treasure and energy because politicians who have not read history and political economy, ignorantly persist in methods that have failed ever since the world began. "A prince without letters," said Ben Johnson, "is a pilot without eyes. All his government is groping." "It is manifest that all government of action is to be gotten by knowledge, and knowledge, best, by gathering many knowledges, which is reading," wrote Sir Philip Sidney.

When you read a number of books on the same topic each throws light on the other and you get deeper, clearer ideas. You think more. One subject studied thoroughly has more educational value than many looked at superficially. But while there is the greatest culture value in taking up one line of thought and pursuing it as far as possible, the importance of the broad foundation to build on must always be kept before you. "What science and practical life alike need is not narrow men, but broad men sharpened to a point," says Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler.

There is no occupation where a fund of general information is not valuable, provided it be accurate. The knowledge of a little law is as useful to the doctor as that of a little medicine is to the lawyer.

How much more useful, a man is in all branches of his calling if he knows thoroughly at least one part of it. You cannot do anything that will add more to your value to yourself and to the world in general than to study your occupation all your life. If your work as a student ends with school or college, your usefulness will be limited and you will always occupy a subordinate position.

Education is a life work, we have no time to waste, but we should take time enough to do it well. Be satisfied with a slow advance if you are getting ahead all the time, but do not be turned aside from the track.

Do not make the mistake of supposing that converse with the thoughts of men as preserved in books can take the place of communion with living men. You will get warped and unreal ideas of life if you do. Talk about what you read with intellectual people. We are educated by association with men, by pictures, by music, by nature as well as by the study of books. Commune with other men but do not omit to commune with yourself, only by so doing can you gain "that final and higher product of knowledge which we call wisdom." "Read to weigh and consider," said Bacon, that means to think. Wordsworth speaks of "knowledge purchased with the loss of power," and Huxley says, "the great end of life is not knowledge but action. What men need is, as much knowledge as they can assimilate and organize into a basis for action; give them more and it may become injurious."

[Back]