Page images

The only real evil to be apprehended from the enormous increase in the number of books is, that it is likely to distract the attention, and dissipate the mind, by inducing the student to read many, rather than much. The alluring catalogue of attractive title-pages unfixes the attention, and causes the eye to wander over a large surface, when it ought to be intently turned upon a small though fertile spot. It induces a passion for reading as an end, and not as a means-merely to satisfy an appetite, and not to strengthen the system, and enrich the powers of original thinking. It makes learned men, and not wise men. Hobbes, on being asked why he did not read more? answered, if I read as much as other men, I should know as little; his library consisted of Homer, Thucydides, Euclid, and Virgil. As the Caliph that destroyed the literary stores of Alexandria, said of the Koran, so Hobbes thought of his four authors, "if other books contained any thing, which was not in them, then it was naught; if only what was therein contained, then it was needless." True it is, that for the purpose of supplying the place of constant companions, of suggesting never failing subjects of reflection, and of exercising and gratifying the imagination, a few choice and venerable authors are amply sufficient. "Make," says Bishop Watson, "Bacon then, and Locke, and why should I not add, that sweet child of nature Shakespeare, your chief companions through life, let them be ever upon your table, and when you have an hour to spare, spend it upon them; and I will answer for their giving you entertainment and instruction as long as you live."

The practice of these times, it is needless to say, is as unlike that here recommended, as it can well be; the British public are almost solely occupied by the productions which daily issue from the press; newspapers, reviews, pamphlets, magazines, the popular poetry, the fashionable romances, together with new voyages and travels, occupy the reading time, and fix the attention of the people -The old and venerable literature of the country, which has, as much as any thing, tended to make us what we are, is treated with distant reverenceits noble works, which every one is ashamed not to know-which every one pretends to know, and which far too few are acquainted with, are much oftener talked of than read. Their authors are apotheosized, but seldom worshipped,-their brilliant but temperate lustre neglected for the glaring meteors, which are hanging their short-lived blaze every where in the heavens-It is time to look back—the enervating effects of a literature of this kind are too obvious-the uncompromising vigor of intellect, and the sturdy and unshrinking adherence to principle, which have been distinguishing characteristics of Englishmen, cannot for any length of time resist the relaxing power of so diluted a diet. Never was education so common as at present-never were books so commonly dispersed, so multifariously read. We present a spectacle of what, perhaps, was never before seen in any age, certainly neither Greek nor Roman, that of a whole nation, employing nearly all its leisure hours from the highest to the lowest rank in reading-we have been truly called a READING PUBLIC. The lively Greeks were not a reading nation-they were a hearing and a talking people-they fed the mind through the ear,

[ocr errors]

and not through the eye; historians and poets were not so much read as heard-Homer was recited by rhapsodists-Herodotus read his history at the Olympic game-the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides were at stated times the objects of sight and hearing. The philosopher who wished to enlighten his countrymen, and circulate his peculiar opinions, did not so frequently write as lecture-he established a school, and his benches were daily crowded by a people who carried on no trade-who lived on the tributes of subject nations, or on the industry of their slaves. The business of the nation was transacted in public by means of orators, who addressed the assembled citizens—each man had his mind to make up-and thus they became fond of disputing. Their social hours were spent in the open airin their groves, gardens, and porticoes-where they busily reviewed the operations of their generals and admirals, canvassed the merits of opposing orators, or listened to the reasoning of philosophers, upon such subjects as the soul, the creation of the universe, its duration, its formation, its sustaining causes, and the purposes of its various parts. Thus they became a thinking, talking, enlightened nation-free of speech, brilliant in wit, restless, active, boasting, audacious, and arrogant—but they were not a reading nation. For one library, the Greeks had a hundred theatres for plays, music, spectacles-groves, and academies for disputation-forums for orators-and gymnasia and palæstræ, for exercise and conversation. All other languages but their own they despised-all other nations were accounted and called barbarians. The energetic Greek, with his person perfect, and formed in the finest

[ocr errors]

mould of nature-his mind filled with the noblest shapes of ideal beauty-his tongue nimble to speak the most melodious of languages, with all his faculties about him, critical, exact, and sensitive-filled with the spirit of enjoyment that proceeds from health, fine climate, free government, and a beautiful country-was raised so high above other men, that he looked with contempt and derision, upon the rugged Scythian, the enervated Persian, the depraved Egyptian, the savage and untutored Italian. Thus it was, that all history was uninteresting to them, but what was Greek; that which was not Greek, was to them without the pale of civilization—and this is one main reason why the Greeks, in the time of their prosperity, (for we speak not of the Greeks in their dotage, when "the last of the Greeks" had died) read so little-what related to other nations they cared not for; what related to themselves, it was their constant business to listen to. The Romans of the higher ranks paid more attention to, and depended more for their amusement upon reading than the Greeks; Homer, and all the Greek authors, were their constant study. We begin to hear, in their times, of the student's solitary lamp and midnight oil-but still literature was confined to the upper ranks. "The Romans conquered the world without the help of books, and lost it after they knew the use of them." The middle ages are proverbially dark-it was the torpid time for the great authors of antiquity-like bats and moles, they slept away this winter of literature, in the cold and gloomy cells of monasteries, till the dawning of better times shot revivifying light into these recesses of ignorance and superstition. The invention of paper

in the eleventh, and of printing in the fifteenth century, are as cheering to the lovers of humanity, as the sea-birds and sea-weeds, signs of approaching land, are to the wearied and despairing navigator, who is darkly tracking an unknown and pathless ocean. The fertile and luxurious crop of modern literature then appeared above the earth-the richness of the soil, which had lain fallow for so long a time, during which it had only borne the rank weeds of scholastic subtlety, mingled indeed with the wild but romantic flowers of chivalrous feudality, as well as the greenness and freshness of the productions themselves, all encouraging animating hopes of an abundant harvest. Since that time, books have become a common and current coin; every city and every town has its mint-they are almost numberless. A catalogue of all the books that have been printed, would of itself fill a little library. The knowledge of their external qualities, and the adventitious circumstances attending their formation or history, has become a science-professors devote their lives to it, with an enthusiasm not unworthy of a higher calling-they have earned the name of bibliomaniacs. Vast collections of books are esteemed the pride and glory of the countries or cities fortunate enough to possess them. The Vatican boasts its millions-the Laurentian, Ambrosian, and other libraries of Italy, the Bibliotheque du Roi at Paris, the enormous collection at the British Museum, our university and college libraries, particularly the Bodleian, while they are proud monuments of the ingenuity and all-reaching, all-fathoming mind of man; yet must strike the heart of the student that enters them with despair, should he aim at

« PreviousContinue »