THE VALUE OF READING, TO THE PUBLIC AND TO THE INDIVIDUAL
Of what value is it to a community
to contain still more to be composed of well-read
people? We can best answer this question by picturing
its opposite, a community without readers; this we
are unfortunately able to do without drawing upon
our imaginations, for we have only to turn to certain
districts of countries like Spain or Russia. There
we shall meet whole communities, large enough to form
cities elsewhere, which are little more than aggregations
of paupers. Shall we find in any of these homes
a daily or a weekly paper, or a monthly magazine, or
even a stray book? Not one, except perhaps in
the house of a priest. These masses of people
live on the earth, to be sure, but they do not live
in the world. No currents of the great, splendid
life of the twentieth century ever reach them; and
they live in equal isolation from the life of the past.
“The glory that was Greece and the grandeur that
was Rome” have for them simply no existence.
They are truly the disinherited of all the ages.
Though they may not be unhappy, they can be called
nothing less than wretched. Is the fault one
of race, or government, or religion? Much could
be said on all these points, both for and against;
but one fact remains indisputable these
people do not read.
Let us turn now to a different type
of community, that represented by the ordinary New
England village. How stands the cause of reading
there? If there is any person of sound mind in
the community who has never learned to read, he is
pointed out as a curiosity. There is not a home
in the length and breadth of the town that is without
its paper, its magazine, or its books. In other
words, literacy is taken for granted. Is it any
wonder that in progress, wealth, and influence the
one community starts where the other leaves off?
In the illiterate towns just described there is often
no man who has the slightest capacity for business
or who can represent the interests of his community
before even the humblest government official.
But from towns of the other type come men who represent
with honor their state and their nation; men who widen
the bounds of freedom and who add new stars to the
celestial sphere of knowledge. Is all this wholly
a matter of reading? One would not dare to assert
it absolutely, remembering the advantages of race,
government, and religion enjoyed in New England.
And yet we have only to fancy the condition of even
such a town after one generation, supposing all its
printed matter and its power to read were taken away,
if we would realize what an impulse to progress and
prosperity is given by the presence of the volumes
that line the shelves of our public libraries.
If the fortunes of a community in
the modern world are bound up with the use that it
makes of books and libraries, no less are those of
the individual. This is true whether we refer
to his private satisfaction or to his public advancement.
The animal is endowed with instinct, which is sufficient
for the guidance of his life, but it permits of no
development. Man must depend upon judgment, experience,
reason guides that are often only too blind;
but at least they admit of progress. In fact
it is only in the field of knowledge that human progress
appears to be possible. We have no better bodies
than the ancient Greeks had to put the
case very mildly. We have no better minds than
they had to make an even safer assertion.
But we know almost infinitely more than they
did. In this respect the ancient Greeks were but
as children compared with ourselves. What makes
this tremendous difference? Simply the fact that
we know all that was known by them and the Romans and
the men of the middle ages, and through this knowledge
we have learned more by our own discovery than they
knew, all put together. The path to success for
men and races lies through the storehouse where this
vast knowledge is garnered the library.
But it is something more than a storehouse of knowledge;
it is an electrical battery of power. This knowledge,
this power, can be obtained in its fullness only through
books. The man, therefore, who aspires to lead
his fellows, to command their respect or their votes,
must not rely on native talent alone; he must add to
it the stored-up talent of the ages.
There is an old proverb: “No
man ever got rich with his coat off.” This
is a puzzling assertion, for it seems to contradict
so many accepted ideas. General Grant, for instance,
when asked for his coat-of-arms, replied: “A
pair of shirt sleeves.” The answer showed
an honorable pride in labor; but we must remember
that it was not General Grant’s arms but his
brain that won his victories. Does not our proverb
mean simply this: that the great prizes of life of
which riches is the symbol, not the sum cannot
be won by main strength and ignorance; that they can
be won only by energy making use of knowledge?
But it is not only in the public successes of life
that books have a value for the individual. Public
successes are never the greatest that men win.
It is in the expansion and uplift of the inner self
that books render their grandest service. Emily
Dickinson wrote of such a reader:
He ate and drank the precious
His spirit grew
He knew no more that he was
Nor that his frame
He danced along the dingy
And this bequest
Was but a book. What
A loosened spirit
A final word on values. The philosophers
make two great classes of values, which may be entitled
respectively Property and Possessions. Under
Property come money, houses, lands, carriages, clothing,
jewels; under Possessions come love, friendship, morality,
knowledge, culture, refinement. All are good
things. There never were any houses or carriages
or clothes too good for a human being. But these
obviously belong to a different type of values from
the other group to a lower type. What
is the test, the touchstone, by which we can tell to
which class any value belongs? We shall find
the test clearly stated in the Sermon on the Mount.
Is the treasure in question one that moth and rust
can corrupt or that thieves can break through and steal?
If so, it belongs to the lower class, to Property.
But if it is one that cannot be taken away, then it
is a Possession and belongs to the higher type.
There is another test, which is really a part of this:
Can you share it without loss? If I own a farm,
and give to another a half of it or a year’s
crop from it, I deprive myself of just so much.
But, if I have knowledge or taste or judgment or affection,
I can pour them all out like water for the benefit
of my fellows, and yet never have any the less.
On the contrary, I shall find that I have more; for
they grow by sharing. But we have not yet done
with the superiority of Possessions over Property.
“Shrouds have no pockets,” says the grim
old proverb; and all Property must be laid down at
the edge of the grave. But if man be immortal,
as the wise in all ages have believed, then we do not
have to lay down our Possessions with this mortal
body. For, if the soul when freed from the flesh
is to remain the soul, the self and only
so can immortality have any meaning then
it must keep all those inner acquisitions of knowledge,
culture, and character which it has gathered on earth;
nay, it then for the first time truly comes into the
enjoyment of them. What were our earthly Possessions
become Treasures laid up for ourselves in Heaven.