Read THE STUDENT AND THE LIBRARY of The Booklover and His Books , free online book, by Harry Lyman Koopman, on

What does a student of five and twenty years ago still remember of his college? My own first and fondest recollection is of the walks and talks, noctes coenaeque deum, with loved and honored companions, in the bonds of a friendship that can be realized only in youth, under the inspiration of a common intellectual purpose, and, one is tempted to add, in the atmosphere of college halls; next arise golden hours passed in the library; and lastly there come back other hours, not always golden, spent in the classroom. This is, of course, only to enumerate the three influences that are, or should be, strongest in a student’s life: the society of his fellows, his private reading, and his studies. Of these three factors of culture the first and the last are fairly constant, but the second is apt to vary in the experience of any small group of students from the foremost place, as in the case of John Hay, to no place at all. It is of this varying element in the student’s conduct of life that I have undertaken to write.

Unless student intercourse has an intellectual basis, such as reading furnishes, it has nothing to distinguish it from any other good fellowship and can hardly escape triviality. The little groups of students at Cambridge which included such members as the three Tennysons, Hallam, Spedding, Fitzgerald, and Thackeray, while they were no doubt jovial enough, were first of all intellectual associations, where

Thought leapt out to wed with Thought
Ere Thought could wed itself with Speech.

In such companionship men not only share and correct the culture which they have acquired in private, but they are stimulated to higher and wider attainment. The classroom at its best is hardly equal to a good book; from its very nature it must address an abstract average rather than the individual, while a good book startles us with the intimacy of its revelation to ourselves. The student goes to college to study; he has his name thence. But while the classroom is busied, patiently, sedulously doling him out silver, he discovers that there is gold lying all around, which he may take without asking. Twenty-five years after he finds that the silver has grown black with rust, while the gold shines on untarnished. Librarians are often besought for a guide in reading, a set of rules, a list of books. But what is really needed, and what no mentor can give, is a hunger and thirst after what is in books; and this the student must acquire for himself or forego the blessing. Culture cannot be vicarious. This is not to say that a list of books may not be useful, or that one set of books is as good as another, but only that reading is the thing, and, given the impulse to read, the how and the what can be added unto it; but without this energizing motive, no amount of opportunity or nurture will avail.

But, having not the desire to read, but only a sense that he ought to have it, what shall a student do? I will suggest three practicable courses from which a selection may be made according to the needs of the individual. The first is to sit down and take account of stock, to map out one’s knowledge, one’s previous reading, and so find the inner boundaries of the vast region yet to be explored. This process can hardly fail to suggest not merely one point of departure, but many. The second method is, without even so much casting about, to set forth in any direction, take the first attractive unread book at hand, and let that lead to others. The third course is intended for the student whose previous reading has been so scanty and so perfunctory as to afford him no outlook into literature, a case, which, it is to be feared, is only too common. We will consider this method first. Obviously such a student must be furnished with a guide, one who shall set his feet in the right paths, give him his bearings in literature, and inspire him with a love for the beauty and grandeur of the scenery disclosed, so that he shall become not only able to make the rest of his journey alone, but eager to set out.

Where shall the student find such a guide? There are many and good at hand, yet perhaps the best are not the professional ones, but rather those who give us merely a delightful companionship and invite us to share their own favorite walks in Bookland. Such a choice companion, to name but one, awaits the student in Hazlitt’s “Lectures on the English Poets.” Of the author himself Charles Lamb says: “I never slackened in my admiration of him; and I think I shall go to my grave without finding, or expecting to find, such another companion.” And of his books Stevenson confesses: “We are mighty fine fellows, but we cannot write like William Hazlitt.” In this little volume which the most hard-pressed student can read and ponder in the leisure moments of a single term, the reader is introduced at once into the wonderland of our English literature, which he is made to realize at the outset is an indivisible portion of the greater territory of the literature of the world.

Hazlitt begins with a discussion of poetry in general, shows what poetry is, how its various forms move us, and how it differs from its next of kin, such as eloquence and romance. He then takes up the poetry of Homer, the Bible, Dante, and Ossian, and sets forth the characteristics of each. In his chapter on our first two great poets, Chaucer and Spenser, he points out the great and contrasted merits of these two writers who have so little in common except a superficial resemblance in language. Hazlitt is fond of presenting his authors to us in pairs or groups. His next chapter is devoted to Shakespeare and Milton; and we may remark that, while the student is in no danger of forgetting the existence of Shakespeare, he is likely to need just such a tribute to the greatness of Milton as the critic here presents. The volume contains later chapters of great interest on Milton’s “Lycidas” and “Eve.” It is not necessary for us to mention here all the subjects treated; Dryden and Pope, Thomson and Cowper, Burns and the Old English Ballads are among them. In every case we are not tantalized with mere estimates and characterizations, but are furnished with illustrative specimens of the poems discussed. But the initiation into English literature which we receive from Hazlitt does not end with the authors of whom he treats directly. Resuming our figure of a landscape, we may say that he takes us through a thousand bypaths into charming nooks and upon delightful prospects of which he has made no announcement beforehand.

I spoke of reading and pondering his book in a single college term. But, while this may easily be done, it will be far more profitable for the student, as soon as he feels drawn away from the volume to some author whom it presents, to lay it aside and make an excursion of his own into literature. Then let him take up the volume again and go on with it until the critic’s praise of the “Faerie Queene,” or the “Rape of the Lock,” or the “Castle of Indolence” again draws his attention off the essay to the poem itself. And as one poem and one author will lead to another, the volume with which the student set out will thus gradually fulfill its highest mission by inspiring and training its reader to do without it. If the student has access to the shelves of a large library, the very handling of the books in their groups will bring him into contact with other books which he will be attracted to and will dip into and read. In fact it should not be long before he finds his problem to be, not what to read, but what to resist reading.

Suppose, however, that the student finds himself already possessed of a vague, general knowledge of literature, but nothing definite or satisfying, nothing that inspires interest. He it is who may profitably take up the first attractive unread book at hand; but he should endeavor to read it, not as an isolated fragment of literature, but in its relations. Suppose the book happens to be “Don Quixote.” This is a work written primarily to amuse. But if the reader throws himself into the spirit of the book, he will not be content, for instance, with the mere mention of the romances of chivalry which turned the poor knight’s brain. He will want to read about them and to read some of them actually. He will be curious as to Charlemagne and his peers, Arthur and his knights, and will seek to know their true as well as their fabulous history. Then he will wonder who the Moors were, why they were banished, and what was the result to Spain of this act in which even his liberal and kindly author acquiesced. He will ask if antiquity had its romances and if any later novelists were indebted to Cervantes. The answer to the last query will bring him to Gil Blas in French literature and to the works of the great English romancers of the eighteenth century. Fielding will lead him to Thackeray, Smollett to Dickens, Dickens to Bret Harte, and Bret Harte to Kipling. If he reads Cervantes in English, he will have a choice of translations, and he will not fail to mark the enormous difference in language, literary style, and ideals of rendering between the three versions of Shelton in the seventeenth century, Motteux in the eighteenth, and Ormsby in the nineteenth. If, like many another, he becomes so interested in the great romance as to learn Spanish for the sake of coming into direct communication with his author, a whole new literature will be opened to him. Furthermore, in the cognate languages which a mastery of Spanish will make easy for him, a group of literatures will be placed at his command; and, while he began with Cervantes, who threw open for him the portals of the middle ages, we may leave him with Dante, looking before and after over all human achievement and destiny.

All this the student will not do in one term nor in one year, but he will have found himself in the library, he will have acquired a bond to culture that will not break as he steps out of his last recitation, that will not yield when time and distance have relegated his college friendships, with his lost youth, to the Eden or the Avilion of memory. And if afterwards he comes, with Emerson, to find the chief value of his college training in the ability it has given him to recognize its little avail, he will thus disparage it only in the spirit in which a more advanced student of an earlier day, looking back upon the stupendous revelations of his “Principia,” likened them to so many pebbles or shells picked up on the shore of the illimitable ocean of knowledge.