Read THE GREATEST BOOK IN THE WORLD of Comfort Found in Good Old Books , free online book, by George Fitch, on


Several readers of my tribute to my dead son Harold have asked me to specify, in a series of short articles, some of the great books that have proved so much comfort to me in my hours of heart-breaking sorrow. In this age of cheap printing devices we are in danger of being overwhelmed by a great tide of books that are not real books at all. Out of a hundred of the new publications that come monthly from our great publishing houses, beautifully printed and bound and often ornamented with artistic pictures, not more than ten will live longer than a year, and not more than a single volume will retain any life ten years from the time it first saw the light. Hence it behooves us to choose wisely, for our lives are limited to the Psalmist’s span of years, and there is no hope of securing the length of days of Methuselah and his kindred.

Business or professional cares and social duties leave the average man or woman not over an hour a day that can be called one’s very own; yet most of the self-appointed guides to reading usually college professors or teachers or literary men with large leisure write as though three or four hours a day for reading was the rule, rather than the exception. In my own case it is not unusual for me to spend six hours a day in reading, but it would be folly to shut my eyes to the fact that I am abnormal, an exception to the general rule. Hence in talking about books and reading I am going to assume that an hour a day is the maximum at your disposal for reading books that are real literature.

And in this preliminary article I would like to enforce as strongly as words can express it my conviction that knowledge and culture should be set apart widely. In the reading that I shall recommend, culture of the mind and the heart comes first of all. This is more valuable than rubies, a great possession that glorifies life and opens our eyes to beauties in the human soul, as well as in nature, to all of which we were once blind and dumb. And culture can be built on the bare rudiments of education, at which pedagogues and pedants will sneer. Some of the most truly cultured men and women I have ever known have been self-educated; but their minds were opened to all good books by their passion for beauty in every form and their desire to improve their minds. Among the scores of letters that have come to me in my bereavement and that have helped to save me from bitterness, was one from a woman in a country town of California. After expressing her sympathy, greater than she could voice in words, she thanked me warmly for what I had said about the good old books. Then she told of her husband, the well-known captain of an army transport, who went to sea from the rugged Maine coast when a lad of twelve, with only scanty education, and who, in all the years that followed on many seas, laboriously educated himself and read the best books.

In his cabin, she said, were well-worn copies of Shakespeare, Gibbon, Thackeray, Dickens, Burns, and others. These great worthies he had made a part of himself by constant reading. Of course, the man who thinks that the full flower of education is the ability to “parse” a sentence, or to express a commonplace thought in grandiloquent language that will force his reader to consult a dictionary for the meaning of unusual words such a man and pedant would look upon this old sea captain as uneducated. But for real culture of mind and soul give me the man who has had many solitary hours for thought, with nothing but the stars to look down on him; who has felt the immensity of sea and sky, with no land and no sail to break the fearful circle set upon the face of the great deep.

In the quest for culture, in the desire to improve your mind by close association with the great writers of all literature, do not be discouraged because you may have had little school training. The schools and the universities have produced only a few of the immortal writers. The men who speak to you with the greatest force from the books into which they put their living souls have been mainly men of simple life. The splendid stimulus that they give to every reader of their books sprang from the education of hard experience and the culture of the soul. The writers of these books yearned to aid the weak and heavy-laden and to bind up the wounds of the afflicted and sorely stricken. Can one imagine any fame so great or so enduring as the fame of him who wrote hundreds of years ago words that bring tears to one’s eyes today tears that give place to that passionate ardor for self-improvement, which is the beginning of all real culture?

And another point is to guard against losing the small bits of leisure scattered through the day. Don’t take up a magazine or a newspaper when you have fifteen minutes or a half hour of leisure alone in your room. Keep a good book and make it a habit to read so many pages in the time that is your own. Cultivate rapid reading, with your mind intent on your book. You will find in a month that you have doubled your speed and that you have fixed in your mind what you have read, and thus made it a permanent possession. If you persist in this course, reading always as though you had only a few moments to spare and concentrating your mind on the page before you, you will find that reading becomes automatic and that you can easily read thirty pages where before ten pages seemed a hard task.

Long years ago it was my custom to reach home a half hour before dinner. To avoid irritability which usually assailed me when hungry, I took up Scott and read all the Waverley novels again. It required barely a year, but those half hours made at the end of the period eight whole days. In the same way in recent years I have reread Dickens, Thackeray, Kipling and Hardy, because I wanted to read something as recreation which I would not be forced to review. Constant practice in rapid reading has given me the power of reading an ordinary novel and absorbing it thoroughly in four hours. This permits of no dawdling, but one enjoys reading far better when he does it at top speed.

Macaulay in his memoirs tells of the mass of reading which he did in India, always walking up and down his garden, because during such exercise his mind was more alert than when sitting at a desk.

Many will recall Longfellow’s work on the translation of Dante’s Inferno, done in the fifteen minutes every morning which was required for his chocolate to boil. Every one remembers the “Pigskin Library” which Colonel Roosevelt carried with him to Africa on his famous hunting trip. The books were all standard works of pocket size, bound in pigskin, which defies sweat, blood, dirt or moisture, and takes on in time the rich tint of a well-used saddle. Roosevelt read these books whenever he chanced to have a few minutes of leisure. And it seems to me the superior diction of his hunting articles, which was recognized by all literary critics, came directly from this constant reading of the best books, joined with the fact that he had ample leisure for thought and wrote his articles with his own hand. Dictation to a stenographer is an easy way of preparing “copy” for the printer, but it is responsible for the decadence of literary style among English and American authors.

In selecting the great books of the world place must be given first of all, above and beyond all, to the Bible. In the homely old King James’ version, the spirit of the Hebrew prophets seems reflected as in a mirror. For the Bible, if one were cast away on a lonely island, he would exchange all other books; from the Bible alone could such a castaway get comfort and help. It is the only book in the world that is new every morning: the only one that brings balm to wounded hearts.

Looked upon merely as literature, the Bible is the greatest book in the world; but he is dull and blind indeed who can study it and not see that it is more than a collection of supremely eloquent passages, written by many hands. It is surcharged with that deep religious spirit which marked the ancient Hebrews as a people set apart from alien races. Compare the Koran with the Bible and you will get a measure of the fathomless height this Book of books is raised above all others. Those who come to it with open minds and tender hearts, free from the worldliness that callouses so many fine natures, will find that in very truth it renews their strength; that it makes their spirit “mount up with wings as an eagle.”

First read the Old Testament, with its splendid imagery, its noble promises of rewards to those who shall be lifted out of the waters of trouble and sorrow. Then read the New Testament, whose simplicity gains new force against this fine background of promise and fulfilment. If the verbiage of many books of the Old Testament repels you, then get a single volume like The Soul of the Bible, arranged by Ulysses Pierce and printed by the American Unitarian Association of Boston. This volume of 500 pages contains the real essence of the Bible, revealed in all the beauty of incomparable phrase and sublime imagery; sounding the deeps of sorrow, mounting to the heights of joy; traversing the whole range of human life and showing that God is the only refuge for the sorely afflicted. How beautiful to the wounded heart the promise that always “underneath are the everlasting arms.”

Read The Soul of the Bible carefully, and make it a part of your mental possessions. Then you will be ready to take up the real study of the Bible, which can never be finished, though your days may be long in the land. This study will take away the stony heart and will give you in return a heart of flesh, tender to the appeals of the sick and the sorrowing. If you have lost a dear child, the daily reading of the Bible will gird you up to go out and make life worth living for the orphan and the children of poverty and want, who so often are robbed from the cradle of their birthright of love and sunshine and opportunity for development of body and mind.

If you have lost father or mother, then it will make your sympathy keen for the halting step of age and the pathetic eyes, in which you see patient acceptance of the part of looker-on in life, the only rôle left to those who have been shouldered out of the active ways of the world to dream of the ardent love and the brave work of their youth. So the reading of the Bible will gradually transmute your spirit into something which the worst blows of fate can neither bend nor break. To guard your feet on the stony road of grief you will be “shod with iron and brass.” Then, in those immortal words of Zophar to Job:

“Then shall thy life be clearer than the noonday;
Though there be darkness, it shall be as the morning,
And because there is hope, thou shalt be secure;
Yea, thou shalt look about thee, and shalt take thy rest in safety;
Thou shalt lie down, and none shall make thee afraid.”

To this spiritual comfort will be added gain in culture through close and regular reading of the Bible. Happy are they who commit to the wax tablets of childish memory the great passages of the Old Testament. Such was Ruskin, who owed much of his splendid diction to early study of the Bible. Such also were Defoe and De Quincey, two men of widely different gifts, but with rare power of moving men’s souls. The great passages of the Bible have entered into the common speech of the plain people of all lands; they have become part and parcel of our daily life. So should we go to the fountainhead of this unfailing source of inspiration and comfort and drink daily of its healing waters, which cleanse the heart and make it as the heart of a little child.