The Successful Man And His Books
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
While it is a benefit, a source of culture and enjoy. ment for any man to read, it is an absolute necessity to the man of affairs who seeks to push his work and win a high measure of success. Every vocation in life is now, in a sense, a learned profession. There are books to read, magazines and papers devoted exclusively to almost every trade, business or profession in the land. To work intelligently in any line of human activity it is now necessary to own and read a library. Great progress is being made each year in all departments of industry. There are new principles of work and new applications of method to be made all the while, and to obtain a knowledge of these and apply them to our own line of labor, lays upon every man the necessity of being a laborious reader and a diligent student. In former times there were only three professions that were regarded as learned professions, in which the young initiate was obliged to go over a course of reading before he could enter active work in that profession. Now, this is true of almost all vocations. The accumulated experience of past workers has been left in the literature of their trade, and the young tradesman must now read himself up to the present status of his trade before he can enter it successfully. This is one of the complications of recent progress that is somewhat imperfectly under-stood by our young people. They are continually trying to enter the world's work without learning and experience. They do not realize that a liberal education is capital stock, and a small library the tools of craft. They do not see why such intense application is needed all along the lines of the world's toil. They seem to ignore the fact that lines of industry have grown progressively with the rest of civilization and that the world is through with ignorance and incompetence. In this view the question of what we shall read, and how we shall read, is of vital importance.
The successful man needs, first of all, a wide and extensive reading in professional literature; he needs to know what others have accomplished, what others have thought and uttered about the craft in which he is engaged. All these will lead him to a more intelligent view of his own work. For instance, a man who has been especially successful in some trade or profession writes the result of his experience and gives it to the world in the form of a book. His struggle with difficulty, the obstacles met and overcome, the achievement of final success, and his suggestions of how the work of that vocation should be carried on, will be especially helpful to all his fellow workers. And we think that we may safely say that a trades-man, a farmer, a professional man is not fitted for the work of life as he should be, until he has read and profited by some of the leading books which treat upon his vocation. It is this accumulation of experience and knowledge in books that has made the literature of theology, the . legal profession and the medical profession. A similar literature has grown up around almost every vocation, and it amounts to a practical necessity that every young man should read the leading books of this literature before he can be said to be thoroughly versed in the knowledge of his profession.
We see, in all lines of professional activity, men who fail and are crowded out of their positions quite early in life. Somehow they cannot meet the demands laid upon them and are superseded by other abler men. This is especially true of ministers and teachers. We think the explanation of it is in that natural indolence, which has a tendency to keep a man from reading and enlarging his faculties as he goes along with his professional work. If those professional men who are so soon "laid upon the shelf" would somehow keep from growing old and keep up their mental activity by diligent study, there might yet be honor to gray hair, even in the pulpit and the school-room. It is the weakening of mental power and loss of ardent enthusiasm that has reduced the working force of the men in question. And if, through all the years of their professional activity, they had been going again and again to the sources of power, to renew their energies and the vital fire of their enthusiasm, men would not have to retreat from professional life at fifty and retire upon the strength of honors won in youth. We think that every man owes it to himself to keep diligently "read up" in the current literature of his profession. If this were only true of the great mass of our workers, we believe that all lines of human industry would be dignified, enlarged and ennobled. By this means we should have continually better and better work ; we should see on every side better and better results arising from the skill and increased capacity of the workers. We believe such reading on the part of all classes of workers would add immeasurably to the world's wealth and the sum total of human happiness.
But the successful man needs other reading besides the books that relate exclusively to his vocation. These, necessary as they are to him, do not develop the highest intelligence nor provide him with the best means of culture. Professional books are narrow in scope and do not appeal to the highest moral and intellectual life of man. There is nothing in a treatise on tile drainage, or the best method of curing hay, to call into life the highest activities of the mind of the farmer. A treatise on raising poultry could hardly be compared with the best English poetry as a means to elevate the intellect and expand one's views of life and character. Gray's Anatomy is, indeed, a treasure-house of knowledge. To the physician it is one of the most valuable of books, and it is not entirely void as a source of mental culture. To master it cannot fail to give a person most accurate knowledge of the physical structure of man and to elevate his mind immeasurably as he contemplates this wonderful physical organism and the conclusive evidence of design found in the harmony of its construction. A man cannot become a profound student of anatomy without being a better and a wiser man. But the educational value of Gray's Anatomy is much less than that of a book like Orton's Physiology, in which we obtain a view of the physiology of the whole animal kingdom, while neither of them have one-tenth part of the power over the mind and soul that the Paradise Lost or King Lear has. And, outside the mere technicalities of professional life, a careful study of Hamlet cannot fail to make a better physician than the study of the Materia Medica. In like manner, Blackstone furnishes the lawyer with the fundamental principle of common law, but it cannot thrill his mind and elevate his character as a piece of pure literature would do. We suspect that the Merchant of Venice would do vastly more for him in that regard. And so is professional literature everywhere of little use to call out the highest intellectual and moral activities of man. And it is these very activities that tell most profoundly upon professional life and lift a man out of the condition of mediocrity, if anything will. The influence of good books upon the mind and character is thus ably expressed by a recent writer :
" Look now at the accomplished man of letters. He sits in his study, with clear head, sympathetic heart and lively fancy. The walls around him are lined with books on every subject, and in almost every tongue. He is, indeed, a man of magical powers, and these books are his magical volumes, full of wonder-working spells. When he opens one of these and reads, with eye and soul intent, in a few minutes the objects around him fade from his senses, and his soul is swept away into distant regions, or into by-gone times. It may be a book descriptive of other lands, and then he feels himself, perhaps, amid the biting frosts and snowy ice-hill of the Polar winter, or in the fierce heat and luxuriant vegetation of the Equator, panting up the steeps of the Alps with the holiday tourist, or exploring the mazes of the Nile with Livingstone or Baker. Or, perchance, it may be a history of England, and then the tide of time runs back, and he finds himself among our stout-hearted ancestors ; he enters heartily into all their toil and struggles ; he passes among the fires of Smithfield at the Reformation ; he shares in all the wrangling, and dangers, and suspense of the Revolution; he watches with eager gaze the steady progress of the nation, until he sees British freedom become the envy of Europe, and British enterprise secure a foothold in every quarter of the globe. Or perhaps the book may be one of our great English classics—Shakespeare, Bacon, or Carlyle—and immediately he is in the closest contact with a spirit far larger than his own ; his mind grasps its grand ideas, his heart imbibes its glowing sentiments, until he finds himself dilated, refined, inspired—a greater and a nobler being. Thus does this scholar's soul grow and extend itself, until it lives in every region of the earth and in every by-gone age, and holds the most intimate intercourse with the spirits of the mighty dead ; and thus, though originally a frail, mortal creature, he rises toward the godlike attributes of omnipresence and omniscience."— The Highways of Literature, P. 10.
Books are thus seen to have almost miraculous power over the mind of man. A few pages in a single volume fall, as it were by chance, under the eye of the boy as he reads in leisure hours. The words of the author are an inspiration to his soul. They fascinate his attention and charm the mind. The result is, the boy has found a purpose in life, and he goes out from the simple reading of a book to pursue a vocation through a long and active life. No force nor influence can undo the work of those few pages. No love of kindred, no temptation of a thousand walks in life, no money, or honor, or fear of difficulty can turn him from the purpose inspired by that enchanting volume. It is to him henceforth a bow of promise and of hope. It has proved the most powerful influence at work upon his life. A single book has thus made a boy a devoted clergyman for life, or has led him to the sea, or has induced him to become a lawyer or perhaps has led him on to the charming field of literature, there to serve his God and his race, by clothing his fleeting thoughts in the garb of beauty or power. Nothing can equal the power of good books upon the mind and the heart of the worker, and every professional man needs to drink deeply at the fountain of literature. Let him read poetry, and history, and biography, and fiction, and as long as he does so and allows the bright influence of the world's best authors to act upon his mind, he cannot well fail in his chosen work. He will be too large and great a man for that. Success in life usually attends the wise, we may say it always does, if wisdom be matched with tact and self-control. We cannot recommend too highly, nor urge too strongly the benefits of general reading to professional men. We know of no practical way for a man to keep up his energy and enthusiasm through the years of professional toil except by feeding his mind with the brightest and best in literature. The draining of energy, the consumption of power on the part of professional men is now simply enormous. It requires a giant to meet the demands of work that are laid upon him. And if the professional man would not grow old and find his powers failing in the middle of his career, he must become a student, not only of his own profession but also of history, biography and song. In this age of the world, nothing can atone for incompetence, and ignorance is incompetence.
In our chapter on education we took occasion to say that it is highly useful to pursue some studies throughout life, after school days are over. The same line of argument holds good for a wide and extensive reading in different departments of human thought. That which enlivens the mind in school days will do the same in after-life, when an hour can be spared from the duties of daily work. No man can afford to lose the power which results from diligent reading. The cultivation of general intelligence is as. much a man's duty as the acquisition of a thorough and profound knowledge in one's own craft or profession. To us nothing is more sad than to see a man whose mind and heart are narrowed down to the dull routine of professional life. Such a man may win money, may win professional success, but he does not live half a life, and we believe that he does not win the highest degree of success in his profession. The great lawyers, preachers, teachers, and leaders of all time have been great lovers of books and have spent their hours of leisure in the perusal of their favorite authors. By this means they have gained new strength and new energy for their great and distinguished successes.