Companionship Of Books
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
Good books are among the most enduring triumphs of human endeavor. The best thoughts of all time are embodied in literature and there they endure forever and ever as the best which immortal genius has produced. Nothing that was ever really good in literature has been permitted to die. Homer, with his matchless hymns of mighty heroes, still lives ; the heart of every school-boy is thrilled with the deeds of God-like Achilles" and "Man-destroying Hector." Plato and Xenophon sat at the feet of immortal Socrates, and listened to the words that fell from his lips. When the Sage had died, and Plato would embalm the -words of the law-giver, and Xenophon would present to the world his " Memories " of the great Athenian both did their work so well that it will live forever ; and the world would have never known the sublime teachings of the Master, had it not been for the two devoted disciples that clothed his precepts in words of surpassing power. Cicero, Horace and Virgil still live, and will speak on to ages yet unborn. Dante and Milton still sing their matchless songs to each recurring generation. They have been dead these hundreds of years ; but The Paradise Lost and Inferno are read in every land and in almost every language beneath the sun. Shakespeare still lives and will continue to live as "Emperor of Literature " with none worthy to unloose the latchet of his sandals. His voice, with human accents -hushed for ages, still speaks with more power than in the days of The Virgin Queen. Long-fellow lives in the songs and hearts of the world. His beautiful songs of Indian life and puritan history will live when London shall have become a Babylon and Boston as the " eye of Greece." There is no greater source of power than in an intimate association with these great masters of the world's literature. Their thought so grand and good serves to round out our thought into greater strength. These masters of a by-gone day, by means of their immortal thought may become our companions and our friends. The great writers of all time may come in and sit with us, and we with them until lasting friendship is established, and leisure hours enlivened with their converse. When a thoughtful man enters his library he is in the presence of his friends. They beam upon him from the shelves, inviting him to companionship. In green and gold, in leather or cloth of modest hue, they greet their owners gaze. in stately folio, in stout octavo, in dainty duodecimo, polished in calf, and tooled in Arabesque, the volumes stand waiting for the eye to trace the lines upon their pages. Sharp-cut Elzevirs, editions de lux, elegant Aldines, welcome the hand that turns their leaves and 'become the most intimate companions a man can have.
This companionship with the highest and best among the writers of the world is like a communion with beloved and noble friends. It is elevating and inspiring and a source of permanent help and happiness. Even the poorest of God's creatures may find among the good books of the world a companion for every mood of joy or sorrow. Would you laugh? There is Cervantes and Rabelais, and Sydney Smith and a host of others to provoke you to mirth. Would you grieve ? Then there is Thomas a Kempis, and Jeremy Taylor, and Baxter, to weep with you. Would you in joyous mood scale the heights of song, or walk in ethereal regions of transcendent eloquence ? There is a host of them to keep you company. The orators still declaim and the poets sing for you. Would you sit in a shady nook and dream of fairy tale, knightly adventure, or the romances that charm the mind and thrill the heart ? Hundreds of the greatest and best may be the companions of your dreams, and the brightest visions that the power of genius has ever penned is yours to enjoy. And so, in whatever condition or phase of life, it is possible to bring the light of literature into your experience to brighten and ennoble it. Indeed it is possible for books to accomplish what experience cannot do ; they may enlighten the mind from outside the reach of experience.
It often happens, let me repeat, that the reading of a book constitutes an epoch in a man's life. The thorough conscientious study of any masterpiece of literature, thought Dr. Johnson, would make a man a dangerous intellectual rival. And it has often happened that a life has turned upon the reading of a book. Great workers have always been great readers, and have had their favorite authors to whom they have gone, year in and year out, for the sources of their power. The great Gladstone is a profound student of Homer. He thinks that much of his distinguished success depends upon the inspiration he has received from this one author. Milton, Bossuet, and Curran also record Homer among their favorite books. Alexander the Great always carried a copy of the Homeric poems with him, and read them as assiduously as the Christian does his Bible. Plutarch's Lives have had a mighty influence upon the lives of men for many centuries. The grand attitudes in which the author displays his heroes have had an unspeakable charm over the thought of the world. Gibbon is said to have acquired a taste for reading from his aunt, "which," he declared, "he would not exchange for the treasures of India." Cobbet, at the age of eleven, bought Swift's "Tale of a Tub," and he considered the reading of it a birth of intellect. Milton's favorite books were Homer, Ovid, and Euripides, and upon these he fed that mighty genius, requiring his daughters to read his favorites to him after he had become blind. Dr. Franklin traced his entire career to the reading of Cotton Mather's Essays To Do Good, which fell into his hands in boyhood. The genius of Faraday was aroused by some of the books he read when he was an apprentice to a book-binder. Pitt, the great English statesman, took especial delight in Milton and Newton's Principia. One of Napoleon's favorite books was Caesar's Commentaries, while the Duke of Wellington was a frequent reader of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations.
Lord Macaulay owed a large part of his greatness to the books which he read while yet a boy. He was one of the most omnivorous readers England has produced, and with a memory that never lost a fact nor proved rebellious in regard to a single phrase, he incorporated the vast stores of his reading into those delightful essays that literally sparkle with the genius of a master mind. He was one of the few who could read Sophocles, and Pindar, and Cicero, "with his feet upon the fender." "If the riches of both Indies," said Fenelon; "if the crowns of all the kingdoms of Europe were laid at my feet in exchange for my love of reading, I would spurn them all." Upon the use of books by the scholar to improve and. enlarge his mind, an eminent writer says :
" Books not only enrich and enlarge the mind, but they stimulate, inflame and concentrate its activity ; and though without. this reception of foreign influence a man may be odd, he cannot be original. The greatest genius is he who consumes the most knowledge and converts it into mind. What, indeed, is college education but the reading of certain books which the common sense of all scholars agrees will represent the science already accumulated? "ŚMathew's Hours with Men and Books, P.
The companionship of books thus becomes like the companionship of friends, something to be sought after and cultivated. The volume that leaves us with a glow of contentment and thankfulness, that inspires us with a warm, resolve to struggle on with the difficulties of life or helps us to be cheerful under adverse fortune, or confirms our faith in God and his goodness, is indeed a friend. And if we seek again and again that inspiration and contentment and faith under the guidance of the author, we have learned to love our associations with books and have all the essential elements of permanent friendship with good and noble men. A poem that elevates the soul, arouses the imagination, stirs the emotions and fills the whole horizon of thought with morning light, may do for us more than any friend can do. Indeed, we think that the thoughtful man, who has learned to put a proper estimate upon the value of his library, has found the true companionship of human life. It is marvelous how soon the deception and hollow falseness of society lose their charms before the true, sincere communion of a reader with his books. The society to be found in a well-stocked library is the best society of all times and all races, and it is a mystery how any man with a spark of reason, or the lowest elements of genius slumbering in his soul, can be content to pass his time in idleness and loneliness or seek the miserable companionship of the vulgar and the vicious, when it is possible for him to commune with princes and kings in the poetry, history, biography and fiction of a moderate sized library. Who, that has ever once tasted of a good book, can ever again be lonely or be satisfied with the frivolities of society, is a mystery that the author cannot fathom. There is a touch of pathos in that wish of Prescott's, that when he should be arrayed for the grave he might lie for a few hours alone in his library, which had so long been the scene of his labors and the place of his enjoyment. The wish reveals how Prescott loved his books and how he prized them as the dearest companions of his life.
To be a lover and a diligent reader of good books is to enjoy the highest happiness to be derived from the experiences of this life.