The Pleasures of Life
By Sir John Lubbock

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    “Oh for a booke and a shadie nooke,
      Eyther in doore or out;
    With the grene leaves whispering overhead
      Or the streete cryes all about.
    Where I maie reade all at my ease,
      Both of the newe and old;
    For a jollie goode booke whereon to looke,
      Is better to me than golde.”


Of all the privileges we enjoy in this nineteenth century there is none, perhaps, for which we ought to be more thankful than for the easier access to books.

The debt we owe to books was well expressed by Richard de Bury, Bishop of Durham, author of Philobiblon, written as long ago as 1344, published in 1473, and the earliest English treatise on the delights of literature:–"These,” he says, “are the masters who instruct us without rods and ferules, without hard words and anger, without clothes or money. If you approach them, they are not asleep; if investigating you interrogate them, they conceal nothing; if you mistake them, they never grumble; if you are ignorant, they cannot laugh at you. The library, therefore, of wisdom is more precious than all riches, and nothing that can be wished for is worthy to be compared with it. Whosoever therefore acknowledges himself to be a zealous follower of truth, of happiness, of wisdom, of science, or even of the faith, must of necessity make himself a lover of books.” But if the debt were great then, how much more now.

This feeling that books are real friends is constantly present to all who love reading. “I have friends,” said Petrarch, “whose society is extremely agreeable to me; they are of all ages, and of every country. They have distinguished themselves both in the cabinet and in the field, and obtained high honors for their knowledge of the sciences. It is easy to gain access to them, for they are always at my service, and I admit them to my company, and dismiss them from it, whenever I please. They are never troublesome, but immediately answer every question I ask them. Some relate to me the events of past ages, while others reveal to me the secrets of Nature. Some teach me how to live, and others how to die. Some, by their vivacity, drive away my cares and exhilarate my spirits; while others give fortitude to my mind, and teach me the important lesson how to restrain my desires, and to depend wholly on myself. They open to me, in short, the various avenues of all the arts and sciences, and upon their information I may safely rely in all emergencies. In return for all their services, they only ask me to accommodate them with a convenient chamber in some corner of my humble habitation, where they may repose in peace; for these friends are more delighted by the tranquillity of retirement than with the tumults of society.”

“He that loveth a book,” says Isaac Barrow, “will never want a faithful friend, a wholesome counsellor, a cheerful companion, an effectual comforter. By study, by reading, by thinking, one may innocently divert and pleasantly entertain himself, as in all weathers, so in all fortunes.”

Southey took a rather more melancholy view:

  “My days among the dead are pass’d,
    Around me I behold,
  Where’er these casual eyes are cast,
    The mighty minds of old.
  My never-failing friends are they,
    With whom I converse day by day.”

Imagine, in the words of Aikin, “that we had it in our power to call up the shades of the greatest and wisest men that ever existed, and oblige them to converse with us on the most interesting topics–what an inestimable privilege should we think it!–how superior to all common enjoyments! But in a well-furnished library we, in fact, possess this power. We can question Xenophon and Caesar on their campaigns, make Demosthenes and Cicero plead before us, join in the audiences of Socrates and Plato, and receive demonstrations from Euclid and Newton. In books we have the choicest thoughts of the ablest men in their best dress.”

“Books,” says Jeremy Collier, “are a guide in youth and an entertainment for age. They support us under solitude, and keep us from being a burthen to ourselves. They help us to forget the crossness of men and things; compose our cares and our passions; and lay our disappointments asleep. When we are weary of the living, we may repair to the dead, who have nothing of peevishness, pride, or design in their conversation.”

Sir John Herschel tells an amusing anecdote illustrating the pleasure derived from a book, not assuredly of the first order. In a certain village the blacksmith having got hold of Richardson’s novel, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, used to sit on his anvil in the long summer evenings and read it aloud to a large and attentive audience. It is by no means a short book, but they fairly listened to it all. At length, when the happy turn of fortune arrived, which brings the hero and heroine together, and sets them living long and happily together according to the most approved rules, the congregation were so delighted as to raise a great shout, and procuring the church keys, actually set the parish bells a-ringing.

“The lover of reading,” says Leigh Hunt, “will derive agreeable terror from Sir Bertram and the Haunted Chamber; will assent with, delighted reason to every sentence in Mrs. Barbauld’s Essay; will feel himself wandering into solitudes with Gray; shake honest hands with Sir Roger de Coverley; be ready to embrace Parson Adams, and to chuck Pounce out of the window instead of the hat; will travel with Marco Polo and Mungo Park; stay at home with Thomson; retire with Cowley; be industrious with Hutton; sympathizing with Gay and Mrs. Inchbald; laughing with (and at) Buncle; melancholy, and forlorn, and self-restored with the shipwrecked mariner of De Foe.”

Carlyle has wisely said that a collection of books is a real university.

The importance of books has been appreciated in many quarters where we might least expect it. Among the hardy Norsemen runes were supposed to be endowed with miraculous power. There is an Arabic proverb, that “a wise man’s day is worth a fool’s life,” and another–though it reflects perhaps rather the spirit of the Califs than of the Sultans,–that “the ink of science is more precious than the blood of the martyrs.”

Confucius is said to have described himself as a man who “in his eager pursuit of knowledge forgot his food, who in the joy of its attainment forgot his sorrows, and did not even perceive that old age was coming on.”

Yet, if this could be said by the Arabs and the Chinese, what language can be strong enough to express the gratitude we ought to feel for the advantages we enjoy! We do not appreciate, I think, our good fortune in belonging to the nineteenth century. Sometimes, indeed, one may even be inclined to wish that one had not lived quite so soon, and to long for a glimpse of the books, even the school-books, of one hundred years hence. A hundred years ago not only were books extremely expensive and cumbrous, but many of the most delightful were still uncreated–such as the works of Scott, Thackeray, Dickens, Bulwer Lytton, and Trollope, not to mention living authors. How much more interesting science has become especially, if I were to mention only one name, through the genius of Darwin! Renan has characterized this as a most amusing century; I should rather have described it as most interesting: presenting us as it does with an endless vista of absorbing problems; with infinite opportunities; with more interest and less danger than surrounded our less fortunate ancestors.

Cicero described a room without books, as a body without a soul. But it is by no means necessary to be a philosopher to love reading.

Reading, indeed, is by no means necessarily study. Far from it. “I put," says Mr. Frederic Harrison, in his excellent article on the “Choice of Books,” “I put the poetic and emotional side of literature as the most needed for daily use.”

In the prologue to the Legende of Goode Women, Chaucer says:

  “And as for me, though that I konne but lyte,
  On bokes for to rede I me delyte,
  And to him give I feyth and ful credence,
  And in myn herte have him in reverence,
  So hertely, that ther is game noon,
  That fro my bokes maketh me to goon,
  But yt be seldome on the holy day,
  Save, certynly, when that the monthe of May
  Is comen, and that I here the foules synge,
  And that the floures gynnen for to sprynge,
  Farwel my boke and my devocion.”

But I doubt whether, if he had enjoyed our advantages, he could have been so certain of tearing himself away, even in the month of May.

Macaulay, who had all that wealth and fame, rank and talents could give, yet, we are told, derived his greatest happiness from books. Sir G. Trevelyan, in his charming biography, says that–"of the feelings which Macaulay entertained toward the great minds of bygone ages it is not for any one except himself to speak. He has told us how his debt to them was incalculable; how they guided him to truth; how they filled his mind with noble and graceful images; how they stood by him in all vicissitudes– comforters in sorrow, nurses in sickness, companions in solitude, the old friends who are never seen with new faces; who are the same in wealth and in poverty, in glory and in obscurity. Great as were the honors and possessions which Macaulay acquired by his pen, all who knew him were well aware that the titles and rewards which he gained by his own works were as nothing in the balance compared with the pleasure he derived from the works of others.”

There was no society in London so agreeable that Macaulay would have preferred it at breakfast or at dinner “to the company of Sterne or Fielding, Horace Walpole or Boswell.” The love of reading which Gibbon declared he would not exchange for all the treasures of India was, in fact, with Macaulay “a main element of happiness in one of the happiest lives that it has ever fallen to the lot of the biographer to record.”

“History,” says Fuller, “maketh a young man to be old without either wrinkles or gray hair, privileging him with the experience of age without either the infirmities or the inconveniences thereof.”

So delightful indeed are books that we must be careful not to forget other duties for them; in cultivating the mind we must not neglect the body.

To the lover of literature or science, exercise often presents itself as an irksome duty, and many a one has felt like “the fair pupil of Ascham (Lady Jane Gray), who, while the horns were sounding and dogs in full cry, sat in the lonely oriel, with eyes riveted to that immortal page which tells how meekly and bravely (Socrates) the first martyr of intellectual liberty took the cup from his weeping jailer.” [1]

Still, as the late Lord Derby justly observed, [2] those who do not find time for exercise will have to find time for illness.

Books, again, are now so cheap as to be within the reach of almost every one. This was not always so. It is quite a recent blessing. Mr. Ireland, to whose charming little Book Lover’s Enchiridion, in common with every lover of reading. I am greatly indebted, tells us that when a boy he was so delighted with White’s Natural History of Selborne, that in order to possess a copy of his own he actually copied out the whole work.

Mary Lamb gives a pathetic description of a studious boy lingering at a bookstall:

  “I saw a boy with eager eye
  Open a book upon a stall,
  And read, as he’d devour it all;
  Which, when the stall man did espy,
  Soon to the boy I heard him call,
  ’You, sir, you never buy a book,
  Therefore in one you shall not look.’
  The boy passed slowly on, and with a sigh
  He wished he never had been taught to read,
  Then of the old churl’s books he should have had no need.”

Such snatches of literature have indeed, special and peculiar charm. This is, I believe, partly due to the very fact of their being brief. Many readers miss much of the pleasure of reading by forcing themselves to dwell too long continuously on one subject. In a long railway journey, for instance, many persons take only a single book. The consequence is that, unless it is a story, after half an hour or an hour they are quite tired of it. Whereas, if they had two, or still better three books, on different subjects, and one of them of an amusing character, they would probably find that, by changing as soon as they felt at all weary, they would come back again and again to each with renewed zest, and hour after hour would pass pleasantly away. Every one, of course, must judge for himself, but such at least is my experience.

I quite agree, therefore, with Lord Iddesleigh as to the charm of desultory reading, but the wider the field the more important that we should benefit by the very best books in each class. Not that we need confine ourselves to them, but that we should commence with them, and they will certainly lead us on to others. There are of course some books which we must read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. But these are exceptions. As regards by far the larger number, it is probably better to read them quickly, dwelling only on the best and most important passages. In this way, no doubt, we shall lose much, but we gain more by ranging over a wider field. We may, in fact, I think, apply to reading Lord Brougham’s wise dictum as regards education, and say that it is well to read everything of something, and something of everything. In this way only we can ascertain the bent of our own tastes, for it is a general, though not of course an invariable, rule, that we profit little by books which we do not enjoy.

Every one, however, may suit himself. The variety is endless.

Not only does a library contain “infinite riches in a little room,” [3] but we may sit at home and yet be in all quarters of the earth. We may travel round the world with Captain Cook or Darwin, with Kingsley or Ruskin, who will show us much more perhaps than ever we should see for ourselves. The world itself has no limits for us; Humboldt and Herschel will carry us far away to the mysterious nebulae, beyond the sun and even the stars: time has no more bounds than space; history stretches out behind us, and geology will carry us back for millions of years before the creation of man, even to the origin of the material Universe itself. Nor are we limited to one plane of thought. Aristotle and Plato will transport us into a sphere none the less delightful because we cannot appreciate it without some training.

Comfort and consolation, refreshment and happiness, may indeed be found in his library by any one “who shall bring the golden key that unlocks its silent door.” [4] A library is true fairyland, a very palace of delight, a haven of repose from the storms and troubles of the world. Rich and poor can enjoy it equally, for here, at least, wealth gives no advantage. We may make a library, if we do but rightly use it, a true paradise on earth, a garden of Eden without its one drawback; for all is open to us, including, and especially, the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, for which we are told that our first mother sacrificed all the Pleasures of Paradise. Here we may read the most important histories, the most exciting volumes of travels and adventures, the most interesting stories, the most beautiful poems; we may meet the most eminent statesmen, poets, and philosophers, benefit by the ideas of the greatest thinkers, and enjoy the grandest creations of human genius.

[1] Macaulay.

[2] Address, Liverpool College, 1873.

[3] Marlowe.

[4] Matthews.



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