Category Archives: Book Reviews

ON BOOKS AND READING.


I have always likes reading. Books have been my friends during my most private time- Alone. even now i have been spending a lot of time with them. Not that I don’t like people, it just happens that I find books more interesting than most people I encounter. However, the few interesting ones I meet I cherish them, often developing into friendship. Most people tend to divide books into god one and the bad ones, I make no such distinction- not to say that i read them indiscriminately! I like to see them as being useful or useless. An example of the former would be ‘The education of Henry Adams’ and of the latter most of the self-help rubbish amongst many more.

My formal education stopped at the demise of my father during my final year in college, when I took to business. Since then, I have tried to unlearn most of the rote I had been feed all my educative years. It’s been fairly successful i should like to think, all thanks to my friends –Books- the useful one. Every time I pick a new book up to Read I feel like a complete idiot, by the end of most of them I retain the feeling, but by the end of some of those very few books I know that I have learnt and grown a bit smatter. Rare as the feeling is, while it lasts it’s wonderful. But, reading has to be done with a lot of caution. Some books have the lingering effect after I have read them, but that does not necessarily mean them to be useful books. Most books I would count as being useless so far as they do not help me to think further on my own in the concerned field of study. As, so often is the case we come across walking encyclopaedias with a lot of factual information acquired through reading, but with an obnoxious lack of critical thinking.

The important thing about reading is that the books should act as a catalyst to further critical thinking and pursuit of independent thinking. If a book cannot do that, in so far as I am concerned they are useless. The other day I came across An essay by Arthur Schopenhauer titled on ‘books and reading’ also the title of this post, where he explores the effect on random readings.I enjoyed reading it hope so do you. I am quoting the essay in full;

Ignorance is degrading only when found in company with riches. The poor

man is restrained by poverty and need: labour occupies his thoughts, and

takes the place of knowledge. But rich men who are ignorant live for

their lusts only, and are like the beasts of the field; as may be seen

every day: and they can also be reproached for not having used wealth

and leisure for that which gives them their greatest value.

 

When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental

process. In learning to write, the pupil goes over with his pen what the

teacher has outlined in pencil: so in reading; the greater part of the

work of thought is already done for us. This is why it relieves us to

take up a book after being occupied with our own thoughts. And in

reading, the mind is, in fact, only the playground of another’s

thoughts. So it comes about that if anyone spends almost the whole day

in reading, and by way of relaxation devotes the intervals to some

thoughtless pastime, he gradually loses the capacity for thinking; just

as the man who always rides, at last forgets how to walk. This is the

case with many learned persons: they have read themselves stupid. For to

occupy every spare moment in reading, and to do nothing but read, is

even more paralyzing to the mind than constant manual labor, which at

least allows those engaged in it to follow their own thoughts. A spring

never free from the pressure of some foreign body at last loses its

elasticity; and so does the mind if other people’s thoughts are

constantly forced upon it. Just as you can ruin the stomach and impair

the whole body by taking too much nourishment, so you can overfill and

choke the mind by feeding it too much. The more you read, the fewer are

the traces left by what you have read: the mind becomes like a tablet

crossed over and over with writing. There is no time for ruminating, and

in no other way can you assimilate what you have read. If you read on

and on without setting your own thoughts to work, what you have read can

not strike root, and is generally lost. It is, in fact, just the same

with mental as with bodily food: hardly the fifth part of what one takes

is assimilated. The rest passes off in evaporation, respiration and the

like.

 

The result of all this is that thoughts put on paper are nothing more

than footsteps in the sand: you see the way the man has gone, but to

know what he saw on his walk, you want his eyes.

 

There is no quality of style that can be gained by reading writers who

possess it; whether it be persuasiveness, imagination, the gift of

drawing comparisons, boldness, bitterness, brevity, grace, ease of

expression or wit, unexpected contrasts, a laconic or naive manner, and

the like. But if these qualities are already in us, exist, that is to

say, potentially, we can call them forth and bring them to

consciousness; we can learn the purposes to which they can be put; we

can be strengthened in our inclination to use them, or get courage to do

so; we can judge by examples the effect of applying them, and so acquire

the correct use of them; and of course it is only when we have arrived

at that point that we actually possess these qualities. The only way in

which reading can form style is by teaching us the use to which we can

put our own natural gifts. We must have these gifts before we begin to

learn the use of them. Without them, reading teaches us nothing but

cold, dead mannerisms and makes us shallow imitators.

 

The strata of the earth preserve in rows the creatures which lived in

former ages; and the array of books on the shelves of a library stores

up in like manner the errors of the past and the way in which they have

been exposed. Like those creatures, they too were full of life in their

time, and made a great deal of noise; but now they are stiff and

fossilized, and an object of curiosity to the literary palaeontologist

alone.

 

Herodotus relates that Xerxes wept at the sight of his army, which

stretched further than the eye could reach, in the thought that of all

these, after a hundred years, not one would be alive. And in looking

over a huge catalogue of new books, one might weep at thinking that,

when ten years have passed, not one of them will be heard of.

 

It is in literature as in life: wherever you turn, you stumble at once

upon the incorrigible mob of humanity, swarming in all directions,

crowding and soiling everything, like flies in summer. Hence the number,

which no man can count, of bad books, those rank weeds of literature,

which draw nourishment from the corn and choke it. The time, money and

attention of the public, which rightfully belong to good books and their

noble aims, they take for themselves: they are written for the mere

purpose of making money or procuring places. So they are not only

useless; they do positive mischief. Nine-tenths of the whole of our

present literature has no other aim than to get a few shillings out of

the pockets of the public; and to this end author, publisher and

reviewer are in league.

 

Let me mention a crafty and wicked trick, albeit a profitable and

successful one, practised by litterateurs, hack writers, and voluminous

authors. In complete disregard of good taste and the true culture of the

period, they have succeeded in getting the whole of the world of fashion

into leading strings, so that they are all trained to read in time, and

all the same thing, viz., _the newest books_; and that for the purpose

of getting food for conversation in the circles in which they move. This

is the aim served by bad novels, produced by writers who were once

celebrated, as Spindler, Bulwer Lytton, Eugene Sue. What can be more

miserable than the lot of a reading public like this, always bound to

peruse the latest works of extremely commonplace persons who write for

money only, and who are therefore never few in number? and for this

advantage they are content to know by name only the works of the few

superior minds of all ages and all countries. Literary newspapers, too,

are a singularly cunning device for robbing the reading public of the

time which, if culture is to be attained, should be devoted to the

genuine productions of literature, instead of being occupied by the

daily bungling commonplace persons.

 

Hence, in regard to reading, it is a very important thing to be able to

refrain. Skill in doing so consists in not taking into one’s hands any

book merely because at the time it happens to be extensively read; such

as political or religious pamphlets, novels, poetry, and the like, which

make a noise, and may even attain to several editions in the first and

last year of their existence. Consider, rather, that the man who writes

for fools is always sure of a large audience; be careful to limit your

time for reading, and devote it exclusively to the works of those great

minds of all times and countries, who o’ertop the rest of humanity,

those whom the voice of fame points to as such. These alone really

educate and instruct. You can never read bad literature too little, nor

good literature too much. Bad books are intellectual poison; they

destroy the mind. Because people always read what is new instead of the

best of all ages, writers remain in the narrow circle of the ideas which

happen to prevail in their time; and so the period sinks deeper and

deeper into its own mire.

 

There are at all times two literatures in progress, running side by

side, but little known to each other; the one real, the other only

apparent. The former grows into permanent literature; it is pursued by

those who live _for_ science or poetry; its course is sober and quiet,

but extremely slow; and it produces in Europe scarcely a dozen works in

a century; these, however, are permanent. The other kind is pursued by

persons who live _on_ science or poetry; it goes at a gallop with much

noise and shouting of partisans; and every twelve-month puts a thousand

works on the market. But after a few years one asks, Where are they?

where is the glory which came so soon and made so much clamor? This kind

may be called fleeting, and the other, permanent literature.

 

In the history of politics, half a century is always a considerable

time; the matter which goes to form them is ever on the move; there is

always something going on. But in the history of literature there is

often a complete standstill for the same period; nothing has happened,

for clumsy attempts don’t count. You are just where you were fifty years

previously.

 

To explain what I mean, let me compare the advance of knowledge among

mankind to the course taken by a planet. The false paths on which

humanity usually enters after every important advance are like the

epicycles in the Ptolemaic system, and after passing through one of

them, the world is just where it was before it entered it. But the great

minds, who really bring the race further on its course do not accompany

it on the epicycles it makes from time to time. This explains why

posthumous fame is often bought at the expense of contemporary praise,

and _vice versa_. An instance of such an epicycle is the philosophy

started by Fichte and Schelling, and crowned by Hegel’s caricature of

it. This epicycle was a deviation from the limit to which philosophy had

been ultimately brought by Kant; and at that point I took it up again

afterwards, to carry it further. In the intervening period the sham

philosophers I have mentioned and some others went through their

epicycle, which had just come to an end; so that those who went with

them on their course are conscious of the fact that they are exactly at

the point from which they started.

 

This circumstance explains why it is that, every thirty years or so,

science, literature, and art, as expressed in the spirit of the time,

are declared bankrupt. The errors which appear from time to time amount

to such a height in that period that the mere weight of their absurdity

makes the fabric fall; whilst the opposition to them has been gathering

force at the same time. So an upset takes place, often followed by an

error in the opposite direction. To exhibit these movements in their

periodical return would be the true practical aim of the history of

literature: little attention, however, is paid to it. And besides, the

comparatively short duration of these periods makes it difficult to

collect the data of epochs long gone by, so that it is most convenient

to observe how the matter stands in one’s own generation. An instance of

this tendency, drawn from physical science, is supplied in the Neptunian

geology of Werter.

 

But let me keep strictly to the example cited above, the nearest we can

take. In German philosophy, the brilliant epoch of Kant was immediately

followed by a period which aimed rather at being imposing than at

convincing. Instead of being thorough and clear, it tried to be

dazzling, hyperbolical, and, in a special degree, unintelligible:

instead of seeking truth, it intrigued. Philosophy could make no

progress in this fashion; and at last the whole school and its method

became bankrupt. For the effrontery of Hegel and his fellows came to

such a pass,–whether because they talked such sophisticated nonsense,

or were so unscrupulously puffed, or because the entire aim of this

pretty piece of work was quite obvious,–that in the end there was

nothing to prevent charlatanry of the whole business from becoming

manifest to everybody: and when, in consequence of certain disclosures,

the favor it had enjoyed in high quarters was withdrawn, the system was

openly ridiculed. This most miserable of all the meagre philosophies

that have ever existed came to grief, and dragged down with it into the

abysm of discredit, the systems of Fichte and Schelling which had

preceded it. And so, as far as Germany is concerned, the total

philosophical incompetence of the first half of the century following

upon Kant is quite plain: and still the Germans boast of their talent

for philosophy in comparison with foreigners, especially since an

English writer has been so maliciously ironical as to call them "a

nation of thinkers."

 

For an example of the general system of epicycles drawn from the history

of art, look at the school of sculpture which flourished in the last

century and took its name from Bernini, more especially at the

development of it which prevailed in France. The ideal of this school

was not antique beauty, but commonplace nature: instead of the

simplicity and grace of ancient art, it represented the manners of a

French minuet.

 

This tendency became bankrupt when, under Winkelman’s direction, a

return was made to the antique school. The history of painting furnishes

an illustration in the first quarter of the century, when art was looked

upon merely as a means and instrument of mediaeval religious sentiment,

and its themes consequently drawn from ecclesiastical subjects alone:

these, however, were treated by painters who had none of the true

earnestness of faith, and in their delusion they followed Francesco

Francia, Pietro Perugino, Angelico da Fiesole and others like them,

rating them higher even than the really great masters who followed. It

was in view of this terror, and because in poetry an analogous aim had

at the same time found favor, that Goethe wrote his parable

_Pfaffenspiel_. This school, too, got the reputation of being whimsical,

became bankrupt, and was followed by a return to nature, which

proclaimed itself in _genre_ pictures and scenes of life of every kind,

even though it now and then strayed into what was vulgar.

 

The progress of the human mind in literature is similar. The history of

literature is for the most part like the catalogue of a museum of

deformities; the spirit in which they keep best is pigskin. The few

creatures that have been born in goodly shape need not be looked for

there. They are still alive, and are everywhere to be met with in the

world, immortal, and with their years ever green. They alone form what I

have called real literature; the history of which, poor as it is in

persons, we learn from our youth up out of the mouths of all educated

people, before compilations recount it for us.

 

As an antidote to the prevailing monomania for reading literary

histories, in order to be able to chatter about everything, without

having any real knowledge at all, let me refer to a passage in

Lichtenberg’s works (vol. II., p. 302), which is well worth perusal.

 

I believe that the over-minute acquaintance with the history of science

and learning, which is such a prevalent feature of our day, is very

prejudicial to the advance of knowledge itself. There is pleasure in

following up this history; but as a matter of fact, it leaves the mind,

not empty indeed, but without any power of its own, just because it

makes it so full. Whoever has felt the desire, not to fill up his mind,

but to strengthen it, to develop his faculties and aptitudes, and

generally, to enlarge his powers, will have found that there is nothing

so weakening as intercourse with a so-called litterateur, on a matter of

knowledge on which he has not thought at all, though he knows a thousand

little facts appertaining to its history and literature. It is like

reading a cookery-book when you are hungry. I believe that so-called

literary history will never thrive amongst thoughtful people, who are

conscious of their own worth and the worth of real knowledge. These

people are more given to employing their own reason than to troubling

themselves to know how others have employed theirs. The worst of it is

that, as you will find, the more knowledge takes the direction of

literary research, the less the power of promoting knowledge becomes;

the only thing that increases is pride in the possession of it. Such

persons believe that they possess knowledge in a greater degree than

those who really possess it. It is surely a well-founded remark, that

knowledge never makes its possessor proud. Those alone let themselves be

blown out with pride, who incapable of extending knowledge in their own

persons, occupy themselves with clearing up dark points in its history,

or are able to recount what others have done. They are proud, because

they consider this occupation, which is mostly of a mechanical nature,

the practice of knowledge. I could illustrate what I mean by examples,

but it would be an odious task.

 

Still, I wish some one would attempt a _tragical_ history of literature,

giving the way in which the writers and artists, who form the proudest

possession of the various nations which have given them birth, have been

treated by them during their lives. Such a history would exhibit the

ceaseless warfare, which what was good and genuine in all times and

countries has had to wage with what was bad and perverse. It would tell

of the martyrdom of almost all those who truly enlightened humanity, of

almost all the great masters of every kind of art: it would show us how,

with few exceptions, they were tormented to death, without recognition,

without sympathy, without followers; how they lived in poverty and

misery, whilst fame, honor, and riches, were the lot of the unworthy;

how their fate was that of Esau, who while he was hunting and getting

venison for his father, was robbed of the blessing by Jacob, disguised

in his brother’s clothes, how, in spite of all, they were kept up by the

love of their work, until at last the bitter fight of the teacher of

humanity is over, until the immortal laurel is held out to him, and the

hour strikes when it can be said:

 

Der sehwere Panzer wird zum Fluegelkleide

Kurz ist der Schmerz, unendlich ist die Freude.

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