The Benefits of Reading


Rule of St Benedict bookBy J. M. Judy

Today every one reads. Go where you may, you will find the paper, the magazine, the journal; printed letters, official reports, exhaustive cyclopedias, universal histories; the ingenuous advertisement, the voluminous calendar, the decorated symphony; printed ideals, elaborate gaming rules, flaming bulletins; and latest of all, we have begun to publish our communications on the waves of the air. In this hurly-burly of many books and much reading, it is no mean problem to know why one should read; and what, and how, and when. Especially does this problem of general reading confront the student, the lover of books, and those of the professions. Essays are to be read, the historical, the philosophical, and the scientific; novels, the historical and the religious; books of devotion, books of biography, of travel, of criticism, and of art. What principles are to guide one in his choice of reading, that he may select only the wisest, purest, and helpfulest from all these classes of books?


Read to acquire knowledge. Knowledge is the perception of truth. One arrives at knowledge by the assimilation of facts and principles, or by the assimilation of truth itself. Three sources of knowledge are experience, conversation, and reading. Experience leads one slowly to knowledge, is limited entirely to the path over which one has passed, and is a “dear teacher.” To acquire knowledge by conversation is to put one at the mercy of his associates, making him dependent upon their good favor, truthfulness, and learning. But reading places one in direct communication with the wisest and best persons of all time. To acquire knowledge by reading is to defy time and space, persons and circumstances, at least, in our day of many and inexpensive books. Through books facts live, principles operate, justice acts, the light of philosophy gleams, wit flashes, God speaks. Every book-lover agrees with Channing: “No matter how poor I am..if the sacred writers will enter and take up their abode under my roof, if Milton will cross my threshold to sing to me of Paradise, and Shakespeare to open to me the words of imagination and the workings of the human heart, and Franklin to enrich me with his practical wisdom, I shall not pine for want of intellectual companionship, and I may become a cultivated man, though excluded from what is called the best society in the place where I live.” Kingsley says: “Except a living man, there is nothing more wonderful Than a book!—a message to us from the dead,—from human souls whom we never saw, who lived, perhaps, thousands of miles away; and yet these, in those little sheets of paper, speak to us, amuse us, terrify us, teach us, comfort us, open their hearts to us as brothers..If they are good and true, whether they are about religion or politics, farming, trade, or medicine, they are the message of Christ, the Maker of all things, the Teacher of all truth.” The wide range of truth secured through reading acts in two ways upon the reader. It spiritualizes his character, and it makes him mighty in action. Knowledge on almost any subject has a marked tendency to sharpen one’s wits, to refine his tastes, to ennoble his spirit, to improve his judgement, to strengthen his will, to subdue his baser passions, and to fill his soul with the breath of life. It is only upon truth that the soul feeds, and by means of knowledge that the character grows. “It cannot be that people should grow in grace,” writes John Wesley, “unless they give themselves to reading. A reading people will always be a knowing people.” Reading makes one mighty in action when it gives one knowledge, since “knowledge is power,” and since power has but one way of showing itself, and that is, in action. Knowledge takes no note of hardships, ignores fatigue, laughs at disappointment, and frowns upon despair. It delves into the earth, rides upon the air, defies the cold of the north, the heat of the south; it stands upon the brink of the spitting volcano, circumnavigates the globe, examines the heavens, and tries to understand God. With but few exceptions, master-minds and men of affairs have been incessant readers. Cicero, chief of Roman orators, whether at home or abroad, in town or in the country, by day or by night, in youth or in old age, in sorrow or in joy, was not without his books. “Petrarch, when his friend the bishop, thinking that he was overworked, took away the key of his library, was restless and miserable the first day, had a bad headache the second, and was so ill by the third day that the bishop, in alarm, returned the key and let his friend read as much as he liked.” Writes Frederick the Great, “My latest passion will be for literature.” The poet, Milton, while a child, read and studied until midnight. John Ruskin read at four years of age, was a book-worm at five, and wrote numerous poems and dramas before he was ten. Lord Macaulay read at three and began a compendium of universal history at seven. Although not a lover of books, George Washington early read Matthew Hale and became a master in thought. Benjamin Franklin would sit up all night at his books. Thomas Jefferson read fifteen hour a day. Patrick Henry read for employment, and kept store for pastime. Daniel Webster was a devouring reader, and retained all that he read. At the age of fourteen he could repeat from memory all of Watt’s Hymns and Pope’s “Essay on Man.” When but a youth, Henry Clay read books of history and science and practiced giving their contents before the trees, birds, and horses. Says a biographer of Lincoln, “A book was almost always his inseparable companion.”

Then, read for enjoyment. Fortunately, a habit so valuable as reading may grow to become a pleasure. So that as one is gathering useful information and increasing in knowledge, he may have the keenest enjoyment. Such an one sings as he works. He has learned to convert drudgery into joy; duty has become delight. But even for such an one a portion of his reading should be purely for rest and recreation. If one has taught school all day, or set type, or managed a home, or read history, or labored in the field, or been shopping, heavy, solid reading may be out of the question, while under such circumstances one would really enjoy a striking allegory or a well-written novel. Or, if one is limited in knowledge, or deficient in literary taste so that he may find no interest in history, science, philosophy, or religion, still he may enjoy thrilling books of travel, of biography, or of entertaining story. In this way all may enjoy reading. “Of all the amusements which can possibly be imagined for a hard-working man, after his daily toil, or in its intervals, there is nothing,” says Herschel, “like reading an interesting book. It calls for no bodily exercise, of which he has had enough or too much. It relieves his home of its dullness and sameness, which, in nine cases out of ten, is what drives him out to the alehouse, to his own ruin and his family’s. It accompanies him to his next day’s work, and, if the book he has been reading be any thing above the very idlest and lightest, gives him something to think of besides the mere mechanical drudgery of his every-day occupation, something he can enjoy while absent, and look forward with pleasure to return to.”


First of all read something. “Southey tells us that, in his walk one stormy day, he met an old woman, to whom, by way of greeting, he made the rather obvious remark that it was dreadful weather. She answered, philosophically, that in her opinion, ‘any weather was better than none.'” And so we would say, excluding corrupt literature, any reading is better than none! In this day of multiplicity of books who who never reads may not be an ignoramus nor a fool, but certainly he robs the world of much that is useful in character, and deprives himself of much that enriches his own soul. Then one should select his books, as he does his associates, and not attempt to read everything that comes in his way. No longer may one know even a little about every thing. It might be a mark of credit rather than an embarrassment for one to answer, “No,” to the question, “Have you read the latest book?” when the fact is recalled that 30,000 novels have been published within the past eighty years, and that five new ones are added to the list daily.


One has characterized history as both the background and the key to all knowledge. No other class of reading so much as this helps one to appreciate his own country, his own age, his own surroundings. Extensive reading of history is a sure remedy for pessimism, prejudice, and fanaticism. In so far as history is an accurate account of the past, it is a true prophecy of the future for the nation and for the individual. Who reads history knows that men always have displayed folly, Weakness, and cruelty, and that they always will, even to their own obvious ruin. Also he knows that every time and place have had their few good men and women who have honored God, and whom God has honored. Nothing so teaches a person his own insignificance and the small part that he plays in the world as does the reading of history. Nor is history to be found only in the book called history. If you want to know the life of the ancients, as you know the life of your own community, read Josephus. Do you want a glimpse of early apostolic times, read “The Life and Times of Jesus,” by Edersheim. Do you want to see the battlefield of Waterloo, visit Paris in the beginning of the nineteenth century, stop over night with Louis Philippe, see the English through French spectacles, and the Frenchman through his own; do you want a glimpse of the political despotism, court intrigue, and ecclesiastical tyranny in France a hundred years ago; do you want to hear the crash of the bastile, and see Notre Dame converted into a horse-stable; do you want a picture of the “bread riots” and mob violence that terminated in the French revolution of 1848; in short do you want a tale of French life and character in its brightest, gloomiest, and intensest period, read “Les Miserables,” by Victor Hugo. To-day one must read current history. It is not enough to plan, work, and economize, one must make and seize opportunities. And this he can do only as he is alive to passing events. In a few years one may outgrow his usefulness through losing touch with advancing ideas and methods of work. To keep abreast of the times one must read the newspaper and the magazine. The newspaper is the history of the hour, the magazine is the history of the day. The magazine corrects the newspaper, and “sums up in clear and noble phrase those fundamental facts which are only dimly seen in the newspaper.” A serious and growing tendency is that the newspaper and magazine shall take the place of the best books. A few minutes a day is enough for any newspaper, and a few hours a month is enough for any magazine. The greatest part of one’s reading should be that of books. Who gormandizes on current events will pay the price with a morbid mind and with false conclusions in his reasoning.


The life of a great man is a continual inspiration. No other exercise so fires a soul with noble ambition as the study of a great life. Real life is not only stranger than fiction, but it is more interesting than fiction. No boy should be without the life of Washington, of Lincoln, of Webster, of Franklin. Every girl should know by heart brave Pocahontas, sympathetic Mrs. Stowe, queenly Frances Willard, and kind-hearted Victoria. No private library is complete without Plutarch’s “Lives,” the “Life of Alfred the Great,” of Napoleon, Grant, and Gladstone.


The fourteen-year-old child may master the practical principles of natural philosophy, and yet how many intelligent persons remain ignorant of the most commonplace truths in this branch of learning! With a little attention to the natural and mechanical sciences, a new world of beauty and truth opens up before one. He sees objects that once were hid to him; he hears sounds that once were silent; he enjoys odors that once retained their fragrance. His whole being becomes a part of the living musical world about him, when he has his senses opened to appreciate it and to become attuned to it. One should read some science throughout his life, in order to remain at the source of all true knowledge. Here he learns to appreciate the language of nature. When expressed by man, this is poetry.


Ten minutes a day with Tennyson, Browning, Emerson, or Lowell, will teach one a new language, by which he may converse with the wind, talk with the birds, chat with the brook, speak with the flowers, and hold discourse with the sun, moon, and stars. The deepest and mightiest thoughts of all ages have been expressed in poetry, the language of nature. “Poetry,” says Coleridge, “is the blossom and fragrance of all human knowledge, human thoughts, passions, emotions, languages.”


“Religion,” says Lyman Abbott, “is the life of God in the soul.” Every truly religious book treats of this life. The only purely religious book is the Bible. It is the source and inspiration of every other religious book. The Bible is a “letter from God to man, handed down from heaven and written by inspired men.” Its message is free salvation for all men through Jesus Christ; its spirit is divine love. No wise person is without this letter, and every thoughtful and devout person reads it daily. One may never find time to follow a course of study, nor to pursue a plan of daily reading; he may never know the wealth of Dante, the grandeur of Milton, nor the genius of Shakespeare, but every one may make the Bible his daily companion and guide.


Enter into what you read. No book can thrill and move one unless he gives himself up to it. Lack of fixed attention is the cause of the half-informed mind, the faulty reason, and the ever-failing memory. The cause of this lack of attention may be an historical allusion of which one is ignorant, or a new word that he fails to look up, or an overtaxed mind, or unfavorable surroundings. Whatever may be this hindrance it must be removed or overcome before one can enter into what he reads. A thought is of no value until it registers itself and takes a room in the mind. This is why we are told on every hand, that a few books well read are worth more than many books poorly read. The secret of Abraham Lincoln’s power as a public speaker lay in his clear reasoning, simple statement, and apt illustration. This secret was secured by Lincoln through his habit of mastering whatever he heard in conversation or reading. “When a mere child,” says Lincoln, “I used to get irritated when anybody talked to me in a way I could not understand. I don’t think I ever got angry at anything else in my life. But that always disturbed my temper, and has ever since. I can remember going to my little bedroom, after hearing the neighbors talk of an evening with my father, and spending no small part of the night walking up and down, trying to make out what was the exact meaning of some of their, to me, dark sayings. I could not sleep, though I often tried to, when I got on such a hunt after an idea, until I had caught it, and when I thought I had got it, I was not satisfied until I had repeated it over and over; until I had put it in language plain enough, as I thought, for any boy I knew to comprehend. This was a kind of passion with me, and it has stuck by me; for I am never easy now when I am handling a thought until I have bounded it north, and bounded it south, and bounded it east, and bounded it west.” And so to enter into what one reads, means that he will master the thought. The most that a university can do for one is to teach him to read. Who has learned how to read has secured a liberal education, however or wherever he may have learned it.

Then, one should learn to scan an author. This means to take a rapid observation of his thoughts. Much of one’s common reading matter should be scanned. All local news, much magazine literature, and many books should be used in this way. It is mental sloth and waste of time to pore over a newspaper or a book of light fiction, as one would a philosophy of history or a work of science. As Bacon aptly puts it, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others.” One’s mind is like a horse, it soon learns its master. Feed it well, groom it well, treat it gently, you may expect much from it. It is reported of Dr. Newell Dwight Hillis that he has read a book a day for over twenty years. He has learned to squeeze the thought out of a book at a grasp, as one of us would squeeze the juice from an orange. Take a glimpse into his library. Five hundred volumes of sociological literature, four hundred volumes of history, two hundred of cyclopedias, gazetteers, books of reference; four hundred volumes of pure science, one hundred volumes of travels, two hundred and fifty volumes of biography; one hundred volumes of art and art history; a section on psychology, ethics, philosophy, and the relation between science and religion, and a thousand volumes of literature, pure and simple.


First, read at regular hours. This is for those who follow literary pursuits. No professional person should respect himself in his work who has no special time for reading and study, and who does not conscientiously adhere to it. The pulpit, the law-office, the doctor’s office, the teacher, and the editor’s desk, each clamors for the man, the woman, who can think. To appreciate God and to sympathize with the human heart; to know law and the intricate special case; to understand disease and relief for the suffering patient; to have something to teach and to know how to teach it even to the dullest pupil; to know human character and to be able to enlighten the public mind and the public conscience; all this requires in the one who serves a deep and growing knowledge and experience which may be realized only in the grasp of truth contained in the up-to-date and best authorized books. The use of books with this class of persons is not optional. They must buy and master them, or a few years at longest will relegate them with their old books and ideas to the dusty garret where they belong.

Then, many must read on economized time. The farmer, the mechanic, the merchant, the shopkeeper, each may find a little time for daily reading. Ten minutes saved in the morning, ten minutes in the afternoon, and ten minutes in the evening, this is half hour a day. In a week this gives one three hours and a half, in a month fourteen hours of solid reading, and in a year one will have read seven days of twenty-four hours each. Think of what may be accomplished in an average lifetime in common reading by the busiest person, who really wants to read. “Schliemann,” the noted German scholar and author, “as a boy, standing in line at the post-office waiting his turn for the mail, utilized the time by studying Greek from a little pocket grammar.” “Mary Somerfield, the astronomer, while busy with her children in the nursery, wrote her ‘Mechanism of the Heavens,’ without neglecting her duties as a mother.” “Julius Caesar, while a military officer and politician found time to write his Commentaries known throughout the world.” William Cobbett says: “I learned grammar when I was a private soldier on a six-pence a day. The edge of my guard-bed was my seat to study in, my knapsack was my bookcase, and a board lying on my lap was my desk. I had no moment at that time that I could call my own; and I had to read and write among the talking, singing, whistling, and bawling of at least half a score of the most thoughtless of men.” Among those whom we all know who have risen out of obscurity to eminence through a wise economy of time which they have used in reading and study, are, Patrick Henry, Benjamin West, Eli Whitney, James Watt, Richard Baxter, Roger Sherman, Sir Isaac Newton, and Benjamin Franklin.


This is taken from Questionable Amusements and Worthy Substitutes.

The illustration toward the top of the page depicts an 8th-century copy of the Rule of Saint Benedict. An English translation of the Rule of Saint Benedict can be found online at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert website.