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riting is justly denominated an art; I think: that reading claims the same distinction. To adorn ideas with elegance is an act of the mind superior to that of receiving them; but to receive them with a happy discrimination, is the effect of a practised taste. Yet it will be found that taste alone is not sufficient to obtain the proper end of reading. Two persons of equal taste rise from the perusal of the same book with very different notions: the one will have the ideas of the author at command, and find a new train of sentiment awakened; while the other quits his author in a pleasing distraction, but of the pleasures of reading nothing remains but tumultuous sensations. To account for these different effects, we must have recourse to a logical distinction, which appears to reveal one of the great mysteries in the art of reading. Logicians distinguish between perceptions and ideas. Perception is that faculty of the mind which notices the simple impression of objects: but when these objects exist in the mind, and are there treasured and arranged as materials for reflection, then they are called ideas. A perception is like a transient sunbeam, which just shows the object, but leaves neither light nor warmth; while an idea is like the fervid beam of noon, which throws a settled and powerful light. Many ingenious readers complain that their memory is defective, and their studies unfruitful.

This defect arises from their indulging the facile pleasures of perceptions, in preference to the laborious habit of forming them into ideas. Perceptions require only the sensibility of taste, and their pleasures are continuous, easy, and exquisite. Ideas are an art of combination, and an exertion of the reasoning powers. Ideas are therefore labours; and for those who will not labour, it is unjust to complain, if they come from the harvest with scarcely a sheaf in their hands.

There are secrets in the art of reading, which tend to facilitate its purposes, by assisting the memory, and augmenting intellectual opulence. Some, our own ingenuity must form, and perhaps every student has peculiar habits of study, as, in short-hand, almost every writer has a system of his own.

It is an observation of the elder Pliny, (who, having been a voluminous compiler, must have had great experience in the art of reading,) that there was no book so bad, but which contained some thing good. To read every book would, however, be fatal to the interest of most readers; but it is not always necessary, in the pursuits of learning, to read every book entire. Of many books it is sufficient to seize the plan, and to examine some of their portions. Of the little supplement at the close of a volume, few readers conceive the utility; but some of the most eminent writers in Europe have been great adepts in the art of index reading. I, for my part, venerate the inventor of indexes; and I know not to whom to yield the preference, either to Hippocrates, who was the first great anatomiser of the human body, or to that unknown labourer in literature who first laid open the nerves and arteries of a book. Watts advises the perusal of the prefaces and the index of a book, as they both give light on its contents.

The ravenous appetite of Johnson for reading is expressed in a strong metaphor by Mrs. Knowles, who said, “he knows how to read better than any one; he gets at the substance of a book directly; he tears out the heart of it.” Gibbon has a new idea in the Art of Reading; he says, “we ought not to attend to the order of our books so much as of our thoughts.” The perusal of a particular work gives birth perhaps to ideas unconnected with the subject it treats; I pursue these ideas, and quit my proposed plan of reading. Thus in the midst of Homer he read Longinus; a chapter of Longinus led to an epistle of Pliny; and having finished Longinus, he followed the train of his ideas of the sublime and beautiful in the Enquiry of Burke, and concluded by comparing the ancient with the modern Longinus.

There are some mechanical aids in reading which may prove of great utility, and form a kind of rejuvenescence of our early studies. Montaigne placed at the end of a book which he intended not to reperuse, the time he had read it, with a concise decision on its merits; “that,” says he, “it may thus represent to me the air and general idea I had conceived of the author, in reading the work.” We have several of these annotations. Of Young the poet it is noticed, that whenever he came to a striking passage he folded the leaf; and that at his death, books have been found in his library which had long resisted the power of closing: a mode more easy than useful; for after a length of time they must be again read to know why they were folded. This difficulty is obviated by those who note in a blank leaf the pages to be referred to, with a word of criticism. Nor let us consider these minute directions as unworthy the most enlarged minds; by these petty exertions, at the most distant periods, may learning obtain its authorities, and fancy combine its ideas. Seneca, in sending some volumes to his friend Lucilius, accompanies them with notes of particular passages, “that,” he observes, “you who only aim at the useful may be spared the trouble of examining them entire.” I have seen books noted by Voltaire with a word of censure or approbation on the page itself, which was his usual practice; and these volumes are precious to every man of taste. Formey complained that the books he lent Voltaire were returned always disfigured by his remarks; but he was a writer of the old school.

A professional student should divide his readings into a uniform reading which is useful, and into a diversified reading which is pleasant. Guy Patin, an eminent physician and man of letters, had a just notion of this manner. He says, “I daily read Hippocrates, Galen, Fernel, and other illustrious masters of my profession; this I call my profitable readings. I frequently read Ovid, Juvenal, Horace, Seneca, Tacitus, and others, and these are my recreations.” We must observe these distinctions; for it frequently happens that a lawyer or a physician, with great industry and love of study, by giving too much into his diversified readings, may utterly neglect what should be his uniform studies.

A reader is too often a prisoner attached to the triumphal car of an author of great celebrity; and when he ventures not to judge for himself, conceives, while he is reading the indifferent works of great authors, that the languor which he experiences arises from his own defective taste. But the best writers, when they are voluminous, have a great deal of mediocrity. On the other side, readers must not imagine that all the pleasures of composition depend on the author, for there is something which a reader himself must bring to the book that the book may please. There is a literary appetite, which the author can no more impart than the most skilful cook can give an appetency to the guests. When Cardinal Richelieu said to Godeau, that he did not understand his verses, the honest poet replied that it was not his fault. The temporary tone of the mind may be unfavourable to taste a work properly, and we have had many erroneous criticisms from great men, which may often be attributed to this circumstance. The mind communicates its infirm dispositions to the book, and an author has not only his own defects to account for, but also those of his reader. There is something in composition like the game of shuttlecock, where if the reader do not quickly rebound the feathered cork to the author, the game is destroyed, and the whole spirit of the work falls extinct.

A frequent impediment in reading is a disinclination in the mind to settle on the subject; agitated by incongruous and dissimilar ideas, it is with pain that we admit those of the author. But on apply ing ourselves with a gentle violence to the perusal of an interesting work, the mind soon assimilates to the subject; the ancient rabbins advised their young students to apply themselves to their readings, whether they felt an inclination or not, because, as they proceeded, they would find their disposition restored and their curiosity awakened.

Readers may be classed into an infinite number of divisions; but an author is a solitary being, who, for the same reason he pleases one, must consequently displease another. To have too exalted a genius is more prejudicial to his celebrity than to have a moderate one; for we shall find that the most popular works are not the most profound, but such as instruct those who require instruction, and charm those who are not too learned to taste their novelty. Lucilius, the satirist, said, that he did not write for Persius, for Scipio, and for Rutilius, persons eminent for their science, but for the Tarentines, the Consentines, and the Sicilians. Montaigne has complained that he found his readers too learned, or too ignorant, and that he could only please a middle class, who have just learning enough to comprehend him. Congreve says, “there is in true beauty something which vulgar souls cannot admire.” Balzac complains bitterly of readers, “A period,” he cries, “shall have cost us the labour of a day; we shall have distilled into an essay the essence of our mind; it may be a finished piece of art; and they think they are indulgent when they pronounce it to contain some pretty things, and that the style is not bad!” There is something in exquisite composition which ordinary readers can never under stand.

Authors are vain, but readers are capricious. Some will only read old books, as if there were no valuable truths to be discovered in modern publications; while others will only read new books, as if some valuable truths are not among the old. Some will not read a book, because they are acquainted with the author; by which the reader may be more injured than the author: others not only read the book, but would also read the man; by which the most ingenious author may be injured by the most impertinent reader. [10-12]

Related material


D’Israeli, Isaac. Miscellanies of Literature. London: Edward Moxon, 1840. Hathi Trust Digital Library online version of a copy in the New York Public Library. Web. 15 April 2020.

Last modified 15 April 2020