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The Art of Reading


Meantime, the colleges, whilst they provide us with libraries, furnish no professor of books; and I think no chair is so much wanted.

The literature of a language is the record of "the best that has been thought and felt" by its people. It is essential for us to read, some what, the literature of our mother tongue, be cause the record it contains molds the thought of our own generation. In brief, the best books of the past, not only explain the past itself but they make clear to us how the present came to be, and how it, in turn, takes its trend into the future.

So enormous is the number of good books in the world that it is beyond human possibility to know intimately more than a few of them. Commenting on a man's effort to read the treasures of a great library, Emerson says : "It is easy to count the number of pages which a diligent man can read in a day, and the number of years which human life in favorable cir cumstances allows to reading; and to demon strate that, though he should read from dawn to dark, for sixty years, he must die in the first alcove.." It were wiser, by far, if one did not attempt to read the books of the first alcove, but gradually to select from the masterpieces of literature enough to fill the little alcove of one's own book-shelf. Even then, we shall discover that there is required for reading, not time alone, but method. It is an art to master the mes sage contained between the covers of a book.

What is the nature of this art? From what we have learned about the origin of things in the environment, we know that a book, like a building, is the picture of thought.

Any book that persists, from one generation even to the next, has some vital quality in it. If we examine its vitality we shall find that it is based on truth. Hence, the author, having chosen a subject, proceeds simply to write the truth about it. He has a mental grasp of his subject, and as he attempts to clothe it in the truth by means of words, his mind is filled with pictures. Now these pictures may be taken

literally from the environment, or they may be environment pictures idealized, or they may be constructed by the writer's creative genius— that is, by his imagination.

The writer's object is to embody his mental picture in words, in such manner that when his language is read by anyone else, the picture he saw will be generated in the reader's mind. As a matter of mathematical exactness, of iden tity of pictures to all readers alike from any given page, the task of the author is impos sible. But, if one may so express it, the general atmosphere, the type of scene, the picture in its larger contour will be the same for all.

The author can succeed, even in this, only by the wisest and most logical choice of words. Hence, he always selects exactly the right word, keeping its fundamental meaning before him, and he depends for a just interpretation on Our Fart, on ()Cr the words be uses as tame...1y as he kr:Criri Fundamental then, to all righ- read_hig, is an exact knowlef!ge of wor-fs. No good book can be read with justice, either to the au:Hor or to one's self, without this knowledge_ This means slow reading, much use of the dictionary. and frequent reflection; that which is reflected to to being the picture in the author's mind. Often a good book is so closely knit in its style and choice of words that it seems beyond us; the pictures are packed away in the words so deeply that we actually have to dig for them. But, to dig, we must remember, is the reP1 meaning of the word culture.

We must have faith in reading such a book. The writer has chosen his words so carefully that no other words will do; each word helps to build the picture, just as a block of marble, es pecially cut and designed by the builder for its place, contributes to the edifice he is creating.

If we were to formulate rules for right read ing, the following would surely be included. The first rule is : Challenge every word.

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