Thomas Carlyle: On the Choice of Books

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Thomas Carlyle

On The Choice of Books



[Address delivered to the students of Edinburgh University,

April 2, 1866]




GENTLEMEN,


(...)


I daresay you know, very many of you, that it is now seven hundred years since Universities were first set up in this world of ours. Abelard and other people had risen up with doctrines in them the people wished to hear of, and students flocked towards them from all parts of the world. There was no getting the thing recorded in books as you may now. You had to hear him speaking to you vocally, or else you could not learn at all what it was that he wanted to say.


And so they gathered together the various people who had anything to teach, and formed themselves gradually, under the patronage of kings and other potentates who were anxious about the culture of their populations, nobly anxious for their benefit, and became a University. (...)



The main use of the Universities in the present age is that, after you have done with all your classes, the next thing is a collection of books, a great library of good books, which you proceed to study and to read.



What the Universities have mainly done — what I have found the University did for me, was that it taught me to read in various languages and various sciences, so that I could go into the books that treated of these things, and try anything I wanted to make myself master of gradually, as I found it suit me.


Whatever you may think of all that, the clearest and most imperative duty lies on every one of you to be assiduous in your reading; and learn to be good readers, which is, perhaps, a more difficult thing than you imagine. Learn to be discriminative in your reading — to read all kinds of things that you have an interest in, and that you find to be really fit for what you are engaged in.



Thomas Carlyle, by James Archer (1869)

(National Trust, Carlyle's House)



Of course, at the present time, in a great deal of the reading incumbent on you you must be guided by the books recommended to you by your professors for assistance towards the prelections. And then, when you get out of the University, and go into studies of your own, you will find it very important that you have selected a field, a province in which you can study and work. The most unhappy of all men is the man that cannot tell what he is going to do, that has got no work cut out for him in the world, and does not go into it.



For work is the grand cure of all the maladies and miseries that ever beset mankind — honest work, which you intend getting done. If you are in a strait, a very good indication as to choice — perhaps the best you could get — is a book you have a great curiosity about. You are then in the readiest and best of all possible conditions to improve by that book.



It is analogous to what doctors tell us about the physical health and appetites of the patient. You must learn to distinguish between false appetite and real. There is such a thing as a false appetite, which will lead a man into vagaries with regard to diet, will tempt him to eat spicy things which he should not eat at all, and would not but that it is toothsome, and for the moment in baseness of mind.


A man ought to inquire and find out what he really and truly has an appetite for — what suits his constitution; and that, doctors tell him, is the very thing he ought to have in general. And so with books.


As applicable to almost all of you, I will say that it is highly expedient to go into history — to inquire into what has passed before you in the families of men. The history of the Romans and Greeks will first of all concern you; and you will find that all the knowledge you have got will be extremely applicable to elucidate that.


There you have the most remarkable race of men in the world set before you, to say nothing of the languages, which your professors can better explain, and which, I believe, are admitted to be the most perfect orders of speech we have yet found to exist among men.



And you will find, if you read well, a pair of extremely remarkable nations shining in the records left by themselves as a kind of pillar to light up life in the darkness of the past ages; and it will be well worth your while if you can get into the understanding of what these people were and what they did.



Thomas Carlyle, by Sir John Everett Millais



One remark more about your reading. I do not know whether it has been sufficiently brought home to you that there are two kinds of books. When a man is reading on any kind of subject, in most departments of books — in all books, if you take it in a wide sense — you will find that there is a division of good books and bad books — there is a good kind of a book and a bad kind of a book.


I am not to assume that you are all ill acquainted with this; but I may remind you that it is a very important consideration at present. It casts aside altogether the idea that people have that if they are reading any book — that if an ignorant man is reading any book, he is doing rather better than nothing at all. I entirely call that in question. I even venture to deny it.


(Laughter and cheers.)


It would be much safer and better would he have no concern with books at all than with some of them. You know these are my views. There are a number, an increasing number, of books that are decidedly to him not useful. (Hear.) But he will learn also that a certain number of books were written by a supreme, noble kind of people — not a very great number — but a great number adhere more or less to that side of things.



In short, as I have written it down somewhere else, I conceive that books are like men's souls — divided into sheep and goats. Some of them are calculated to be of very great advantage in teaching — in forwarding the teaching of all generations. Others are going down, down, doing more and more, wilder and wilder mischief.



Thomas Carlyle, by Helen Allingham



And for the rest, in regard to all your studies here, and whatever you may learn, you are to remember that the object is not particular knowledge — that you are going to get higher in technical perfections, and all that sort of thing. There is a higher aim lies at the rear of all that, especially among those who are intended for literary, for speaking pursuits — the sacred profession.


You are ever to bear in mind that there lies behind that the acquisition of what may be called wisdom — namely, sound appreciation and just decision as to all the objects that come round about you, and the habit of behaving with justice and wisdom. In short, great is wisdom — great is the value of wisdom. It cannot be exaggerated. The highest achievement of man — Blessed is he that getteth understanding. (...)"



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Thomas Carlyle, On the Choice of Books
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