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How To Read II

Liston tells a story of a nice old lady--I think the foster-sister of the godmother of his brother-in-law's aunt--who came to make them a visit in the country. The first day after she arrived proved to be much such a day as this is,--much such a day as the first of a visit in the country is apt to be,--a heavy pelting north-easter, when it is impossible to go out, and every one is thrown on his own resources in-doors. The different ladies under Mrs. Liston's hospitable roof gathered themselves to their various occupations, and some one asked old Mrs. Dubbadoe if she would not like to read.

She said she should.

"What shall I bring you from the library?" said Miss Ellen. "Do not trouble yourself to go up stairs."

"My dear Ellen, I should like the same book I had last year when I was here, it was a very nice book, and I was very much interested in it."

"Certainly," said Miss Ellen; "what was it? I will bring it at once."

"I do not remember its name, my dear; your mother brought it to me; I think she would know."

But, unfortunately, Mrs. Liston, when applied to, had forgotten.

"Was it a novel, Mrs. Dubbadoe?"

"I can't remember that,--my memory is not as good as it was, my dear,--but it was a very interesting book."

"Do you remember whether it had plates? Was it one of the books of birds, or of natural history?"

"No, dear, I can't tell you about that. But, Ellen, you will find it, I know. The color of the cover was the color of the top of the baluster!"

So Ellen went. She has a good eye for color, and as she ran up stairs she took the shade of the baluster in her eye, matched it perfectly as she ran along the books in the library with the Russia half-binding of the coveted volume, and brought that in triumph to Mrs. Dubbadoe. It proved to be the right book. Mrs. Dubbadoe found in it the piece of corn-colored worsted she had left for a mark the year before, so she was able to go on where she had stopped then.

Liston tells this story to trump one of mine about a schoolmate of ours, who was explaining to me about his theological studies. I asked him what he had been reading.

"O, a capital book; King lent it to me; I will ask him to lend it to you."

I said I would ask King for the book, if he would tell me who was the author.

"I do not remember his name. I had not known his name before. But that made no difference. It is a capital book. King told me I should find it so, and I did; I made a real study of it; copied a good deal from it before I returned it."

I asked whether it was a book of natural theology.

"I don't know as you would call it natural theology. Perhaps it was. You had better see it yourself. Tell King it was the book he lent me."

I was a little persistent, and asked if it were a book of biography.

"Well, I do not know as I should say it was a book of biography. Perhaps you would say so. I do not remember that there was much biography in it. But it was an excellent book. King had read it himself, and I found it all he said it was."

I asked if it was critical,--if it explained Scripture.

"Perhaps it did. I should not like to say whether it did or not. You can find that out yourself if you read it. But it is a very interesting book and a very valuable book. King said so, and I found it was so. You had better read it, and I know King can tell you what it is."

Now in these two stories is a very good illustration of the way in which a great many people read. The notion comes into people's lives that the mere process of reading is itself virtuous. Because young men who read instead of gamble are known to be "steadier" than the gamblers, and because children who read on Sunday make less noise and general row than those who will play tag in the neighbors' front-yards, there has grown up this notion, that to read is in itself one of the virtuous acts. Some people, if they told the truth, when counting up the seven virtues, would count them as Purity, Temperance, Meekness, Frugality, Honesty, Courage, and Reading. The consequence is that there are unnumbered people who read as Mrs. Dubbadoe did or as Lysimachus did, without the slightest knowledge of what the books have contained.

My dear Dollie, Pollie, Sallie, Marthie, or any other of my young friends whose names end in ie who have favored me by reading thus far, the chances are three out of four that I could take the last novel but three that you read, change the scene from England to France, change the time from now to the seventeenth century, make the men swear by St. Denis, instead of talking modern slang, name the women Jacqueline and Marguerite, instead of Maud and Blanche, and, if Harpers would print it, as I dare say they would if the novel was good, you would read it through without one suspicion that you had read the same book before.

So you see that it is not certain that you know how to read, even if you took the highest prize for reading in the Amplian class of Ingham University at the last exhibition. You may pronounce all the words well, and have all the rising inflections right, and none of the falling ones wrong, and yet not know how to read so that your reading shall be of any permanent use to you.

For what is the use of reading if you forget it all the next day?

"But, my dear Mr. Hale," says as good a girl as Laura, "how am I going to help myself? What I remember I remember, and what I do not remember I do not. I should be very glad to remember all the books I have read, and all that is in them; but if I can't, I can't, and there is the end of it."

No! my dear Laura, that is not the end of it. And that is the reason this paper is written. A child of God can, before the end comes, do anything she chooses to, with such help as he is willing to give her; and he has been kind enough so to make and so to train you that you can train your memory to remember and to recall the useful or the pleasant things you meet in your reading. Do you know, Laura, that I have here a note you wrote when you were eight years old? It is as badly written as any note I ever saw. There are also twenty words in it spelled wrong. Suppose you had said then, "If I can't, I can't, and there's an end of it." You never would have written me in the lady-like, manly handwriting you write in to-day, spelling rightly as a matter of mere feeling and of course, so that you are annoyed now that I should say that every word is spelled correctly. Will you think, dear Laura, what a tremendous strain on memory is involved in all this? Will you remember that you and Miss Sears and Miss Winstanley, and your mother, most of all, have trained your memory till it can work these marvels? All you have to do now in your reading is to carry such training forward, and you can bring about such a power of classification and of retention that you shall be mistress of the books you have read for most substantial purposes. To read with such results is reading indeed. And when I say I want to give some hints how to read, it is for reading with that view.

When Harry and Lucy were on their journey to the sea-side, they fell to discussing whether they had rather have the gift of remembering all they read, or of once knowing everything, and then taking their chances for recollecting it when they wanted it. Lucy, who had a quick memory, was willing to take her chance. But Harry, who was more methodical, hated to lose anything he had once learned, and he thought he had rather have the good fairy give him the gift of recollecting all he had once learned. For my part, I quite agree with Harry. There are a great many things that I have no desire to know. I do not want to know in what words the King of Ashantee says, "Cut off the heads of those women." I do not want to know whether a centipede really has ninety-six legs or one hundred and four. I never did know. I never shall. I have no occasion to know. And I am glad not to have my mind lumbered up with the unnecessary information. On the other hand, that which I have once learned or read does in some way or other belong to my personal life. I am very glad if I can reproduce that in any way, and I am much obliged to anybody who will help me.

For reading, then, the first rules, I think, are: Do not read too much at a time; stop when you are tired; and, in whatever way, make some review of what you read, even as you go along.

Capel Lofft says, in quite an interesting book, which plays about the surface of things without going very deep, which he calls Self-Formation,

[Footnote: Self-Formation. Crosby and Nichols. Boston. 1845.]

that his whole life was changed, and indeed saved, when he learned that he must turn back at the end of each sentence, ask himself what it meant, if he believed it or disbelieved it, and, so to speak, that he must pack it away as part of his mental furniture before he took in another sentence. That is just as a dentist jams one little bit of gold-foil home, and then another, and then another. He does not put one large wad on the hollow tooth, and then crowd it all in at once. Capel Lofft says that this reflection--going forward as a serpent does, by a series of backward bends over the line--will make a dull book entertaining, and will make the reader master of every book he reads, through all time. For my part, I think this is cutting it rather fine, this chopping the book up into separate bits. I had rather read as one of my wisest counsellors did; he read, say a page, or a paragraph of a page or two, more or less; then he would look across at the wall, and consider the author's statement, and fix it on his mind, and then read on. I do not do this, however. I read half an hour or an hour, till I am ready, perhaps, to put the book by. Then I examine myself. What has this amounted to? What does he say? What does he prove? Does he prove it? What is there new in it? Where did he get it? If it is necessary in such an examination you can go back over the passage, correct your first impression, if it is wrong, find out the meaning that the writer has carelessly concealed, and such a process makes it certain that you yourself will remember his thought or his statement.

I can remember, I think, everything I saw in Europe, which was worth seeing, if I saw it twice. But there was many a wonder which I was taken to see in the whirl of sight-seeing, of which I have no memory, and of which I cannot force any recollection. I remember that at Malines--what we call Mechlin--our train stopped nearly an hour. At the station a crowd of guides were shouting that there was time to go and see Rubens's picture of----, at the church of----. This seemed to us a droll contrast to the cry at our stations, "Fifteen minutes for refreshments!" It offered such aesthetic refreshment in place of carnal oysters, that purely for the frolic we went to see. We were hurried across some sort of square into the church, saw the picture, admired it, came away, and forgot it,--clear and clean forgot it! My dear Laura, I do not know what it was about any more than you do. But if I had gone to that church the next day, and had seen it again, I should have fixed it forever on my memory. Moral: Renew your acquaintance with whatever you want to remember. I think Ingham says somewhere that it is the slight difference between the two stereoscopic pictures which gives to them, when one overlies the other, their relief and distinctness. If he does not say it, I will say it for him now.

I think it makes no difference how you make this mental review of the author, but I do think it essential that, as you pass from one division of his work to another, you should make it somehow.

Another good rule for memory is indispensable, I think,--namely, to read with a pencil in hand. If the book is your own, you had better make what I may call your own index to it on the hard white page which lines the cover at the end. That is, you can write down there just a hint of the things you will be apt to like to see again, noting the page on which they are. If the book is not your own, do this on a little slip of paper, which you may keep separately. These memoranda will be, of course, of all sorts of things. Thus they will be facts which you want to know, or funny stories which you think will amuse some one, or opinions which you may have a doubt about. Suppose you had got hold of that very rare book, "Veragas's History of the Pacific Ocean and its Shores"; here might be your private index at the end of the first volume:--

Percentage of salt in water, 11: Gov. Revillagigedo, 19: Caciques and potatoes, 23: Lime water for scurvy, 29. Enata, Kanaka, a1/4EuroI1/2I(R)I a1/4EuroI1/2I? 42: Magelhaens vs. Wilkes, 57: Coral insects, 20: Gigantic ferns, 84, &c., &c., &c.

Very likely you may never need one of these references; but if you do, it is certain that you will have no time to waste in hunting for them. Make your memorandum, and you are sure.

Bear in mind all along that each book will suggest other books which you are to read sooner or later. In your memoranda note with care the authors who are referred to of whom you know little or nothing, if you think you should like to know more, or ought to know more. Do not neglect this last condition, however. You do not make the memorandum to show it at the Philogabblian; you make it for yourself; and it means that you yourself need this additional information.

Whether to copy much from books or not? That is a question,--and the answer is,--"That depends." If you have but few books, and much time and paper and ink; and if you are likely to have fewer books, why, nothing is nicer and better than to make for use in later life good extract-books to your own taste, and for your own purposes. But if you own your books, or are likely to have them at command, time is short, and the time spent in copying would probably be better spent in reading. There are some very diffusive books, difficult because diffusive, of which it is well to write close digests, if you are really studying them. When we read John Locke, for instance, in college, we had to make abstracts, and we used to stint ourselves to a line for one of his chatty sections. That was good practice for writing, and we remember what was in the sections to this hour. If you copy, make a first-rate index to your extracts. They sell books prepared for the purpose, but you may just as well make your own.

You see I am not contemplating any very rapid or slap-dash work. You may put that on your novels, or books of amusement, if you choose, and I will not be very cross about it; but for the books of improvement, I want you to improve by reading them. Do not "gobble" them up so that five years hence you shall not know whether you have read them or not. What I advise seems slow to you, but if you will, any of you, make or find two hours a day to read in this fashion, you will be one day accomplished men and women. Very few professional men, known to me, get so much time as that for careful and systematic reading. If any boy or girl wants really to know what comes of such reading, I wish he would read the life of my friend George Livermore, which our friend Charles Deane has just now written for the Historical Society of Massachusetts. There was a young man, who when he was a boy in a store began his systematic reading. He never left active and laborious business; but when he died, he was one of the accomplished historical scholars of America. He had no superior in his special lines of study; he was a recognized authority and leader among men who had given their lives to scholarship.

I have not room to copy it here, but I wish any of you would turn to a letter of Frederick Robertson's, near the end of the second volume of his letters, where he speaks of this very matter. He says he read, when he was at Oxford, but sixteen books with his tutors. But he read them so that they became a part of himself, "as the iron enters a man's blood." And they were books by sixteen of the men who have been leaders of the world. No bad thing, dear Stephen, to have in your blood and brain and bone the vitalizing element that was in the lives of such men.

I need not ask you to look forward so far as to the end of a life as long as Mr. George Livermore's, and as successful. Without asking that, I will say again, what I have implied already, that any person who will take any special subject of detail, and in a well-provided library will work steadily on that little subject for a fortnight, will at the end of the fortnight probably know more of that detail than anybody in the country knows. If you will study by subjects for the truth, you have the satisfaction of knowing that the ground is soon very nearly all your own.

I do not pretend that books are everything. I may have occasion some day to teach some of you "How to Observe," and then I shall say some very-hard things about people who keep their books so close before their eyes that they cannot see God's world, nor their fellow-men and women. But books rightly used are society. Good books are the best society; better than is possible without them, in any one place, or in any one time. To know how to use them wisely and well is to know how to make Shakespeare and Milton and Theodore Hook and Thomas Hood step out from the side of your room, at your will, sit down at your fire, and talk with you for an hour. I have no such society at hand, as I write these words, except by such magic. Have you in your log-cabin in No. 7?

Edward Everett Hale

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