Saturday, August 9, 2014

A Panel Discussion In Praise Of Books

Introduction:  Years ago I went through my collection of quotations about books and reading and ended up producing this imaginary panel discussion.  All the quotations are genuine and I have a source for them.  By the way, the Moderator, a close friend of mine, isn't the sharpest tack in the box as you will see.  Please be tolerant!

Participants: many eminent thinkers from all ages.

Moderator: It is a pleasure to welcome our distinguished panel.  Let's begin the discussion with a broad question.  How have books influenced the world?

Victor Hugo: Guttenberg is forever the auxiliary of life; he is the permanent fellow-workman in the great work of civilization...he has marked the transition of the man-slave to the free-man.

Barbara W. Tuchman: I agree...  Books are the carriers of civilization.  Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill.  They are engines of change, windows on the world, "lighthouses" (as a poet said) "erected in the sea of time."

Thomas Jefferson: To the press alone, checkered as it is with abuse, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.

Benjamin Disraeli: An author may influence the fortunes of the world to as great an extent as a statesman or a warrior.  A book may be as great a thing as a battle, and there are systems of Philosophy which have produced as great revolutions as any that have disturbed the social and political existence of our centuries.

Moderator: Thank you, that's quite a start.  So you feel it is important to know how to read?

Mark Twain:  The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.

Aldous Huxley: Every man who knows how to read has it in his power to magnify himself, to multiply the ways in which he exists, to make his life full, significant, and interesting.

John Quincy Adams: The best book in the world is like the pipe that Hamlet offers to Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern: it will discourse excellent music only to those who know how to govern the ventages.

W. Somerset Maughan: Read books not to gain information.  You can get that, cut and dried, in the encyclopedia.  Read not to get ideas, but read mainly to gain intellectual and moral stimulus.  Read in this mood and the great books will increasingly enable you to think out your own ideas.  One soon tires of a book that does not make him feel now and then like getting up and walking the floor under the impulse of some larger vision of truth.

Moderator: What about selectivity in reading?

Harry Emerson Fosdick: Well...the quality of a man's reading is one of his foremost responsibilities.

Henry David Thoreau: Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.

Mrs. Wesley (John's mother): Avoid whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, takes off your relish for spiritual things...increases the authority of the body over the mind.

Moderator: Would you encourage students to begin building a library of their own?

Henry Ward Beecher: Ah yes, where is human nature as weak as in a bookstore?

John Livinston Lowe: One cannot begin too soon to buy one's own books, if for no other reason (and there are many more) than the freedom which they give you to use their fly-leaves for your own private index of those matters in their pages which are particularly yours, those things which the index-makers never by any possibility include.  To be able to turn at will, in a book of your own, to those passage which count for you, is to have your wealth at instant command, and your books become a record of your intellectual adventures.

Arnold Toynbee: The student, when he enters one of the great bookshops in his university town, is learning the extremely important part of educating himself.  Browsing in a bookshop teaches him to explore the wide world of literature, and to do this on his own initiative without guidance.  He is learning to find his way for himself and finding his way for himself is one of the most important parts of education.

Isaac D’Israeli: A room without books is a body without a soul.

Victor Hugo: Yes but....  It is those books which a man possesses but does not read which constitute the most significant evidence against him.

Moderator: With modern methods of communication why should one invest the time and effort to read?

George Washington: I conceive that a knowledge of books is the basis on which all other knowledge rests.

Christopher Moreley: Lord! when you sell a man a book you don't sell just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue--you sell him a whole new life.  Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night--there's all heaven and earth in a book, a real book.

George Steiner: Books [are] the best antidote against the marsh-gas of boredom and vacuity.

David O. McKay:  Good reading is to the intellect what good food is to the body.  Thoughts as food should be properly digested.

Abraham Lincoln: A capacity and taste for reading gives access to whatever has been discovered by others.  It is the key, or one of the keys, to the already solved problems.  And not only so; it gives a relish and facility for successfully pursuing the unsolved ones.

Clfton Fadiman: It's easy enough to say that they enlarge you, but rather difficult to prove it in advance.  It is less difficult to prove that they act like a developing fluid on film.  That is, they bring into consciousness what you didn't know you knew.  Even more than tools of self-enhancement, they are tools of self-discovery....  Socrates called himself a midwife of ideas.  A great book is often such a midwife, delivering to full existence what has been coiled like an embryo in the dark, silent depths of the brain.

Moderator: What special delights of reading would you call to the attention of the audience?

Rene Descartes: Reading good books is like having a conversation with the highly worthy persons of the past who wrote them; indeed, it is like having a prepared conversation in which those persons disclose to us only their best thinking.

Thomas Carlyle: All that mankind has done, thought, gained or been; it is lying as a magic preservation in the pages of books.

Caroline Gordon: A well-composed book is a magic carpet on which we are wafted to a world that we cannot enter in any other way.

Howard W. Hunter:  Books are among life’s most precious possessions.  They are among the most remarkable creation of man.  Out of the books we get the great literature, the great biography, the great religion....  The most powerful ideas, the finest logic, the best good judgment are made immediately available to us.  We can learn how to think, how to plan, how to organize, how to worship, and how to work.  We have the holy books of scripture through which we may learn about God himself and become familiar with his great doctrines, his standards of value, and his will concerning us.

Moderator: We haven't heard many women's voices, but Ms. Dickinson, I sense you have a poem on the tip of your tongue.

Emily Dickinson
He ate and drank the precious words,
His spirit grew robust:
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was dust.
He danced along the dingy days,
And this bequest of wings
Was but a book.  What liberty
A loosened spirit brings!

Moderator: Thank you!  How do you feel about public libraries?

Lesley Conger: You don't need to know very much to start with, if you know the way to the public library.

W. Somerset Maughan: In a great library, you get into society in the widest sense....  From that great crowd you can choose what companions you please, for in these silent gatherings...the highest is at the service of the lowest, with a grand humility....  In a library you become a true citizen of the world.

Richard de Bury: A library of wisdom is more precious than all wealth, and all things that are desirable cannot be compared to it.  Whoever therefore claims to be zealous of truth, of happiness, of wisdom or knowledge, aye even of the faith, must needs become a lover of books.

Gilbert Highet: Sometimes, when I stand in a big library...and gaze round me at the millions of books, I feel a sober, earnest delight which is hard to convey except by a metaphor.  These are not books, lumps of lifeless paper, but minds alive on the shelves.  

Moderator: I appreciate your enthusiasm.  What kinds of books do you like and what do you suggest as good reading for our audience?

Benjamin Disraeli: I don't know which books profit me most--those that keep me awake at night or those that send me to sleep.

Moderator (aside): That was helpful!  The gentleman in the kaffyeh, I don't recognize you, but please feel free to express your opinion.

Arabian: A novel is a garden carried in the pocket.

Thomas Carlyle: I would add another category: A well written life is almost as rare as a well-spent one.

Louis L’Amour:  It is often said that one has but one life to live, but that is nonsense.  For one who reads, there is no limit to the number of lives that may be lived, for fiction, biography and history offer an inexhaustible number of lives in many parts of the world, in all periods of time.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton:  In science, read by preference the newest works; in literature, the oldest. The classics are always modern.

Gustave Flaubert: Well, Shakespeare frightens me the more I think of him.  In their entirety, I find his works stupendous, exalting, like the idea of the planetary system.  I only see an immensity there, dazzling and bewildering to the eye.

Moderator: Thanks Gus.  The man in the double breasted look like a banker....  You are! With the Royal Bank of Canada.  I see, well what advice does a banker have to offer about good reading?

Banker: One guide can be stated without equivocation: if you want to be vitalized into the power of thinking real thoughts; if you wish to be qualified to debate the issues of the day; then resolutely leave out whatever is not of the best.  To spend time on naughty narratives in a world that holds Hugo and Dickens and Toynbee, Shelley and Shakespeare and Churchill, is like being told you may have your choice of all the diamonds in Tiffany's, and then walking out with a bit of broken glass.

Moderator: Not bad!  Others?

John Ruskin: [Would] you go and gossip with your housemaid or your stableboy, when you may talk with queens and kings?

Moderator: Good point.  Well...any final thoughts on the subject?

Joshua: This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein; for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success.

Wilford Woodruff: By perusing history, we hold converse with men of judgment, wisdom, and knowledge.  I finally took up the Bible as a study of history and I never found any history equally interesting until later on I read the Book of Mormon.  While reading these books we converse, as it were, with the Lord and with His holy prophets and apostles.  In studying the Word of the Lord we learn truths which cannot be acquired from any other source.  Those books which contain the revelations of heaven are of far more interest than books containing merely the opinions, theories, and doctrines of men.

Moderator: I wondered if anyone would mention the Bible.  Further final thoughts?

Monroe E. Deutsch: Time has selected and time has tested.  The recent best-seller may endure, but it will have to meet a sterner test than at the time when it was issued.  Gone With The Wind, appearing at a psychological moment, well advertised and still further publicized by the moving picture, which probably sent to the book thousands not in the habit of reading at all, may be read fifty or a hundred years from now, but who knows?  It may, on the other hand, be gone with the wind.
In short, time is a better and more reliable critic than any board selecting the Book of the Month.  You can be sure that when you read Plato or Virgil, Shakespeare or Goethe, you are reading something great--something worth reading.  They form the legion of honor of the ages.  And if you accustom yourself to reading the great books, you will soon find yourself ill at ease in the company of the tawdry and ephemeral.

Ezra Taft Benson: The fact that a book is old does not necessarily make it of value.  The fact that an author wrote one good work does not necessarily mean that all his books are worthy of your time.  Do not make your mind a dumping ground for other people's garbage.  It is harder to purge the mind of rotten reading than to purge the body of rotten food, and it is more damaging to the soul.

Moderator: With so many authors and so many books today, are there other pitfalls to watch out for?

Voltaire: The multitude of books is making us ignorant.

Moderator: Huh?

Warren Chappell: The flood of print has turned reading into a process of gulping rather than savoring.

Aldous Huxley: Science advances from discovery to discovery.  Readers are so busy keeping up that there is a real danger that being well-informed is incompatible with being cultivated.

Marcel Proust: Our journalism forces us to take an interest in some fresh triviality every day, whereas only three or four books in a lifetime give us anything that is of importance.

Robert Louis Stevenson: Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life.

John Keats: Nothing becomes real till it is experienced--even a proverb is no proverb to you till your life has illustrated it.

Aldous Huxley: Reading is not a substitute for experience; neither is experience a substitute for reading.

Clifton Fadiman: Perhaps, but...  An early familiarity with books unconsciously introduces the child to a fundamental, liberating truth: that the largest part of the universe of space and time can never be apprehended by direct firsthand experience.

Michel de Montaigne: When I feel a distaste for Plato's Axiochus as a work without power considering such an author, my judgment does not trust itself: it is not so stupid as to oppose itself to the authority of so many other famous ancient judgments, which it considers its tutors and masters, and with which it is rather content to err.  It blames and condemns itself either for stopping at the outer bark, not being able to penetrate to the heart, or for looking at the thing by some false light.

Moderator: Could someone help me with that?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Until you understand a writer's ignorance, presume yourself ignorant of his understanding.

Moderator: Uh...I see....  Well, we have time for a few short summary statements.  Anybody care to venture?

James Martineau: We forfeit the chief source of dignity and sweetness in life...if we do not seek converse with the greater minds that have left their vestiges on the world.

John Milton: A good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond death.

Moderator: Thank you, all!

Lets think together again, soon.

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