Carlyle says that a collection of books is a true university in these days. It might be added that often the smaller the collection the larger shall be the university.
Education derived from libraries is unsafe, for book-dissipation, as well as drunkenness, ends in debauchery. Toward the end of his long and wide-awake life Doctor Holmes advised a young correspondent to confine his reading to the Bible, Shakespeare, and a good dictionary. The list of men who have been lifted to higher regions of thought and feeling and action from reading any one of these three would be too long to be compressed within the covers of one book. Books are like two-edged swords—dangerous unless one knows how to use them; they either lead up or drag down, and we sink or rise to the level of the books we read. Every one reads, but how many read to advantage? Goethe, the greatest of all the very greatest Germans, said, "I have been learning how to read for the past fifty years, but have not yet succeeded."
In these days when the printing-press has largely superseded the pulpit and the platform, it is vitally important that men shall be taught how to read rightly and shall be helped to habits of right reading; and no school or college that is decently interested in the welfare of the people can disregard this one duty of teachers above all others. Much of the best in thought and feeling and conduct shall depend hereafter upon the books which we read with careful observation. Every man who has read himself into higher realms is under bonds to make the source of so much bliss and blessedness as admirable and as desirable as possible to all who are strangers to the most pleasant and profitable paths of literature.
It is not the quantity of our reading, but the quality that makes it and us an influence for good to our fellows. A man who has read ten pages with real accuracy, says John Ruskin, is forevermore in some measure an educated person. You might read all the books in the British Museum, yet be an utterly illiterate and uneducated person. Our reading without digestion and assimilation is as useless as our food without them. Bacon says that reading makes a full man; but fullness without digestion is dyspepsia. The books whose reading impels us to live nobly and do noble service for others, are the books, and it is a wicked waste of time to read what is a negative quantity.
Whoever masters one vital book can never become commonplace. If we are true to all that manhood involves, there is no self-deception in the conviction that each one of us is born for kingship. Supreme kingship "consists in a stronger moral state and a truer thoughtful state than that of other men, which enables us to guide and raise the misguided and the illiterate." Every thoughtful man and woman ultimately discovers that "all education and all literature are useful only so far as they confirm this calm and beneficent kingly power." Emerson's "man-thinking" is the supreme among human beings. The best that can be known and experienced lies asleep in books, and one of the chief purposes for getting an education is to give us the well-made head and the finer feeling to awake this best knowledge and experience in these sleeping princes.
By: Russell H. Conwell, 1917