The books of power, as distinguished from the books of knowledge, include the original, creative, first-hand books in all literatures, and constitute, in the last analysis, a comparatively small group, with which any student can thoroughly familiarise himself.
The literary impulse of the race has expressed itself in a great variety of works, of varying charm and power; but the books which are fountain-heads of vitality, ideas, and beauty, are few in number. These original and dominant creations may be called the books of life, if one may venture to modify De Quincey's well-worn phrase. For that which is deepest in this group of masterpieces is not power, but something greater and more inclusive, of which power is but a single form of expression,—life; that quintessence of the unbroken experience and activity of the race which includes not only thought, power, beauty, and every kind of skill, but, below all these, the living soul of the living man. If it be true, as many believe, that the fundamental process of the universe, so far as we can understand it, is not intellectual, but vital, it follows that the deepest things which men have learned have come to them not as the result of processes of thought, but as the result of the process of living.
It is evident that certain definite purposes are being wrought out through physical forms, processes, and forces; science reveals clearly enough certain great lines of development. In like manner, although with very significant differences, certain deep lines of growth and expansion become more and more clear in human history. Through the bare process of living, men not only learn fundamental facts about themselves and their world, but they are evidently working out certain purposes. Of these purposes they do not, it is true, possess full knowledge; but complete knowledge is necessary neither for the demonstration of the existence of the purpose nor for those ethical and intellectual uses which that knowledge serves. The life of the race is a revelation of the nature of man, of the character of his relations with his surroundings, and of the certain great lines of development along which the race is moving. Every leading race has its characteristic thought concerning its own nature, its relation to the world, and the character and quality of life. These various fundamental conceptions have shaped all definite thinking, and have very largely moulded race character, and, therefore, determined race destiny.
The Hebrew, the Greek, and the Roman conceptions of life constitute not only the key to the diverse histories of the leaders of ancient civilisation, but also their most vital contribution to civilisation. These conceptions were not definitely thought out; they were worked out. They were the result of the contact of these different peoples with Nature, with the circumstances of their own time, and with those universal experiences which fall to the lot of all men, and which are, in the long run, the prime sources and instruments of human education. The interpretations of life which each of these races has left us are revelations both of race character and of life itself; they embody the highest thought, the deepest feeling, the most searching experiences, the keenest suffering, the most strenuous activity. In these interpretations are expressed and represented the inner and essential life of each race; in them the soul of the elder world survives. Now, these interpretations constitute, in their highest forms, not only the supreme art of the world, but they are also the richest educational material accessible to men.
Information and discipline may be drawn from other sources, but that culture which means the enrichment and unfolding of a man's self is largely developed by familiarity with those ultimate conclusions of man about himself which are the deposit of all that he has thought, suffered, wrought, and been,—those deep deposits of truth silently formed in the heart of the race in the long and painful working out of its life, its character, and its destiny.
For these rich interpretations we must turn to art, and especially to the art of literature; and in literature we must turn especially to the small group of works which, by reason of the adequacy with which they convey and illustrate these interpretations, hold the first places,—the books of life. The man who would get the ripest culture from books ought to read many, but there are a few books which he must read; among them, first and foremost, are the Bible, and the works of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe. These are the supreme books of life as distinguished from the books of knowledge and skill. They hold their places because they combine in the highest degree vitality, truth, power, and beauty. They are the central reservoirs into which the rivulets of individual experience over a vast surface have been gathered; they are the most complete revelations of what life has brought and has been to the leading races; they bring us into contact with the heart and soul of humanity. They not only convey information, and, rightly used, impart discipline, but they transmit life.
There is a vitality in them which passes on into the nature which is open to receive it. They have again and again inspired intellectual movements on a wide scale, as they are constantly recreating individual ideals and aims. Whatever view may be held of the authority of the Bible, it is agreed that its power as literature has been incalculable by reason of the depth of life which it sounds and the range of life which it compasses. There is power enough in it to revive a decaying age or give a new date and a fresh impulse to a race which has parted with its creative energy. The reappearance of the New Testament in Greek, after the long reign of the Vulgate, contributed mightily to that renewal and revival of life which we call the Reformation; while its translation into the modern languages liberated a moral and intellectual force of which no adequate measurement can be made.
In like manner, though in lesser degree, the "Iliad" and "Odyssey," the "Divine Comedy," the plays of Shakespeare, and "Faust" have set new movements in motion and have enriched and enlarged the lives of races. With these books of life every man ought to hold the most intimate relationship; they are not to be read once and put on the upper shelves of the library among those classics which establish one's claim to good intellectual standing, but which silently gather the dust of isolation and solitude; they are to be always at hand. The barrier of language has disappeared so far as they are concerned; they are to be had in many and admirable translations; one evidence of their power is afforded by the fact that every new age of literary development and every new literary movement feels compelled to translate them afresh. The changes of taste in English literature and the notable phases through which it has passed since the days of the Elizabethans might be traced or inferred from the successive translations of Homer, from the work of Chapman to that of Andrew Lang. One needs to read many books, to browse in many fields, to know the art of many countries; but the books of life ought to form the background of every life of thought and study. They need not, indeed they cannot, be mastered at once; but by reading in them constantly, for brief or for long intervals, one comes to know them familiarly, and almost insensibly to gain the enrichment and enlargement which they offer. Moreover, they afford tenfold greater and more lasting delight, recreation, and variety than all the works of lesser writers. Whoever knows them in a real sense knows life, humanity, art, and himself.
By: Hamilton Wright Mabie, 1896