On Reading Books
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If a man can purchase but very few books, my first advice to him would be, let him purchase the very best. If he cannot spend much, let him spend well. The best will always be the cheapest. This age is full of word-spinners—professional book-makers, who hammer a grain of matter so thin that it will cover a five-acre sheet of paper. These men have their uses, as gold-beaters have, but they are of no use to you. Farmers on our coast used to cart wagon-loads of seaweed, and put them upon their land; the heaviest part was the water. Now they dry the weeds, and save a world of labour and expense. Don’t buy thin soul; purchase the essence of meat. Get much in little.
Prefer books which abound in what James Hamilton used to call “Bibline,” which is the very essence of books. In preparing his admirable comment on the Bible, Dr. Chalmers used only the “Concordance,” the “Pictorial Bible,” “Poole’s Synopsis,” “Matthew Henry’s Commentary,” and “Robinson’s Researches in Palestine.” “These are the books I use,” said he to a friend; “all that is Biblical is there; I have to do with nothing besides in my Biblical studies.” This is clear evidence that some most eminent preachers have found that they could do better with a few books than with many when studying the Scriptures, and this I take it, is our business. Matthew Henry’s Commentary having been mentioned, I venture to say that no better investment can be made, by any minister, than that peerless exposition. Get it, if you sell your coat to buy it.
The next rule I shall lay down is, master those books you have. Read them thoroughly . Bathe in them until they saturate you. Read and re-read them; masticate them, and digest them. Let them go into your very self. Peruse a book several times, and make notes and analyses of it. A student will find that his mental constitution is more affected by one book thoroughly mastered than by twenty books which he has merely skimmed.
Little learning and much pride come of hasty reading. Books may be piled on the brain till it cannot work. Books on the brain cause disease; get the book into the brain, and you will grow. As one has said, “Why do you buy so many books? You have no hair, and you purchase a comb!” A very well deserved rebuke to those who think that the possession of books will secure them learning. A measure of that temptation, of course, happens to us all; for do we not feel wiser after we have spent an hour or two in a bookseller’s shop! Think as well as read, and keep the thinking always proportionate to the reading, and your small library will not be a great misfortune.
But if you feel you must have more books, I recommend to you a little judicious borrowing. You will most likely have some friends who have books, and who will be kind enough to let you use them for a time; and I especially advise you—in order to borrow again—to return whatsoever is lent, promptly, and in good condition. You know the rhyme that has been written in many a man’s books —
“If thou art borrowed by a friend,
Right welcome shall he be
To read, to study, not to lend,
But to return to me.
Not that imparted knowledge doth
Diminish learning’s store,
But books I find when once they’re lent,
Return to me no more.”
Sir Walter Scott used to say that his friends might be very indifferent accountants, but he was sure they were good “bookkeepers”. Some have even had to go the length of the scholar who, when asked to lend a book, sent word by the servant that he would not let the book go out of his chamber, but that the gentleman who sought the loan might come and sit there, and read as long as he liked. The rejoinder was unexpected but complete, when, his fire being slow to burn, he sent to the same person to borrow a pair of bellows, and received for an answer that the owner would not lend the bellows out of his own chamber, but the gentleman might come and blow there as long as he liked! Judicious borrowing may furnish you with much reading, but remember the man’s axe-head in the scriptures, and be careful of what you borrow.
I am asked sometimes to read an heretical book. Well, if I thought that my reading of it would help to refute it, and might be an assistance to others in keeping them out of error, I might do it as a hard matter of duty. But I shall not do it unless I can see that some good might come on it. I am not going to drag my spirit through a ditch for the sake of having it washed afterwards, for it is not my own. It may be that good medicine would restore me if I poisoned myself with putrid meat, but I am not going to try it; I dare not experiment on a mind which no longer belongs to me.
There is a mother and a child, and the child has a blacklead pencil to play with, and a book. It is making drawings and marks upon the book, and the mother takes no notice. It lays down that book, and snatches another from the table, and at once the mother rises from her seat, and hurriedly takes the book away, saying, “No, my dear, you must not mark that book, for it is not ours.” So it is with my mind, intellect, and spirit; if it belonged to me I might or might not play tomfool with it, and go to hear Socinians, and Ritualists, and Universalists, and suchlike people preach; but as it is not my own, I will preserve it from such fooleries, and the pure Word shall not be mingled with the errors of men.
In case the famine of books should be sore in the land, there is one book which you all have, and that is your Bible; and a minister with his Bible is like David with his sling and stone, fully equipped for the fray. To understand the Bible should be our ambition. We should be familiar with it; as familiar as the housewife with her needle, the merchant with his ledger, the mariner with his ship. We ought to know its general run, the contents of each book, the details of its histories; its doctrines, precepts, and everything about it. I have heard of an old minister in Lancashire, that he was “a walking concordance,” and could either give you chapter and verse for any passage quoted, or could correctly give the words when the place was mentioned. That may have been a feat of memory, but the study needful to produce it must have been highly profitable. I do not say that you must aspire to do that; but if you could, it would be well worth the gaining.
A man who has learned, not merely the letter of the Bible, but its inner spirit, will be no mean man. A man who has his Bible at his fingertips and in his heart’s core is a champion in our Israel. You cannot compete with him; you may have an armoury of weapons, but his scriptural knowledge will overcome you. We will never be short of holy matter if we are continually studying the inspired volume. Nay, it is not only matter we shall find there, but illustration, too; for the Bible is its own best illustrator. If you want anecdote, simile, allegory or parable, turn to the sacred page. Scriptural truth never looks more lovely than when she is adorned with jewels from her own treasury.
I think it was Ambrose who used to say, “I adore the infinity of Scripture.” I hear the same voice that sounded in the ears of Augustine, concerning the Book of God— “Take, read.”
Make the Bible the man of your right hand, the companion of every hour, and you will have little reason to lament your slender equipment in inferior things.
From, Lectures to my Students.
The Wicket Gate Magazine, published in the UK, used with permission.