Books are generally a waste of time. Most books are not worth the paper they are printed on, and I have actually burned quite a few books in my day. One time I was in a remote part of the Outback, and I needed fuel for the water heater so that I could take a hot shower. A book happened to be the most readily available fuel source for this task, and it was some random piece of trash that I had already read, so up in smoke it went. I don’t tell that story very often, even though I did the right thing. I had a warm shower that morning, which is a lot more benefit than I ever got from reading that stupid book.
This worthlessness of books is true only in the general case. Publishing houses churn out endless lines of garbage, expertly printed and bound. But it is not true in specific cases. There are certain books that ought never be burned, even if all of civilization has come to an end. These books are a tiny minority of the whole.
Yet, though they are a tiny minority, there are more of them than you can read in your entire life. A man could restrict his reading to only the great books of history’s various cultures, and even if he were the most enthusiastic bookworm, still he would never get through it all. We live in a wonderful time when a lot of the world’s best literature has been translated into English (of that which was not composed in English to begin with), and modern binding methods produce sturdy volumes that anyone can afford. Used books can often be had for trifling amounts.
Short perhaps of homelessness or war, there is no reason why any person– even a poor person– could not, over time, amass a very large collection of books. Books fall into the category of durable commodities, and the purchase of good books is one of the smarter uses of one’s disposable income. Adam Smith discussed the value of durable commodities in Book 2 of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. I quote him here at length:
from An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations
by Adam Smith
The revenue of an individual may be spent, either in things which are consumed immediately, and in which one day’s expence can neither alleviate nor support that of another; or it may be spent in things more durable, which can therefore be accumulated, and in which every day’s expence may, as he chuses either alleviate or support and heighten the effect of that of the following day. A man of fortune, for example, may either spend his revenue in a profuse and sumptuous table, and in maintaining a great number of menial servants, and a multitude of dogs and horse; or contenting himself with a frugal table and few attendants, he may lay out the greater part of it in adorning his house or his country villa, in useful or ornamental buildings, in useful or ornamental furniture, in collecting books, statues, pictures; or in things more frivolous, jewels baubles, ingenious trinkets of different kinds; or, what is most trifling of all, in amassing a great wardrobe of fine clothes, like the favourite and minister of a great prince who died a few years ago. Were two men of equal fortune to spend their revenue, the one chiefly in the one way, the other in the other, the magnificence of the person whose expence had been chiefly in durable commodities, would be continually increasing, every day’s expence contributing something to support and heighten the effect of that of the following day: that of the other, on the contrary, would be no greater at the end of the period than at the beginning. The former too would, at the end of the period, be the richer man of the two. He would have a stock of goods of some kind or other, which, though it might not be worth all that it cost, would always be worth something. No trace or vestige of the expence of the latter would remain, and the effects of ten or twenty years profusion would be as completely annihilated as if they had never existed.
As the one mode of expence is more favourable than the other to the opulence of an individual, so is it likewise to that of a nation. The houses, the furniture, the clothing of the rich, in a little time, become useful to the inferior and middling ranks of people. They are able to purchase them when their superiors grow weary of them, and the general accommodation of the whole people is thus gradually improved, when this mode of expence becomes universal among men of fortune. In countries which have long been rich, you will frequently find the inferior ranks of people in possession both of houses and furniture perfectly good and entire, but of which neither the one could have been built, nor the other have been made for their use. What was formerly a seat of the family of Seymour, is now an inn upon the Bath road. The marriage-bed of James the First of Great Britain, which his Queen brought with her from Denmark, as a present fit for a sovereign to make to a sovereign, was, a few years ago, the ornament of an ale-house at Dunfermline. In some ancient cities, which either have been long stationary, or have gone somewhat to decay, you will sometimes scarce find a single house which could have been built for its present inhabitants. If you go into those houses too, you will frequently find many excellent, though antiquated pieces of furniture, which are still very fit for use, and which could as little have been made for them. Noble palaces, magnificent villas, great collections of books, statues, pictures, and other curiosities, are frequently both an ornament and an honour, not only to the neighbourhood, but to the whole country to which they belong. Versailles is an ornament and an honour to France, Stowe and Wilton to England. Italy still continues to command some sort of veneration by the number of monuments of this kind which it possesses, though the wealth which produced them has decayed, and though the genius which planned them seems to be extinguished, perhaps, from not having the same employment.
The expence too, which is laid out in durable commodities, is favourable, not only to accumulation, but to frugality. If a person should at any time exceed in it, he can easily reform without exposing himself to the censure of the public. To reduce very much the number of his servants, to reform his table from great profusion to great frugality, to lay down his equipage after he has once set it up, are changes which cannot escape the observation of his neighbours, and which are supposed to imply some acknowledgment of preceding bad conduct. Few, therefore, of those who have once been so unfortunate as to launch out too far into this sort of expence, have afterwards the courage to reform, till ruin and bankruptcy oblige them. But if a person has, at any time, been at too great an expence in building, in furniture, in books or pictures, no imprudence can be inferred from his changing his conduct. These are things in which further expence is frequently rendered unnecessary by former expence; and when a person stops short, he appears to do so, not because he has exceeded his fortune, but because he has satisfied his fancy.
Books, then, are a rather intelligent use of one’s money. When we consider that a good book requires investments of time and money exactly equal to that of a bad book (slight as those investment are), we realize that there is no real barrier to being well-read. One can just as easily be well-read as poorly-read. The only regimen that would be less demanding would be absolute illiteracy.
One can just as easily be well-read, but is there any advantage to being well-read? What is it that makes the supposedly great books so great? The answer to this question is worth exploring. More people praise great literature than actually read it, and so the real value of these books is sometimes misunderstood.
First of all, reading great literature makes one a better reader. Good writing improves one’s sensitivity to how things are written. A skillful author will make broad use of his language’s resources, layering double-meanings and unique grammatical constructions to express ideas that were, until the author wrote them, never expressed before. Good writing is lean and efficient, and the great books are characterized by a sort of tightness; their authors include nothing that is extra. Their ideas are expressed in as few words as possible.
Just as fine cuisine helps a person to be more discerning in the taste of food, fine writing helps a person to be more discerning in reading. Imperfections are more easily spotted when one is not accustomed to them, and so imperfections in bad writing stand out. Imperfections in any form of art tell us about the biases and foibles of the artist. By reading better books, we develop the ability to see through the writing, and into the heart of the writer. This ability serves us whether the writing in question is a sonnet or an email.
Secondly, reading great works promotes imagination and critical thinking. The educational system in America has been broken for so long, people can no longer identify everything that is wrong with it. A few of the problems we know about– the system is too favorable to untalented teachers, our math and science scores are weak in comparison to other countries, Music, Gym, and Recess tend to be neglected– but the biggest problem is now no longer even recognized. We have stopped teaching the classics.
Great books are loaded with original ideas. By definition, these books are ground-breaking, important literature. Other works, such as the textbooks used in schools, are derivative. We do not read Galileo or Gibbon, we read books based on the works of Galileo and Gibbon. We do not read Cicero or Caesar, we only read about them. With these derivative works, the ideas get passed on, but only indirectly and weakly. If we read the original authors, we move ourselves that much closer to their original inspiration. We get to wrestle with the same ideas that they did, and to the same level of detail. No derivative work can do this as completely as the original.
This wrestling with ideas is a process the original author has to go through, and the derivative author does not. Martin Luther literally stayed up all night, agonizing over the problem of salvation through works. No writer since him has ever had to do so– Luther has already done it for us. His 95 theses were not the result of bland and sterile scholarship, they came from a passionate, desperate human struggle.
Passion and struggle drive the imagination and prompt the mind to action. The indirect and weak ideas of a derivative work, while sometimes illuminating, are never as firm, trustworthy, and definite as the sharp and rugged ideas in the great books. The reader will find details in great works of literature that every subsequent writer has either overlooked or did not think worthwhile to mention; only by reading Luther can we know what Luther directly thought and felt. The omissions that must come with second-hand works rob inquiry of a solid starting point, and muddies the thinking process. If we want our children to be good thinkers– or if we want to be good thinkers ourselves– then we need to read better books.
Another strength of great books is that they teach the reader more, teach it faster, and teach it better than any other books. Consider, for example, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. This book is important for a number of reasons. For one thing, it is a thorough account of an important war that occurred between the Greek states. It also happens to be the work that founded the Realist school of foreign policy; the mighty Athenians at one point declared that “the strong do what they can while the weak suffer what they must,” a philosophy that guides many of the diplomats and foreign policy thinkers of our own day. It is an important book in the study of military science as well. Perhaps most famously, it is considered the first more-or-less objective work of history ever composed.
There are no end to the textbooks, encyclopedia articles, and other derivative works that explore these facets of Thucydides’ book. One could read them, or one could simply read Thucydides. Here is what Thucydides has to say about his objective approach to history:
from History of the Peloponnesian War
Having now given the result of my inquiries into early times, I grant that there will be a difficulty in believing every particular detail. The way that most men deal with traditions, even traditions of their own country, is to receive them all alike as they are delivered, without applying any critical test whatever. The general Athenian public fancy that Hipparchus was tyrant when he fell by the hands of Harmodius and Aristogiton, not knowing that Hippias, the eldest of the sons of Pisistratus, was really supreme, and that Hipparchus and Thessalus were his brothers; and that Harmodius and Aristogiton suspecting, on the very day, nay at the very moment fixed on for the deed, that information had been conveyed to Hippias by their accomplices, concluded that he had been warned, and did not attack him, yet, not liking to be apprehended and risk their lives for nothing, fell upon Hipparchus near the temple of the daughters of Leos, and slew him as he was arranging the Panathenaic procession.
There are many other unfounded ideas current among the rest of the Hellenes, even on matters of contemporary history, which have not been obscured by time. For instance, there is the notion that the Lacedaemonian kings have two votes each, the fact being that they have only one; and that there is a company of Pitane, there being simply no such thing. So little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand. On the whole, however, the conclusions I have drawn from the proofs quoted may, I believe, safely be relied on. Assuredly they will not be disturbed either by the lays of a poet displaying the exaggeration of his craft, or by the compositions of the chroniclers that are attractive at truth’s expense; the subjects they treat of being out of the reach of evidence, and time having robbed most of them of historical value by enthroning them in the region of legend. Turning from these, we can rest satisfied with having proceeded upon the clearest data, and having arrived at conclusions as exact as can be expected in matters of such antiquity. To come to this war: despite the known disposition of the actors in a struggle to overrate its importance, and when it is over to return to their admiration of earlier events, yet an examination of the facts will show that it was much greater than the wars which preceded it.
With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one’s memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said. And with reference to the narrative of events, far from permitting myself to derive it from the first source that came to hand, I did not even trust my own impressions, but it rests partly on what I saw myself, partly on what others saw for me, the accuracy of the report being always tried by the most severe and detailed tests possible. My conclusions have cost me some labour from the want of coincidence between accounts of the same occurrences by different eye-witnesses, arising sometimes from imperfect memory, sometimes from undue partiality for one side or the other. The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.
If you have read through those three paragraphs, congratulations: you are an expert in Thucydides’ methods. You have also learned something important about how the Greeks tended to conflate history and legend. Read the entire book and you will learn a great deal about geopolitics, ancient Greece, military science, rhetoric, and psychology. These lessons will not be superficial or hollow, there is serious knowledge to be gained from that one book alone. And as it is with Thucydides, so it is with all the great books; their information density is incredible.
The fourth benefit of great reading that I want to discuss comes from the cumulative effect of the other three. When one is a skilled reader with direct, detailed knowledge of many important topics, one becomes a bulwark against the ignorance of “conventional wisdom,” able to contribute richly to any serious conversation. Such a person is an intimidating opponent in a debate and a capable defender of the ideas that hold together civilization.
That might sound grandiose, but it is true. Civilization is built upon, among some other things, the ideas that people have had over the millennia. Those ideas form the structure of our culture. When we paper over that structure with derivative works, people forget what the original ideas underneath really were. A person who has read great books, who has studied civilization’s founding ideas, does not fall into such errors. That is a person who can correct others.
Take, for example, the Prussian military officer Carl von Clausewitz. His book On Waris perhaps the finest monograph on the subject ever written, superior even to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Clausewitz is one of those writers that many people talk about, but few actually read. When the do read him, they usually read the beginning and ending of his book, and skip the dry, technical middle. There are famous quotes from Clausewitz about war being the continuation of politics by other means. The fame of his quotes and paucity of people who have actually read him has resulted in many people thinking that Clausewitz was really some sort of political theorist.
This evaluation is laughable. Clausewitz was interested in military science, and the bulk of his book is taken up with detailed considerations of very specific military problems. The following is an excerpt from a chapter on the defense of rivers. From some very practical observations, he demonstrates that a proper river defense can hold off an enemy of any size:
from On War
by Carl von Clausewitz
The time required to build a bridge determines the distance from each other at which the corps charged with the defence of the river should be posted. If we divide the whole length of the line of defence by this distance, we get the number of corps required for the defence; if with that number we divide the mass of troops disposable, we shall get the strength of each corps. If we now compare the strength of each single corps with the number of troops which the enemy, by using all the means in his power, can pass over during the construction of his bridge, we shall be able to judge how far we can expect a successful resistance. For we can only assume the forcing of the passage to be impossible when the defender is able to attack the troops passed over with a considerable numerical superiority, say the double, before the bridge is completed. An illustration will make this plain.
If the enemy requires twenty-four hours for the construction of a bridge, and if he can by other means only pass over 20,000 men in those twenty-four hours, whilst the defender within twelve hours can appear at any point whatever with 20,000 men, in such case the passage cannot be forced; for the defender will arrive when the enemy engaged in crossing has only passed over the half of 20,000. Now as in twelve hours, the time for conveying intelligence included, we can march four miles, therefore every eight miles 20,000 men would be required, which would make 60,000 for the defence of a length of twenty-four miles of river. These would be sufficient for the appearance of 20,000 men at any point, even if the enemy attempted the passage at two points at the same time; if at only one point twice 20,000 could be brought to oppose him at that single point.
In all the practical affairs of human life it is important to hit the right point; and so also, in the defence of a river, it makes a great difference whether we rightly appreciate our situation in all its relations; an apparently insignificant circumstance may essentially alter the case, and make a measure which is wise and effective in one instance, a disastrous mistake in another. This difficulty of forming a right judgment and of avoiding the notion that “a river is a river” is perhaps greater here than anywhere else, therefore we must especially guard against false applications and interpretations; but having done so, we have also no hesitation in plainly declaring that we do not think it worth while to listen to the cry of those who, under the influence of some vague feeling, and without any fixed idea, expect everything from attack and movement, and think they see the most true picture of war in a hussar at full gallop brandishing his sword over his head.
Such ideas and feelings are not always all that is required (we shall only instance here the once famous dictator Wedel, at Zullichau, in 1759); but the worst of all is that they are seldom durable, and they forsake the general at the last moment if great complex cases branching out into a thousand relations bear heavily upon him.
We therefore believe that a direct defence of a river with large bodies of troops, under favourable conditions, can lead to successful results if we content ourselves with a moderate negative: but this does not hold good in the case of smaller masses. Although 60,000 men on a certain length of river could prevent an army of 100,000 or more from passing, a corps of 10,000 on the same length would not be able to oppose the passage of a corps of 10,000 men, indeed, probably, not of one half that strength if such a body chose to run the risk of placing itself on the same side of the river with an enemy so much superior in numbers. The case is clear, as the means of passing do not alter.
Should you ever find yourself defending a river, you now know how. Should you ever find yourself defending Clausewitz’s purpose in writing On War, you now have some insight into that, too. The people who read about great books without ever reading the books themselves know neither of these things, and are vulnerable to popular misconceptions about their own culture.
That is just Clausewitz, and perhaps your interests do not extend to military science. But people just as often cite Plato, Aristotle, Newton, and Freud, having never read what they wrote either. Some people try to discuss Socrates, unaware that he left us no books. Such people are disconnected from their own culture and less informed about the world in which they live. They have not reached their full potential and are less able to operate in the world than they otherwise might be. The solution for them is to read better books.
I have tried to emphasize four major reasons for reading the great books of the world: such books make us more discerning readers, they improve the mind, they allow us to experience the author’s struggles directly, and they make us into more capable citizens. There is one negative issue I have not touched on; the great works are intimidating. Some of them are long, all of them are old, at times they are dry, many are hard. First I would point out that some are short, light, and easy. Nikolai Gogol’s Diary of a Madman can be read in one sitting and is laugh-out-loud funny. As for some being hard or dry, anyone who has reached this sentence will not encounter that problem. Smith, Thucydides, and Clausewitz are as hard as they come. If you can read those three– and you just did– you can read anyone. Do not be afraid to read better books.
The works by Adam Smith, Thucydides, and Carl von Clausewitz are all in the public domain, as are the particular translations employed here.
The bookshelf photo is copyrighted by the author. It may be reproduced on a website if a link is included to this page.