The list he made out may be about as good a list as could be devised for persons of his own character and education, but must be modified by each of us in accordance with our own tastes and the end we seek to obtain by reading.
The chief end for which a young student studies books is almost always success in examinations, for the attainment of which success he sometimes sacrifices more important ends. He will therefore be inclined to neglect general reading, and only care to obtain from his teacher a list of the books that will help him in the work of mastering the prescribed course of study. When he leaves college, if he has acquired in the course of his education a taste for reading, he will probably aim at the wider object of increasing his culture; and at the same time he ought to be anxious to choose such books as will not only increase his knowledge, but also make him a better and happier man. In making his choice he will have to take into consideration his own intellectual tastes and the nature of the occupation by which he earns his subsistence. Owing to differences in these matters the intellectual food of one man be another’s poison. For instance, a book containing the records of minute observation of bees and ants.
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Which would be full of interest of a scientific mind like Sir John Lubbock’s, might be so utterly distasteful to a person fond of poetry or abstruse metaphysics, that it would be foolish waste of time for him to try and understand it. Even men of similar taste may, owing to differences in their circumstances, find it expedient to choose very different courses of reading. Of two persons equally addicted to philosophy, one has light work and such an abundance of spare time that he may profitably sketch out for himself a regular course of philosophical books. While the other is engaged in such hard brain-work every day in his professional calling, that it would be unwise for him to employ his leisure hours in any difficult study. Those who are unfortunately compelled to expend the whole force of .their intellects on their daily work must content themselves with such light literature as is afforded by the novelists and the poets and the columns of the daily press.
If they attempt more, they are likely to ruin their health by overtaking their brains. Even those who are required by prudence to avoid philosophy and science, and have to confine themselves to light literature, must not, however, think that it does not matter what they read. For them, and for all others who are by circumstances limited to a narrow sphere of study, the best rule to follow is that laid down by Emerson, that we should “never read any but famed books”. If this rule were more generally observed, we should not find so many readers of fiction in this country wasting their time over the novels of Reynolds, before they have read the great works of Scott, Thackeray, Dickens, and George Eliot. It has been objected that, if the rule we are recommending had been followed in the past, no book would ever have become famous. This is a valid objection against the universal acceptance of the rule. But as there is no fear of its ever being universally accepted, and as there is a large class of clever literary men whose business it is to examine all new books and form an opinion upon their merits.
The majority of mankind in planning a course of reading for the few hours they can spare for self- culture cannot do better than follow Emerson’s precept.