If the writer who ventures to say something more about books and their uses is wise, he will not begin with an apology, for he will know that, despite all that has been said and written on this engrossing theme, the interest of books is inexhaustible, and that there is always a new constituency to read them. So rich is the vitality of the great books of the world that men are never done with them; not only does each new generation read them, but it is compelled to form some judgment of them. In this way, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, and their fellow artists are always coming into the open court of public opinion, and the estimate in which they are held is valuable chiefly as affording material for judgment of the generation which forms it. An age which understands and honors creative artists must have a certain breadth of view and energy of spirit; an age which fails to recognize their significance fails to recognize the range and splendor of life, and has, therefore, a certain inferiority.
There cannot be too many lovers of the best things in these pessimistic days, when to have the power of loving anything is beginning to be a great and rare gift.
We cannot get away from the great books of the world, because they preserve and interpret the life of the world; they are inexhaustible because, being vitally conceived, they need the commentary of that wide experience which we call history to bring out the full meaning of the text. They are our perpetual teachers because they are the most complete expressions, in that concrete form which we call art, of the thoughts, acts, dispositions, and passions of humanity. There is no getting to the bottom of Shakespeare, for instance, or to the end of his possibilities for enriching and interesting us, because he deals habitually with that primary substance of human life which remains substantially unchanged through all the mutations of racial, national, and personal condition, and which is always, and for all men, the object of supreme interest. Time, which is the relentless enemy of all that is partial and provisional, is the friend of Shakespeare, because it continually brings to the student of his work illustration and confirmation of its truth. There are many things in his plays which are more intelligible and significant to us than they were to the men who heard their musical cadence on the rude Elizabethan stage, because the ripening of experience has given the prophetic thought an historical demonstration, and there are truths in these plays which will be read with clearer eyes by men of the next century than they are now read by us.
It is this prophetic quality in the books of power which silently moves them forward with the inaudible advance of the successive files in the ranks of generations, and which makes them contemporary with each generation. For while the medieval framework upon which Dante constructed the Divine Comedy becomes obsolete, the fundamental thought of the poet about human souls and the identity of the deed and its result not only remains true to experience but has received the most impressive confirmation from subsequent history and from psychology.
It is as impossible, therefore, to get away from the books of power as from the stars; every new generation must make acquaintance with them, because they are as much a part of that order of things which forms the background of human life as nature itself. With every intelligent man or woman, the question is not “Shall I take account of them?” but “How shall I get the most and the best out of them for my enrichment and guidance?”
One who loves books, like one who loves a particular bit of a country, is always eager to make others see what he sees; that there have been other lovers of books and views before him does not put him in an apologetic mood. There cannot be too many lovers of the best things in these pessimistic days, when to have the power of loving anything is beginning to be a great and rare gift.