The habit of reading is one of the greatest resources of mankind;
and we enjoy reading books that belong to us much more than if they are
borrowed. A borrowed book is like a guest in the house; it must be treated
with punctiliousness, with a certain considerate formality. You must see
that it sustains no damage; it must not suffer while under your roof. You
cannot leave it carelessly, you cannot mark it, you cannot turn down the
pages, you cannot use it familiarly. And then, some day, although this
is seldom done, you really ought to return it.
But your own books belong to you; you treat them with that affectionate
intimacy that annihilates formality. Books are for use, not for show; you
should own no book that you are afraid to mark up, or afraid to place on
the table, wide open and face down. A good reason for marking favorite
passages in books is that this practice enables you to remember more easily
the significant sayings, to refer to them quickly, and then in later years,
it is like visiting a forest where you once blazed a trail. You have the
pleasure of going over the old ground, and recalling both the intellectual
scenery and your own earlier self.
Everyone should begin collecting a private library in youth; the
instinct of private property, which is fundamental in human beings, can
here be cultivated with every advantage and no evils. One should have one's
own bookshelves, which should not have doors, glass windows, or keys; they
should be free and accessible to the hand as well as to the eye. The best
of mural decorations is books; they are more varied in color and appearance
than any wallpaper, they are more attractive in design, and they have the
prime advantage of being separate personalities, so that if you sit alone
in the room in the firelight, you are surrounded with intimate friends.
The knowledge that they are there in plain view is both stimulating and
refreshing. You do not have to read them all. Most of my indoor life is
spent in a room containing six thousand books; and I have a stock answer
to the invariable question that comes from strangers. "Have you read
all of these books?"
"Some of them twice." This reply is both true and unexpected.
There are of course no friends like living, breathing, corporeal
men and women; my devotion to reading has never made me a recluse. How
could it? Books are of the people, by the people, for the people. Literature
is the immortal part of history; it is the best and most enduring part
of personality. But book-friends have this advantage over living friends;
you can enjoy the most truly aristocratic society in the world whenever
you want it. The great dead are beyond our physical reach, and the great
living are usually almost as inaccessible; as for our personal friends
and acquaintances, we cannot always see them. Perchance they are asleep,
or away on a journey. But in a private library, you can at any moment converse
with Socrates or Shakespeare or Carlyle or Dumas or Dickens or Shaw or
Barrie or Galsworthy. And there is no doubt that in these books you see
these men at their best. They wrote for you. They "laid themselves
out," they did their ultimate best to entertain you, to make a favorable
impression. You are necessary to them as an audience is to an actor; only
instead of seeing them masked, you look into their innermost heart of heart.
William Lyon Phelps - 1933