Last week I was at a bookstore and picked up a book titled, The Quest of Happiness by Newell Dwight Hillis. I opened the cover and saw that the bookstore owner had written a price of “$Free. Enjoy!‘ What a great thing to find that the quest of happiness is free. The title is from 1902 and this was a 1906 reprint, so it had no value in terms of collectability, but I happened to browse through it and opened up to a chapter entitled, “Happiness and the Friendship of Books“. As this book is not under copyright, I thought it would a good idea to share some of the wonderful written words with you. I hope you enjoy.
AMONG a man’s most helpful friends let us make a large place for books. They are the tools of the mind. Their function is increase the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. In the very highest sense they are the true labor saving devices. What the loom does for the fingers what the engine does for the feet what the telescope does for the eye that and more books do for reason and for memory. They hasten man’s intellectual steps they push back the intellectual horizon they increase the range of his vision they sow intellectual harvests otherwise impossible and reap treasures quite beyond the reach of the unaided reason. In the physical realm tools have created more wealth in the past half century than the world had accumulated in the previous eighteen centuries. And it is not too much to say that those intellectual tools named books have increased the sum of knowledge gathered in the past century to an even greater degree than the increase in physical treasure. Strip man of his tools and he becomes a savage. Take away his reaper and he be comes a hunter of game. Take away his looms and he stands forth clothed with a coat of skins. Take away his engine and his ship and he is an ignorant peasant. Take away his gunpowder and he becomes a serf owned by the baron. Nor is it otherwise in the realm of wisdom. Strip man of his books and his papers and he becomes a mere slave ignorant of his own resources ignorant of his own rights and opportunities. The difference between the free citizen of to day and the savage of yesterday is almost entirely a thing of books.
Plato was indeed a scholar despite the fact that he had to gain his knowledge by observation conversation and listening to speakers as he asked and answered questions but the world has had only one Plato. The man who dislikes books can never be entirely happy and he who loves a good book can never be wholly miserable. If we would understand what those intellectual tools named books have really done for man we must imagine some youth entering this earthly scene and left to find out everything for himself. Let the youth be an Apollo in his health and beauty with a vigorous and hungry mind and with untiring ambition. Nevertheless he can do but very little without books. His eyes can see but to a little distance for that curtain named the horizon shuts down at a distance of only nine miles.
Yet the earth is 25,000 miles around some 24,991 miles entirely out of the of his observation. Even when he begins observe and his knowledge goes beyond limit of the nine miles his threescore years and ten soon prove to be all too short. If he begins to study the crystals and the handwriting on the rocks he will find that the writing is in letters so fine and intricate that it has taken thousands of men living as long as he to search out the key of the mystery and to decipher the pages. While the knowledge of the stars would mean thousands of years of life for an astronomer to master all the facts for himself. Indeed one great mind must give itself to the study of the butterflies and another to the birds one to the rose one to the apple one to the grape one to intellect another to emotion and another to will and so of the innumerable objects for observation. Before the youth has even begun his task old age will be upon him. And even though personal observation and experience do enable the youth to map out but a small portion of the earth’s surface conversation can do but little more. In the first place the youth will have time to see but a few people each day and there are hundreds of millions to be seen. Also perhaps his community will hold only a few really great men and they will be so busy that the youth will be fortunate if he can see them one or two evenings in the week.
How infinitely rich our world. Man live he ever so long will have time to break off only one bough from an infinite orchard. Unaided he sits in his little hut and starves to death. Then come the great men of the world bringing their books for guidance and instruction In the Middle Ages there was one strong man in the community named the baron in his castle. Now this baron was strong because of helpers. That he might be free to think and study one servant brought him wood another went forth to sow and reap the wheat another brought in the wheat converted it into bread one cared for his horses another servant cared for his flocks and when a thousand men had toiled to fill the castle with instruments of use and beauty the baron’s life became strong and happy. And so it is in the realm of knowledge.
Every youth is a kind of intellectual prince who is waited upon by those noble servants named books and their authors. When the youth sits down by the winter’s fire one writer says ‘Here is the sum of my fifty years study of beetles and birds’. And another ‘Here is the record of my travels in the arctics’. And another, ‘Here is the story of fifty years in the tropic forests’ And another ‘Here is the full record of a lifetime of examination of the Pyramids with the Egyptian tombs and temples’. Only instead of this intellectual prince having a hundred friends and servants each one of whom has toiled a lifetime in his chosen department the youth finds himself surrounded by perhaps ten thousand friends and helpers. Little wonder that rapidly his knowledge is up. His mental riches grow by leaps and bounds. These intellectual tools change boy into a mental giant. His culture and character take on strange solidity and size. The coral reefs grow cell by cell. Each little deposit means the life of the being that has sacrificed itself. Character also is the sum of many littles and grows by accumulation.
The books of great men enter into civilization and the very structure of society. Now for these reasons the history of human is largely the history of books. Indeed during those long dark centuries before printing press was discovered the world forward so slowly that we may say there no progress but only stagnation. The era began when the printing press came its stranger incitements. Just why the could not advance without the book a problem easy to be understood. Consider a book makes it possible for one generation to begin where another leaves off. Of necessity the father no matter what wisdom he had accumulated through travel and study dying left his knowledge behind him. No Herodotus travelling in foreign lands can return home to bequeath the results of his travel and studies to his infant child. Solomon ranges the world for wisdom. And yet this wisest of men in death knows that his little child must begin just where his father the great king began. … And yet consider that until books came no matter how far into the forests the father blazed the pathway and marked out the points of danger when he fell in the forest his little babe at home grew up to begin just where his father began therefore there was no social advance. Little wonder that the pathway was strewn with wrecks. Little wonder that the son’s craft struck the same rock that his father’s craft had foundered on. The son standing beside the dying father was conscious of a deep longing to find out some way by which a father could gather up what accumulated knowledge he has concerning rocks and beasts and savage men and poisons and foods and place that knowledge in the hand of his child as a guide book to the pathway of life. Therefore it is impossible to overestimate the gains for the individual in the registration of experience in books.
…From this view point the book represents the greatest intellectual possession which man has ever achieved. It is God’s richest gift to His earthly children. The book as a tool for the intellect does not stand upon the same level as the tool for the hands and the feet. It is not a star shining amid the other stars; it is a sun eclipsing the other stars by very excess of light.
There is much more to this chapter and some great words on the art of the novel, but I will perhaps save that for another day.