Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

The Man of One Book.

Mr. Maurice, in his animated Memoirs, has recently acquainted us with a fact which may be deemed important in the life of a literary man. He tells us, “We have been just informed that Sir William Jones invariably read through every year the works of Cicero, whose life indeed was the great exemplar of his own.” The same passion for the works of Cicero has been participated by others. When the best means of forming a good style were inquired of the learned Arnauld, he advised the daily study of Cicero; but it was observed that the object was not to form a Latin, but a French style: “In that case,” replied Arnauld, “you must still read Cicero.”

A predilection for some great author, among the vast number which must transiently occupy our attention, seems to be the happiest preservative for our taste: accustomed to that excellent author whom we have chosen for our favourite, we may in this intimacy possibly resemble him. It is to be feared that, if we do not form such a permanent attachment, we may be acquiring knowledge, while our enervated taste becomes less and less lively. Taste embalms the knowledge which otherwise cannot preserve itself. He who has long been intimate with one great author will always be found to be a formidable antagonist; he has saturated his mind with the excellences of genius; he has shaped his faculties insensibly to himself by his model, and he is like a man who ever sleeps in armour, ready at a moment! The old Latin proverb reminds us of this fact, Cave ab homine unius libri: Be cautious of the man of one book!

Pliny and Seneca give very safe advice on reading: that we should read much, but not many books — but they had no “monthly list of new publications!” Since their days others have favoured us with “Methods of Study,” and “Catalogues of Books to be Read.” Vain attempts to circumscribe that invisible circle of human knowledge which is perpetually enlarging itself! The multiplicity of books is an evil for the many; for we now find an helluo librorum not only among the learned, but, with their pardon, among the unlearned; for those who, even to the prejudice of their health, persist only in reading the incessant book-novelties of our own time, will after many years acquire a sort of learned ignorance. We are now in want of an art to teach how books are to be read, rather than not to read them: such an art is practicable. But amidst this vast multitude still let us be “the man of one book,” and preserve an uninterrupted intercourse with that great author with whose mode of thinking we sympathise, and whose charms of composition we can habitually retain.

It is remarkable that every great writer appears to have a predilection for some favourite author; and, with Alexander, had they possessed a golden casket, would have enshrined the works they so constantly turned over. Demosthenes felt such delight in the history of Thucydides, that, to obtain a familiar and perfect mastery of his style, he re-copied his history eight times; while Brutus not only was constantly perusing Polybius, even amidst the most busy periods of his life, but was abridging a copy of that author on the last awful night of his existence, when on the following day he was to try his fate against Antony and Octavius. Selim the Second had the Commentaries of Cæsar translated for his use; and it is recorded that his military ardour was heightened by the perusal. We are told that Scipio Africanus was made a hero by the writings of Xenophon. When Clarendon was employed in writing his history, he was in a constant study of Livy and Tacitus, to acquire the full and flowing style of the one, and the portrait-painting of the other: he records this circumstance in a letter. Voltaire had usually on his table the Athalie of Racine, and the Petit Carême of Massillon; the tragedies of the one were the finest model of French verse, the sermons of the other of French prose. “Were I obliged to sell my library,” exclaimed Diderot, “I would keep back Moses, Homer, and Richardson;” and, by the éloge which this enthusiastic writer composed on our English novelist, it is doubtful, had the Frenchman been obliged to have lost two of them, whether Richardson had not been the elected favourite. Monsieur Thomas, a French writer, who at times displays high eloquence and profound thinking, Herault de Sechelles tells us, studied chiefly one author, but that author was Cicero; and never went into the country unaccompanied by some of his works. Fénélon was constantly employed on his Homer; he left a translation of the greater part of the Odyssey, without any design of publication, but merely as an exercise for style. Montesquieu was a constant student of Tacitus, of whom he must be considered a forcible imitator. He has, in the manner of Tacitus, characterised Tacitus: “That historian,” he says, “who abridged everything, because he saw everything.” The famous Bourdaloue re-perused every year Saint Paul, Saint Chrysostom, and Cicero. “These,” says a French critic, “were the sources of his masculine and solid eloquence.” Grotius had such a taste for Lucan, that he always carried a pocket edition about him, and has been seen to kiss his hand-book with the rapture of a true votary. If this anecdote be true, the elevated sentiments of the stern Roman were probably the attraction with the Batavian republican. The diversified reading of Leibnitz is well known; but he still attached himself to one or two favourites: Virgil was always in his hand when at leisure, and Leibnitz had read Virgil so often, that even in his old age he could repeat whole books by heart; Barclay’s Argenis was his model for prose; when he was found dead in his chair, the Argenis had fallen from his hands. Rabelais and Marot were the perpetual favourites of La Fontaine; from one he borrowed his humour, and from the other his style. Quevedo was so passionately fond of the Don Quixote of Cervantes, that often in reading that unrivalled work he felt an impulse to burn his own inferior compositions: to be a sincere admirer and a hopeless rival is a case of authorship the hardest imaginable. Few writers can venture to anticipate the award of posterity; yet perhaps Quevedo had not even been what he was without the perpetual excitement he received from his great master. Horace was the friend of his heart to Malherbe; he laid the Roman poet on his pillow, took him in the fields, and called his Horace his breviary. Plutarch, Montaigne, and Locke, were the three authors constantly in the hands of Rousseau, and he has drawn from them the groundwork of his ideas in his Emile. The favourite author of the great Earl of Chatham was Barrow; and on his style he had formed his eloquence, and had read his great master so constantly, as to be able to repeat his elaborate sermons from memory. The great Lord Burleigh always carried Tully’s Offices in his pocket; Charles V. and Buonaparte had Machiavel frequently in their hands; and Davila was the perpetual study of Hampden: he seemed to have discovered in that historian of civil wars those which he anticipated in the land of his fathers.

These facts sufficiently illustrate the recorded circumstance of Sir William Jones’s invariable habit of reading his Cicero through every year, and exemplify the happy result for him, who, amidst the multiplicity of his authors, still continues in this way to be “the man of one book.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37