Thursday, October 28, 2010

Of Ivory Towers and Fresh Air

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: (Eccl. 3.1)

Samuel Davies, Letter to William Holt (his brother-in-law in Williamsburg, Va.):

I am as happy as perhaps creation can make me. I have a peaceful study, the venerable dead are waiting in my library to entertain me. I very much question if there is a more calm, placid, and contented mortal in Virginia.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Introduction to Kubla Khan:

On awakening [from his dream, the author] appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!

James W. Alexander, Journal:

§ 12. Against Solitude.—A life of study has always appeared to me an unnatural life. Is it not better to converse with the living than the dead? Some one will yet have to write a book on the excess of literature. The ancient Greek way of studying abroad, in the Porch, or the Academy, on the Bissus and under the platanus, among the haunts of man, was better for the health both of body and mind. Recluse habits tend to sadness, moroseness, selfishness, timidity, and inaction. The mind has better play in aprico. Collision produces scintillation of genius, and proximity of friends opens a gush for the affections. The early Christians seem to have been out-of-door people, rehearsing to one another the wisdom which had been given to them orally. Lessons which go from mouth to mouth, take a portable shape, because dense, pithy, and apothegmatic: such are the proverbs of all ages. We are made for action, and life is too short for us to be always preparing. A breath of pure air seems to oxygenate the intellect, and the best thoughts of the scholar are sometimes during the half hour of twilight, when he has laid aside his books, and taken his walking-stick. Then he is more of a man, feels his fellowship not only with nature, but with his kind. I sometimes wish I had been less a reader of books; that I had exercised my prerogative over the beasts of the field, mastered horses, or traversed countries as a reckless pedestrian. Ever turning the thoughts inward produces corrosion. We should have something, it is true, within, but it should tend outwards. He has not fulfilled his vocation, who has spent his score of years in solitary delight over ancient authors, and eaten his morsel alone. Gray, with all Greece in his mind, pacing up and down the green alleys of a college walk, was but half the man he should have been. Horace Walpole, revelling in the virtu of Strawberry Hill, degenerated into a mere toyman, and filled the most elegant letters extant with the matching of old chairs and Sevres china. It is to let the mind run to seed in a corner; transplantation is necessary. To live for others is the dictate of religion. And what to do for others is best done by actual approaches, face to face, eye looking into eye, and hand pressing hand. It is not enough to say, this or that recondite pursuit may turn to somebody's advantage. So it may, if you live to be a Methuselah or a Lamech. But your ever-increasing stock should not be all hoarded. The sum is, go forth among mankind. Lay aside the cowl, and make one of the great company. Every day renew the electric touch with the common mind. Fall into the circle, to give and take good influences. It is not too late if your heart is not ossified to the core. I hope it is not so bad as that in Tully's phrase, locus ubi stomachus fuit, concaluit. It is worth an effort. The air of a saloon or a market-place will do you good, and you will gain something from brushing the crowd in a thoroughfare.

§ 22. Books and Solitude.—Much may be learned without books. To read always is not the way to be wise. The knowledge of those who are not bookworms has a certain air of health and robustness. I never deal with books all day without being the worse for it. Living teachers are better than dead. There is magic in the voice of living wisdom. Iron sharpeneth iron. Part of every day should be spent in society. Learning is discipline; but the heart must be disciplined as well as the head; and only by intercourse with our fellows can the affections be disciplined. Bookishness implies solitude; and solitude is apt to produce ill weeds: melancholy, selfishness, moroseness, suspicion, and fear. To go abroad is, therefore, a Christian duty. I never went from my books to spend an hour with a friend, however humble, without receiving benefit. I never left the solitary contemplation of a subject in order to compare notes on it with a friend, without finding my ideas clarified. Ennui is not common where men properly mingle the contemplative with the active life. The natural and proper time for going abroad is the evening. Such intercourse should be encouraged in one's own house as well as out of it. Solitary study breeds inhospitality: we do not like to be interrupted. Every one, however wearisome as a guest, should be made welcome, and entertained cordially. Women surpass men in the performance of these household duties; chiefly because they are all given to habits of solitary study. The life which Christ lived among men is a pattern of what intercourse should be for the good of society. I have a notion that the multiplication of books in our day, which threatens to overleap all bounds, will, in the first instance, produce great evils, and will afterwards lead men back to look on oral communication as a method of diffusing knowledge which the press has unduly superseded; and that this will some day break on the world with the freshness of a new discovery.

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