« PreviousContinue »
In nothing is man more dependent upon his fellow-man, than in the formation of his intellectual character. Not only does he need to be taught originally how to think, but his mind necessarily becomes, to a great extent, the receptacle of other men's thoughts; and they exist there, not merely as furniture, but as aliment. Most of our knowledge is hereditary; and even our ability to acquire knowledge, is derived, in a great degree, from our contact with other minds.
There are various ways in which men's thoughts are made to survive them ; but that which is perhaps more certain and permanent than any other, is through the medium of books. And it is a wise provision of Providence, that it is only thoughts that are really worth preserving, that even the press has the power to embalm :—the rest, however they may sport their little hour, are quickly numbered with the things that have been. The man who makes a book that has in it a principle of true intellectual vitality,-a book that contains glorious thoughts that can not die, and that may become the elements of mighty power in the minds of other men, is indeed one of the most favored of his race; for he has, in the best sense, at once an earthly ubiquity and an earthly immortality.
Every man, in making a book, virtually declares his conviction that he is doing something to minister, in some way,
to the benefit of his fellow-men ; and yet, if a considerable portion of the works that are published, were struck out of existence, to the very last copy, there would remain no chasm, in reference to which the world might not very well afford to keep a jubilee. Hence it becomes a matter of no small moment that the young especially, should have intelligent and faithful guides in their selection of books ; and those who have undertaken this office, and performed it successfully, may justly be regarded as public benefactors. There is scarcely anything that has more to do with one's intellectual and moral well-being than the selection of a library, provided its volumes are purchased to be read, and not merely to be exhibited. An individual, in doing this, gathers around him a host of companions for life ; and his own character will be likely to rise or sink, very much as the character of these silent, but ever-present and influential associates, is elevated or grovelling.
But while there is an almost endless diversity in the productions of different minds, and while he renders an important service to his fellow-men, who aids them to separate the precious from the vile, there is also often no inconsiderable diversity in the productions of the same mind; and here again, it were worthy of an accurate discrimination, to assign to each, for the common benefit, its appropriate place and degree of merit. There is scarcely a writer of much note, that has not made some single effort decidedly superior to any of his others; and as we are not able, in general, to read all the writings of any voluminous author, we are glad to be directed to those in which he has put forth his greatest strength, and on which his mind has left its most enduring impress.
But we may descend from individual productions to isolated thoughts from the best treatises, to the best parts of these treatises. We may take up a book through which there runs a golden thread of thought, from the first to the last page ; and while we luxuriate, as we pass along, in the bright fields that genius has opened before us, we now and then pause at some point of unusual splendor, and cannot proceed till we have stopped, inwardly to digest some rare offering of a lofty mind to our intellect, or taste, or imagination. The greatest minds, as well as those of a less lofty type, have their happy moments, in which they put forth their best efforts; and a collection of these rare thoughts, is, of course, nothing less than a cabinet of intellectual gems.
The gathering of such a collection, is what my friend, the compiler of this work, has undertaken, and so far as I can judge from a partial examination of the volume, has very successfully accomplished. On almost every subject within the ordinary range of thought, he has given us some bright conception, some exquisite sentiment, some pithy and striking saying of a noble mind. The book keeps one continually impressed with the idea—“How prolific is human thought!” You fasten your eye upon a sentence, and it strikes you, at once, as bearing the stamp of undefined greatness. As you hold it to your mind, it takes a more definite and palpable form ; it reveals treasures of strength and beauty that you did not at first detect; it exists not only as a great thought, but as a gem and a germ of thought in your own mind ; and perhaps what you thus take in at a glance of the eye, may essentially and permanently elevate both your intellectual and moral character. It is scarcely necessary to add that this is a work to be studied, rather than cursorily read; and however the most superficial reader may be delighted by the many bright and pithy sentences which it contains, none but the thoughtful and earnest, will ever fathom the depths of wisdom and truth to which its pages introduce us.
There is something ennobling in the thought, that we are here brought in contact with a great and dignified assem.
blage of illustrious minds, chiefly of the past, and are put in possession, at a trifling expense, of the richest thoughts they have ever given to the world. Some of them may, indeed, have written things which do not deserve to be perpetuated ; but in this volume it is intended that nothing should find a place that is not fitted to improve the intellect or the heart, or both-nothing that will not tend to make the reader both wiser and better. The work will be found especially valuable as a book of reference ; and the more so, as the subjects are alphabetically arranged, so as to make the volume its own index. I can not doubt that it will be hailed as a valuable auxiliary to the cause of intelligence and virtue.
W. B. S.
Albany, Sept, 1862