When we survey the really illimitable field of human knowledge, the vast accumulation of works already printed, and the ever-increasing flood of new books poured out by the modern press, the first feeling which is apt to arise in the mind is one of dismay, if not of despair. We ask-who is sufficient for these things? What life is long enough-what intellect strong enough, to master even a tithe of the learning which all these books contain? But the reflection comes to our aid that, after all, the really important books bear but a small proportion to the mass. Most books are but repetitions, in a different form, of what has already been many times written and printed. The rarest of literary qualities is originality. Most writers are mere echoes, and the greater part of literature is the pouring out of one bottle into another. If you can get hold of the few really best books, you can well afford to be ignorant of all the rest. The reader who has mastered Kames's "Elements of Criticism," need not spend his time over the multitudinous treatises upon rhetoric. He who has read Plutarch's Lives thoroughly has before him a gallery of heroes which will go farther to instruct him in the elements of character than a whole library of modern biographies. The student of the best plays of Shakespeare may save his time by letting other and inferior dramatists alone. He whose imagination has been fed upon Homer, Dante, Milton, Burns, and Tennyson, with a few of the world's master-pieces in single poems like Gray's Elegy, may dispense with the whole race of poetasters. Until you have read the best fictions of Scott, Thackeray, Dickens, Hawthorne, George Eliot, and Victor Hugo, you should not be hungry after the last new novel,-sure to be forgotten in a year, while the former are perennial. The taste which is once formed upon models such as have been named, will not be satisfied with the trashy book, or the spasmodic school of writing.
What kind of books should form the predominant part in the selection of our reading, is a question admitting of widely differing opinions. Rigid utilitarians may hold that only books of fact, of history and science, works crammed full of knowledge, should be encouraged. Others will plead in behalf of lighter reading, or for a universal range. It must be admitted that the most attractive reading to the mass of people is not scientific or philosophical. But there are many very attractive books outside the field of science, and outside the realm of fiction, books capable of yielding pleasure as well as instruction. There are few books that render a more substantial benefit to readers of any age than good biographies. In them we find those personal experiences and adventures, those traits of character, that environment of social and domestic life, which form the chief interest in works of fiction. In fact, the novel, in its best estate, is only biography amplified by imagination, and enlivened by dialogue. And the novel is successful only when it succeeds in depicting the most truly the scenes, circumstances, and characters of real life. A well written biography, like that of Dr. Johnson, by Boswell, Walter Scott, by Lockhart, or Charles Dickens, by Forster, gives the reader an insight into the history of the times they lived in, the social, political, and literary environment, and the impress of their famous writings upon their contemporaries. In the autobiography of Dr. Franklin, one of the most charming narratives ever written, we are taken into the writer's confidence, sympathize with his early struggles, mistakes, and successes, and learn how he made himself, from a poor boy selling ballads on Boston streets, into a leader among men, whom two worlds have delighted to honor. Another most interesting book of biography is that of the brothers William and Robert Chambers, the famous publishers of Edinburgh, who did more to diffuse useful knowledge, and to educate the people, by their manifold cheap issues of improving and entertaining literature, than was ever done by the British Useful Knowledge Society itself.
The French nation has, of all others, the greatest genius for personal memoirs, and the past two centuries are brought far more vividly before us in these free-spoken and often amusing chronicles, than in all the formal histories. Among the most readable of these (comparatively few having been translated into English) are the Memoirs of Marmontel, Rousseau, Madame Rémusat, Amiel, and Madame De Staël. The recently published memoirs by Imbert de St. Amand, of court life in France in the times of Marie Antoinette, Josephine, Marie Louise, and other periods, while hastily written and not always accurate, are lively and entertaining.