Read both books and life
By Asitha Jayawardena

If you are lost in a desert island, what is the book you would most like to have with you? G.K. Chestertonís choice is quite down-to-earth Ė Thomasís Guide to Practical Shipbuilding.

As in the case of Chesterton, books give us access to knowledge and guidance. Books also provide us entertainment and, sometimes, even become our close friends.

Books as teachers and guides

As a source of knowledge and guidance, books reign high. "Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body," says Sir Richard Steele. And J Collier advises, "A man may as well expect to grow stronger by always eating as wiser by always reading".

Such advice is not surprising if we listen to Aldous Huxley, who says, "The proper study of mankind is books." Nodding, Thomas Carlyle adds, "The true university of these days is a collection of books." Further, Tony Benn views bookshops as the one university everyone can enter while Lord Samuel defines a library as thought in cold storage. And a success story comes from Dylan Thomas, who reveals, "My education was the liberty I had to read indiscriminately and all the time, with my eyes hanging out."

"I would never read a book if it were possible to talk half an hour with the man who wrote it," declares Woodrow Wilson. So would we! However, there can be various barriers between the writer and us Ė say geographical barriers (the writer living in another country) or time barriers (the writer being dead) Ė that make such half-an-hour conversations improbable or even impossible. So the next best option available is to read their books. "A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit," says John Milton, "embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life." And Rene Descartes reveals, "To read good books is like holding a conversation with the most eminent minds of past centuries and, moreover, a studied conversation in which these authors reveal to us only the best of their thoughts."

Books for entertainers

The dazzling entertainment potential of books is known only to the "bookworms". Mary Wortley Montague says, "No entertainment is so cheap as reading, nor any pleasure so lasting." The power of books is reflected in Amy Lowellís observation:

All books are either dreams or swords,

You can cut, or you can drug, with words.

Books offer us the opportunity to live many lives instead of one. "It is not true that we have only one life to live," says Hayakawa, "if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish." However, not all find reading entertaining. For example, Will Rogers complains, "I never was much on this Book Reading, for it takes Ďem too long to describe the colour of the eyes of all the characters."

Books as friends

Books can be close friends. "Outside of a dog, a book is a manís best friend," Groucho Marx says, "and inside of a dog itís too dark to read." For some, books are better friends than real friends. "A good book is the best of friends, the same today and forever," reveals Martin Tupper. And Thomas Carlyle praises his books as friends that never fail him.

"When I am reading a book, whether wise or silly, it seems to me to be alive and talking to me," describes Jonathan Swift. Not surprising because, according to Walter Savage Landor, "what is reading but silent conversation?" How close books can become to us is reflected in Charles Kingsley statement: Except a living man there is nothing more wonderful than a book! A message to us from human souls we never saw`85. And yet these arouse us, terrify us, teach us, comfort us, and open their hearts to us as brothers.

Books can be dangerous

True, books can be good teachers and guides, entertainers and friends. Be careful though!

"A dose of poison can do its work only once," observes John Murray, "but a bad book can go on poisoning peopleís minds for any length of time." However, Voltaire disagrees, "I know many books which have bored their readers, but I know of none which has done real evil". Supporting him is Gunter Grass, who claims that even bad books are books and therefore sacred.

Sir Arthur Helps warns, "Reading is sometimes an ingenious device for avoiding thought." Nodding, Charles Lamb admits, "I love to lose myself in other menís minds. When I am not walking, I am reading; I cannot sit and think. Books think for me." However, Umberto Eco disagrees on this point, saying, "We know that books are not a way of letting someone else think in our place: on the contrary, they are machines that provoke further thought."

Too much reading can also be dangerous as you may lose contact with the rest of the society. Listen to George Gordon Byron, who claims, "If I could always read, I should never feel the want of society." Meanwhile, Moliere warns, "Reading and marriage donít go well together." As an anonymous bookworm says, "Book lovers never go to bed alone." And thereís solid evidence. For example, Nancy Banks-Smith observes, "Agatha Christie has given more pleasure in bed than any other woman", while Harold MacMillan confesses, "I like to take a Trollope to bed, but if one is not available, I will settle for a Wodehouse."

A balance between books and life

So itís important to strike a balance between books and life. Can we agree with Logan Pearsall Smith, who comments, "People say life is the thing, but I prefer reading"? Perhaps more sensible is Julian Barnes, who observes, "Books say: she did this because. Life says: she did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things arenít`85 Books make sense of life. The only problem is that the lives they make sense of are other peopleís lives, never your own."

"Books are good enough in their own way," observes Robert Louis Stevenson, "but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life." Meanwhile Edward Bulwer-Lytton warns, "Master books, but do not let them master you. Read to live, not live to read." And finally, Lin Yutang sums up, "The wise man reads both books and life itself."



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