Isaac Watts: On Improving the Mind by Reading

learning from booksPreviously

II. The next way of improving the mind is by reading, and the advantages of it are such as these :

1. By reading we acquaint ourselves, in a very extensive manner, with the affairs, actions, and thoughts of the living and the dead, in the most remote nations, and most distant ages, and that with as much ease as though they lived in our own age and nation. By reading of books we may learn something from all parts of mankind; whereas by observation we learn all from ourselves, and only what comes within our own direct cognizance; by conversation we can only enjoy the assistance of a very few persons, viz. those who are near us, and live at the same time when we do, that is, our neighbours and contemporaries; but our knowledge is much more narrowed still, if we confine ourselves merely to our own solitary reasonings, without much observation or reading : for then all our improvement must arise only from our own inward powers and meditations.

2. By reading we learn not only the actions and the sentiments of different nations and ages, but we transfer to ourselves the knowledge and improvements of the most learned men, the wisest and the best of mankind, when or wheresoever they lived: for though many books have been written by weak and injudicious persons, yet the most of those books which have obtained great reputation in the world, are the products of great and wise men in their several ages and nations: whereas we can obtain the conversation and instruction of those only who are within the reach of our dwelling, or our acquaintance, whether they are wise or unwise; and sometimes that narrow sphere scarce affords any person of great eminence in wisdom or learning, unless our instructor happen to have this character. And as for our own study and meditations, even when we arrive at some good degrees of learning, our advantage for further improvement in knowledge by them is still far more contracted than what we may derive from reading.

3. When we read good authors, we learn the best, the most laboured, and most refined sentiments, even of those wise and learned men; for they have studied hard and have committed to writing their maturest thoughts, and the result of their long study and experience: whereas by conversation, and in some lectures, we obtain many times only the present thoughts of our tutors or friends, which (though they may be bright and useful) yet, at first perhaps, may be sudden and undigested, and are mere hints which have risen to no maturity.

4. It is another advantage of reading, that we may review what we have read; we may consult the page again and again, and meditate on it, at successive seasons, in our serenest and retired hours, having the book always at hand: but what we obtain by conversation and in lectures, is oftentimes lost again as soon as the company breaks up, or at least when the day vanishes, unless we happen to have the talent of a good memory, or quickly retire and note down what remarkables we have found in those discourses. And for the same reason, and for the want of retiring and writing, many a learned man has lost several useful meditations of his own, and could never recall them again.

Full text

That last advantage struck me- what kind of a technological breakthrough must a pencil have been!  They were around in the late 1500s, but were not mass produced and easy to use until the very late 1600s.  Even then, they were not always easily come by.


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