Isaac Watts on Books and How to Learn From Them


Subtitles are mine.

books and candleIt does matter what you read

The world is full of books, but there are multitudes which, are so ill written that they were never worth any man’s reading; and there are thousands more which may be good in their kind, yet are worth nothing when the month or year, or occasion is past for which they were written.

Others may be valuable in themselves for some special purpose, or in some peculiar science, but are not fit to be perused by any but those who are engaged in that particular science or business. To what use is it for a divine or physician, or a tradesman, to read over the huge volumes of reports of judged cases in the law? or for a lawyer to learn Hebrew, and read the Rabbins? It is of vast advantage for improvement of knowledge, and saving time, for a young man to have the most proper books for his reading recommend ed by a judicious friend.

How To Read a Book

II. Books of importance of any kind, and especially complete treatises on any subject, should be first read in a more general and cursory manner, to learn a little what the treatise promises, and what you may expect from the writer’s manner and skill. And for this end I would advise always that the preface be read, and a survey taken of the table of contents, if there be one, before the survey of the book. By this means you will not only be better fitted to give the book the first reading, but you will be much assisted in your second perusal of it, which should be done with greater attention and deliberation, and you will learn with more ease and readiness what the author pretends to teach.

In your reading, mark what is new or unknown to you before, and review those chapters, pages, or paragraphs. Unless a reader has an uncommon and most retentive memory, I may venture to affirm, that there is scarce any book or chapter worth reading once, that is not worthy of a second perusal. At least to take a careful review of all the lines or paragraphs which you marked, and make a recollection of the sections which you thought truly valuable.

There is another reason also why I would choose to take a superficial and cursory survey of a book, before I sit down to read it, and dwell upon it with studious attention; and that is, that there may be several difficulties in it which we cannot easily understand and conquer at the first reading, for want of a fuller comprehension of the author’s whole scheme. And therefore In such treatises, we should not stay till we master every difficulty at the first perusal; for perhaps many of these would appear to be solved when we have proceeded further in that book, or would vanish of themselves upon a second reading.

I Wish I’d Been A Fly On The Wall In Isaac Watts’ Book Discussion Group

III. If three or four persons agreed to read the same book, and each brings his own remarks upon it, at some set hours appointed for conversation, and they communicate mutually their sentiments on the subject, and debate about it in a friendly manner, this practice will render the reading any author more abundantly beneficial to any one of them.

IV. If several persons engaged in the same study, take into their hands distinct treatises on one subject, and appoint a season of communication once a week, they may inform each other in a brief manner concerning the sense, sentiments, and methods of those several authors, and thereby promote each other’s improvement, either by recommending the perusal of the same book to their companions, or perhaps by satisfying their inquiries concerning it by conversation, without every one’s perusing it.

Decide for yourself, but only after you are sure you understand

V. Remember that your business in reading or in conversation, especially on subjects of natural, moral, or divine science, is not merely to know the opinion of the author or speaker, for this is but the mere knowledge of history; but your chief business is to consider whether their opinions are right or no, and to improve your own solid knowledge on that subject by meditation on the themes of their writing or discourse. Deal freely with every author you read, and yield up your assent only to evidence and just reasoning on the subject.


Here I would be understood to speak only of human authors, and not of the sacred and inspired writings. In these our business is only to find out the true sense, and understand the true meaning of the paragraph and page, and our assent then is bound to follow when we are before satisfied that the writing is divine.

Yet I might add also, that even this is sufficient evidence to demand our assent. But in the composures of men, remember you are a man as well as they; and it is not their reason but your own that is given to guide you when you arrive at years of discretion, of manly age and judgment.

Learn from the mistakes of others, including those who agree with you.

VI. Let this therefore be your practice, especially after you have gone through one course of any science m your academical studies; if a writer on that subject maintains the same sentiments as you do, yet if he does not explain his ideas or prove his positions well, mark the faults or defects, and endeavour to do better, either in the margin of your book, or rather in some papers of your own, or at least let it be done in your private meditations.

As for instance: — Where the author is obscure, enlighten him: where he is imperfect, supply his deficiencies: where he is too brief and concise, amplify a little, and set his notions in a fairer view: where he is redundant, mark those para graphs to be retrenched: when he trifles and grows im pertinent, abandon those passages or pages: when he argues, observe whether his reasons be conclusive: if the conclusion be true, and yet the argument weak, en deavour to confirm it by better proofs: where he derives or infers any proposition darkly and doubtfully, make the justice of the inference appear, and make further inferen ces or corollaries, if such occur to your mind: where you suppose he is in a mistake, propose your objections and correct his sentiments: what he writes so well as to ap prove itself of your judgment, both as just and useful, treasure it up in your memory, and count it a part of your intellectual gains.

Note, Many of these same directions, which I have now given, may be practised with regard to conversation as well as reading, in order to render it useful in the most extensive and lasting manner.

These are not the only ways to use books. You can also:

VII. Other things also of the like nature may be use fully practised with regard to the authors which you read, viz. If the method of a book be irregular, reduce it into form, by a little analysis of your own, or by hints in the margin: If those things are heaped together,which should be separated, you may wisely distinguish and divide them: if several things relating to the same subject are scattered up and down separately through the treatise, you may bring them all to one view by references; or if the matter of a book be really valuable and deserving, you may throw it into a better method, reduce it to a more logical scheme, or abridge it into a lesser form: all these practices will have a tendency both to advance your skill in logic and method, to improve your judgment in general, and to give you a fuller survey of that subject in particular.

When you have finished the treatise with all your observations upon it, recollect and determine what real improvements you have made by reading that author.

And still other ways to use books are to enumerate the statements in a given chapter, to analyse a chapter, to divide it into paragraphs under proper headings, to tabulate and classify series…These few hints by no means cover the disciplinary uses of a good school book.

VIII. If a book has no index to it, or good table of contents, it is very useful to make one as you are reading it: not with that exactness as to include the sense of every page and paragraph, which should be done if you designed to print it; bur it is sufficient in your index to take notice only of those parts of the book which are new to you, or which you think well written, and well worthy of your remembrance or review.

Shall I be so free as to assure my younger friends, from my own experience, that these methods of reading will cost some pains in the first year of your study, and especially in the first authors which you peruse in any science, or on any particular subject: but the profit will richly compensate the pains.

And in the following years of life, after you have read a few valuable books on any special subject in this manner, it will be easy to read others of the same kind, because you will not usually find very much new matter in them which you have not already examined. If the writer be remarkable for any peculiar excellencies or defects in his style or manner of writing, make just observations upon this also; and whatsoever ornaments you find there, or whatsoever blemishes occur in the language or manner of the writer, you may make just remarks upon them. And remember that one book read over in this manner, with all this laborious meditation, will tend more to enrich your understanding, than the skimming over the surface of twenty authors.

To be continued

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