Isaac Watts on Reference Books, Book Collecting Beyond Your Understanding

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isaac-watts-owning-books-not-enoughXVI. Among other books which are proper and requisite, in order to improve our knowledge in general, or our acquaintance with any particular science, it is necessary that we should be furnished with Vocabularies and Dictionaries of several sorts, viz. of common words, idioms and phrases, in order to explain their sense; of technical words or the terms of art, to show their use in arts and sciences; of names of men, countries, towns, rivers, &c. which are called historical and geographical dictionaries, &c.

These are to be consulted and used upon every occasion; and never let an unknown word pass in your reading without seeking for its sense and meaning in some of these writers.

If such books are not at hand, you must supply the want of them as well as you can, by consulting such as can inform you: and it is useful to note down the matters of doubt and inquiry in some pocket-book, and take the first opportunity to get them resolved, either by persons or books, when we meet with them.

XVII. Be not satisfied with a mere knowledge of the best authors that treat of any subject, instead of acquainting ourselves thoroughly with the subject itself.

There is many a young student that is fond of enlarging his knowledge of books, and he contents himself with the notice he has of their title-page, which is the attainment of a bookseller rather than a scholar. Such persons are under a great temptation to practise these two follies.

(1.) To heap up a great number of books at a greater expense than most of them can bear, and to furnish their libraries infinitely better than their under standing. And

(2) when they have gotten such rich treasures of knowledge upon their shelves, they imagine themselves men of learning, and take a pride in talking of the names of famous authors, and the subjects of which they treat, without any real improvement of their own minds in true science or wisdom.

At best their learning reaches no further than the indexes and table of contents, while they know not how to judge or reason concerning the matters contained in those authors.

And indeed how many volumes of learning soever a man possesses, he is still deplorably poor in his understanding, till he has made those several parts of learning his own property by reading and reasoning, by judging for himself, and remembering what he has read.

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