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From Boyhood to Manhood|
XIII. Books of His Boyhood
by Thayer, William M.
|Coleridge divided readers into four classes, thus: "The first may be
compared to an hour-glass, their reading being as the sand; it runs
in, and it runs out, and leaves not a vestige behind. A second class
resembles a sponge, which imbibes every thing, and returns it merely
in the same state, only a little dirtier. A third class is like a
jelly-bag, which allows all that is pure to pass away, and retains
only the refuse and the dregs. The fourth class may be compared to the
slave in the diamond mines of Golconda, who, casting aside all that is
worthless, preserves only the pure gem."
Benjamin belonged to the fourth class, which is the smallest class of
all. The "hour-glass" class, who simply let what they read "run in and
run out," is very large. It is not entitled to much respect, however,
for it will bring no more to pass than the class who do not read at
Benjamin sought the "pure gem." If he had any thing, he wanted
diamonds. Nor did he accept "a stone for bread." He knew what bread
was, which is not true of many readers; and so he had bread or
nothing. His mind was a voracious eater, much more of an eater than
his body. It demanded substantial food, too, the bread, meat, and
potato of literature and science. It did not crave cake and
confectionery. There was no mincing and nibbling when it went to a
meal. It just laid in as if to shame starvation; it almost gobbled up
what was on the table. It devoured naturally and largely. It was
fortunate for him that his mind was so hungry all the time; otherwise,
his desire to go to sea, his love of sport, and his unusual social
qualities might have led him astray. Thousands of boys have been
ruined in this way, whom passionate fondness of reading might have
made useful and eminent. Thomas Hood said: "A natural turn for reading
and intellectual pursuits probably preserved me from the moral
shipwrecks so apt to befall those who are deprived in early life of
their parental pilotage. My books kept me from the ring, the dog-pit,
the tavern, and saloon. The closet associate of Pope and Addison, the
mind accustomed to the noble though silent discourse of Shakespeare
and Milton, will hardly seek or put up with that sort of company."
It was probably as true of Benjamin Franklin as it was of Thomas Hood,
that reading saved him from a career of worldliness and worthlessness.
In his manhood he regarded the habit in this light, and said: "From my
infancy I was passionately fond of reading, and all the money that
came into my hands was laid out in the purchasing of books." If he had
laid out his money in billiards, boating, theatre-going, and kindred
pleasures, as so many do, he might have been known in manhood as Ben,
the Bruiser, instead of "Ben, the Statesman and Philosopher."
The first book Benjamin read was "Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress." He was
fascinated with it, and read it over and over, much to the
gratification of his parents.
"What is there about it that interests you so much?" inquired his
father, hoping that it might be the subject alone.
"The dialogues that are carried on in it," replied Benjamin.
"Then you think more of the style than you do of the matter?" remarked
his father, evidently somewhat disappointed that he was not specially
taken with Christian's journey.
"It is all interesting. I should never get tired of reading such a
book." This reply reassured his father, and he got considerable
comfort out of it, after having set before the boy the true idea of
Christian's flight from the City of Destruction.
"It was written in Bedford jail, England," continued his father.
"There was much persecution in his day, and he was thrust into prison
to keep him from preaching the Gospel; but the plan did not succeed
very well, for he has been preaching it ever since through that book,
that he never would have written had he not been imprisoned."
"Then he was a minister, was he?" said Benjamin.
"No, he was not a minister; he was a tinker, and a very wicked man, so
profane that he was a terror to good people. But he was converted and
became a Christian, and went about doing good, as Christ did,
preaching the Gospel in his way, in houses, by the way side, anywhere
that he could, until he was sent to prison for doing good."
"A strange reason for sending a man to jail," remarked Benjamin.
"They thought that he was doing evil, no doubt. I mean the enemies of
the Gospel. They did not believe in the Christian religion which
Bunyan had embraced; they thought it would stir up the people to
strife and contention, and prove a curse instead of a blessing." Mr.
Franklin knew that such information would increase the interest of his
son in the book; and it did. The impression wrought upon him by
reading this book lasted through his life, and led him to adopt its
style in much of his writing when he became a man. He said in manhood:
"Narrative mingled with dialogue is very engaging, not only to the
young, but to adults, also. It introduces the reader directly into the
company, and he listens to the conversation, and seems to see the
parties. Bunyan originated this colloquial style, and Defoe and
Richardson were his imitators. It is a style so attractive, conveying
instruction so naturally and pleasantly, that it should never be
Mr. Franklin owned all of Bunyan's works, his "Grace Abounding to the
Chief of Sinners," and his "Holy War," and "Pilgrim's Progress" just
spoken of. Benjamin read them all, but "Pilgrim's Progress" was the
one that charmed his soul and more or less influenced his life.
"Defoe's Essay upon Projects" was another volume of his father's,
written in the same style as "Pilgrim's Progress," and, for that
reason, very interesting to him. He devoured its contents. Its
subject-matter was much above the capacity of most boys of his age;
but the dialogue method of imparting instruction made it clear and
attractive to him. One subject which it advocated was the liberal
education of girls; and it was here, without doubt, that Benjamin
obtained his views upon advanced female education, which he advocated
in his discussion with John Collins.
"Plutarch's Lives" was still another volume his father owned, one of
the most inspiring books for the young ever published. He read this so
much and carefully that he was made very familiar with the characters
therein--information that was of great service to him, later on, in
his literary labors and public services.
"There was another book in my father's little library, by Doctor
Mather, called, 'An Essay to do Good,'" said Doctor Franklin, in his
"Autobiography," "which, perhaps, gave me a turn of thinking that had
an influence on some of the principal future events of my life." He
wrote to a son of Doctor Mather about it, late in life, as follows:
"When I was a boy, I met with a book, entitled 'Essays to do Good,'
which I think was written by your father (Cotton Mather). It had been
so little regarded by a former possessor that several leaves of it
were torn out; but the remainder gave me such a turn of thinking as to
have an influence on my conduct through life; for I have always set a
greater value on the character of a doer of good than on any other
kind of reputation; and if I have been, as you seem to think, a useful
citizen, the public owe the advantage of it to that book."
The "Essays to do Good" consisted of twenty-two short essays of a
practical character, inculcating benevolence as a duty and privilege,
and giving directions to particular classes. It had lessons for
ministers, lawyers, doctors, merchants, magistrates, teachers,
mechanics, husbands, wives, gentlemen, deacons, sea-captains, and
others. The style was quaint, earnest, and direct, exactly suited to
appeal to such a boy as Benjamin; and withal it was so practical that
it won his heart.
Mr. Parton records a singular incident about this Doctor Mather, as
follows: "How exceedingly strange that such a work as this should have
been written by the man who, in 1692, at Salem, when nineteen people
were hanged and one was pressed to death for witchcraft, appeared
among the crowd, openly exulting in the spectacle! Probably his zeal
against the witches was as much the offspring of his benevolence as
his 'Essays to do Good.' Concede his theory of witches, and it had
been cruelty to man not to hang them. Were they not in league with
Satan, the arch-enemy of God and man? Had they not bound themselves by
solemn covenant to aid the devil in destroying human souls and
afflicting the elect? Cotton Mather had not the slightest doubt of
When Benjamin had exhausted the home stock of reading, he showed his
sound judgment by saying to his father:
"I wish I could have 'Burton's Historical Collections'; it would be a
great treat to read those books."
"It would, indeed; they are very popular, and I should like to have
you read them. But how to get them is more than I can tell."
"Would you be willing that I should exchange Bunyan's works for them?"
"I did not suppose that you would part with 'Pilgrim's Progress' for
Burton's books or any others," was Mr. Franklin's reply.
"I should rather keep both; but I have read 'Pilgrim's Progress' until
I know it by heart, so that I would be willing to part with it for
Burton's books, if I can get them in no other way."
"Well, you can see what you can do. I am willing to do 'most any thing
to keep you in good books, for they are good companions. I know of no
better ones, from all I have heard and read about them, than 'Burton's
"Perhaps I can sell Bunyan's books for enough to buy Burton's,"
suggested Benjamin. Doubtless he had canvassed the matter, and knew of
some opportunity for a trade like that.
"Well, you may do that, if you can; I have no objection. I hope you
The result was that Benjamin sold the works of Bunyan, and bought
Burton's books in forty small volumes, quite a little library for that
day. He was never happier than when he became the owner of "Burton's
Historical Collections," famous in England and America, and
extensively sold, not only by book-sellers, but also by pedlars. They
contained fact, fiction, history, biography, travels, adventures,
natural history, and an account of many marvels, curiosities, and
wonders, in a series of "twelve-penny books."
Doctor Johnson referred to these books in one of his letters: "There
is in the world a set of books which used to be sold by the
book-sellers on the bridge, and which I must entreat you to procure
me. They are called Burton's books. The title of one is, 'Admirable
Curiosities, Rarities, and Wonders in England.' They seem very proper
to allure backward readers."
He might have added, also, forward readers; for they lured Benjamin,
who was, perhaps, the most thoughtful and ready reader of his age in
Boston In them he discovered a rich mine of thought and information,
and he delved there. He found even nuggets of gold to make his mind
richer and his heart gladder.
His father's books were chiefly theological; yet Benjamin's love of
reading caused him to read them. He possessed, also, a collection of
religious tracts, called the "Boyle Lectures," because Robert Boyle,
the youngest son of an Irish earl, a very pious man, originated them,
"designed to prove the truth of the Christian religion among
infidels." Benjamin read all of these, and his father was delighted to
have him read them at the time, thinking that the moral results would
be good. But the sequel will show that the effect of reading them was
bad. In order to refute the arguments of deists, it was necessary to
print them in the tracks. So Benjamin read both sides, and he thought,
in some respects, that the deists had the best argument.
Not long after Benjamin became a printer, a prominent citizen of
Boston, Matthew Adams, who had heard of his talents and love of
reading, met him in the printing office, and entered into conversation
"You are a great reader, I learn," he said.
"Yes, sir, I read considerable every day."
"Do you find all the books you want to read?"
"Not all. I should like to read some books I can't get."
"Perhaps you can find them in my library; you can come and take out of
it any book you would like."
"Thank you very much," answered Benjamin, exceedingly gratified by
this unexpected offer. "I shall take the first opportunity to call."
"Boys who like to read as well as you do, ought to have books enough,"
continued Mr. Adams. "I think you will find quite a number of
entertaining and useful ones. You will know when you examine for
"That I shall do very soon, and be very grateful for the privilege,"
Within a few days, the printer-boy paid Mr. Adams a visit. The latter
gave him a cordial welcome, causing him to feel at ease and enjoy his
call. He examined the library to his heart's content, and found many
books therein he desired to read.
"Come any time: take out any and all the books you please, and keep
them till you have done with them," was Mr. Adams' generous offer. He
had great interest in the boy, and wanted to assist him; and Benjamin
fully appreciated his interest and kindness, and paid the library many
visits. As long as he lived he never forgot the generous aid of this
man, of whom he wrote in his "Autobiography":
"After some time, a merchant, an ingenious, sensible man, Mr. Matthew
Adams, who had a pretty collection of books, frequented our printing
office, took notice of me, and invited me to see his library, and very
kindly proposed to lend me such books as I chose to read."
The printing office was frequented by book-sellers' apprentices, whose
employers wanted jobs of printing done. Benjamin made their
acquaintance, and they invited him to call at their stores to examine
the books. There were several book-stores in Boston at that time,
although the number of books was very limited as compared with the
"I will lend you that book to-night," said one of these apprentices to
Benjamin, who was manifesting a deep interest in a certain volume.
"You can return it in the morning before customers come in."
"Very much obliged. I shall be glad to read it. I think I can read it
through before I go to bed, and I can leave it when I go to the office
in the morning."
"You won't have much time for sleep if you read that book through
before going to bed. But you are used to short naps, I expect."
"I can afford to have a short nap whenever I have the reading of such
a book as this," answered Benjamin. "I shall return it in just as good
a condition as it is now."
"The book is for sale, and we might have a customer for it to-morrow,
or I would let you have it longer. If you do not read it through
to-night, and we do not sell it to-morrow, you can take it again
to-morrow night. I frequently read a volume through, a little at a
time, before we have a chance to sell it."
This offer of the apprentice was very generous, and Benjamin suitably
expressed his appreciation of it.
"Your favor is so great that I shall feel myself under special
obligation to return the book in season for any customer to-morrow who
may want it. If I were in a book-store, as you are, I fear that my
love of reading would overcome my love of work. It would just suit me
to be in the company of so many books all the time."
"You could not have your evenings here for reading, as you do now. Our
busiest time is in the evening; so that I catch only fragments of time
to read--pretty small fragments, some days," said the apprentice.
"Well, it might be only an aggravation to live among so many books,
without time to read them," responded Benjamin. "I am content where I
am,--a printing office has some advantages over all other places for
Benjamin made the most of this new opportunity. Borrowing the first
book was followed by borrowing many of the apprentices at the
book-stores. All the stores were patronized by him, and many a night
was shortened at both ends, that he might devour a book. He fairly
gorged himself with book-knowledge.
The reader must not forget that books were very few in number at that
time, and it was long before a public library was known in the land.
In Boston there were many literary people, who had come hither from
England, and they had a limited supply of books. So that Boston was
then better supplied with books than any other part of the country,
though its supply was as nothing compared with the supply now.
Book-stores, instead of being supplied with thousands of volumes to
suit every taste in the reading world, offered only a meagre
collection of volumes, such as would be scarcely noticed now. There
were no large publishing houses, issuing a new book each week-day of
the year, as there are at the present time, manufacturing hundreds of
cords of them every year, and sending them all over the land. Neither
were there any libraries then, as we have before said. Now the Public
Library of Boston offers three or four hundred thousand volumes, free
to all the citizens, and that number is constantly increasing. With
the Athenaeum, and other large libraries for public use, Boston
offers a MILLION volumes, from which the poor printer-boy, and all
other boys, can make their choice. In almost every town, too, of two
thousand inhabitants, a public library is opened, where several
hundred or thousand volumes are found from which to select, while
private libraries of from one to thirty thousand volumes are counted
by the score. The trouble with boys now is, not how to get books to
read, but what they shall select from the vast number that load the
shelves of libraries and book-stores. Benjamin had no trouble about
selecting books; he took all he could get, and was not overburdened at
Another book that was of great benefit to Benjamin was an old English
grammar which he bought at a book-store. He said of it, in manhood:
"While I was intent on improving my language, I met with an English
grammar (I think it was Greenwood's), having at the end of it two
little sketches on the Arts of Rhetoric and Logic, the latter
finishing with a dispute on the Socratic method."
"What do you want of such a book as that?" inquired John Collins, when
he saw it in the printing office.
"To study, of course; I did not study grammar at school, and I want to
know something about it," was Benjamin's answer.
"I expect that some knowledge of it will not come amiss," said John.
"You mean to make the most of these things you can."
"I wanted the volume, too, for the chapters on Rhetoric and Logic at
the end," added Benjamin.
"Of what use are Rhetoric and Logic? Perhaps they may be of service to
you; they would not be to me." John spoke thus because he knew nothing
about them; he had never studied them.
"Every body ought to know something about them, even a printer," added
Benjamin. "They have already helped me to form a better opinion of the
style and value of some things I have read."
"Well, I can't get time to learn every thing. You seem to learn 'most
all there is to learn, with very little time. I wish I could, but I
can't, and so I won't try." John was always thus complimentary to
Benjamin. He gave him full credit for all his achievements.
"I mean to learn to speak and write the English language with
propriety," continued Benjamin, "and I do not know how it can be done
without a knowledge of grammar; do you?"
"I know nothing about it, any way whatever. I shall not begin now; am
too old. Can't teach old dogs new tricks." John's remark expressed his
real views of these things. Although he was a bookish fellow, he was
not inclined to go deep into literature or science.
Other books that Benjamin read were Locke's "Essay on the
Understanding"; "The Art of Thinking," by Messrs. de Port-Royal;
Sellers & Stumey's book on "Navigation," with many others of equal
Benjamin cultivated the habit of taking notes when he read, jotting
down notable facts and striking thoughts for future use. It is a
capital practice, and one that has been followed by nearly all
learners who have distinguished themselves in scholarship. He realized
the advantages of the method to such a degree that, in manhood, he
addressed the following letter from London to a bright girl in whose
education he was very much interested:
"CRAVEN STREET, May 16, 1760.
Reading with pen or pencil in hand fixes the attention, assists
method, strengthens purpose, and charges memory with its sacred trust.
A note-book for this purpose is the most convenient method of
preserving these treasures. Professor Atkinson, of the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, advises students thus:
"I send my good girl the books I mentioned to her last night. I beg
her to accept of them as a small mark of my esteem and friendship.
They are written in the familiar, easy manner for which the French
are so remarkable, and afford a good deal of philosophic and
practical knowledge, unembarrassed with the dry mathematics used by
more exact reasoners, but which is apt to discourage young
"I would advise you to read with a pen in your hand, and enter in a
little book short hints of what you find that is curious, or that
may be useful; for this will be the best method of imprinting such
particulars in your memory, where they will be ready, either for
practice on some future occasion, if they are matters of utility,
or, at least, to adorn and improve your conversation, if they are
rather points of curiosity; and, as many of the terms of science
are such as you can not have met with in your common reading, and
may therefore be unacquainted with, I think it would be well for
you to have a good dictionary at hand, to consult immediately when
you meet with a word you do not comprehend the precise meaning of.
"This may, at first, seem troublesome and interrupting; but it is a
trouble that will daily diminish, as you will daily find less and
less occasion for your dictionary, as you become more acquainted
with the terms; and, in the mean time, you will read with more
satisfaction, because with more understanding. When any point
occurs in which you would be glad to have further information than
your book affords you, I beg you would not in the least apprehend
that I should think it a trouble to receive and answer your
questions. It will be a pleasure, and no trouble. For though I may
not be able, out of my own little stock of knowledge, to afford you
what you require, I can easily direct you to the books where it may
most readily be found.
"Adieu, and believe me ever, my dear friend,
"Gather up the scraps and fragments of thought on whatever subject you
may be studying--for, of course, by a note-book I do not mean a mere
receptacle for odds and ends, a literary dust-bin--but acquire the
habit of gathering every thing, whenever and wherever you find it,
that belongs in your lines of study, and you will be surprised to see
how such fragments will arrange themselves into an orderly whole by
the very organizing power of your own thinking, acting in a definite
direction. This is a true process of self-education; but you see it is
no mechanical process of mere aggregation. It requires activity of
thought--but without that what is any reading but mere passive
amusement? And it requires method. I have myself a sort of literary
bookkeeping. I keep a day-book, and, at my leisure, I post my literary
accounts, bringing together in proper groups the fruits of much casual
The late President Garfield began this method when he began to study,
with a view to a liberal education, at about seventeen years of age.
He continued it as long as he lived. His notes and references,
including scrap-books, filled several volumes before his Congressional
career closed, on a great variety of subjects. A large number of
books, in addition to those in his own library, were made available in
this way. It was said that his notes were of great service to him in
Congress, in the discussion of almost any public question.