Attention students! A short, scared defence of studies, and books

I picked up the Pelican Book of English Essays last week for a pound. Its first entry is ‘On Studies’ by Francis Bacon, which I’d never read, so I read that first. Two thoughts occurred: firstly, that I already knew bits and pieces of it as standalone quotes or aphorisms (“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested;” “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.”), and secondly that I was flabbergasted and disgusted that I had made it nearly to the end of a PhD without reading it.

It should, honestly, be given out to every postgraduate student (perhaps I mean every Humanities student) on the first day of their course. Or even better, they should be required to write a one-page response to it as part of their application.

“To spend too much time in studies is sloth;” he writes. “To use them too much for ornament, is affectation.” Does that bite? Yes it does. Do my studies descend into sloth, and rise, mostly, only as far as  ornamentation? Um, well, perhaps, you know, a bit.

In similar fashion, I found when I read Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘An Apology For Idlers’ (another famous essay I hadn’t read until now) the opinion that

Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life.

Which came as a bit of a shock. Because I’d always associated idling with books, in a good way. And which, in the manner of Bacon, I’d have to answer with Morrissey’s

There’s more to life than books, you know, but not much more

and hope that that does the job. Because otherwise I’d be faced with the fact that this new book I’ve bought essentially argues against two of the things that fill up a fair amount of my waking, non-sexually-oriented thoughts. (The third thing, the novel, has no leg to stand on in any case.)

Bacon’s essay is freely available online, so I make no apology for pasting it below. It should be read by all students. Read, and understood, and privately at least, answered.

Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability. Their chief use for delight, is in privateness and retiring; for ornament, is in discourse; and for ability, is in the judgment, and disposition of business. For expert men can execute, and perhaps judge of particulars, one by one; but the general counsels, and the plots and marshalling of affairs, come best, from those that are learned. To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humor of a scholar. They perfect nature, and are perfected by experience: for natural abilities are like natural plants, that need proyning, by study; and studies themselves, do give forth directions too much at large, except they be bounded in by experience. Crafty men contemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them; for they teach not their own use; but that is a wisdom without them, and above them, won by observation. Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments, and the meaner sort of books, else distilled books are like common distilled waters, flashy things. Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit: and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know, that he doth not. Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtile; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend. Abeunt studia in mores. Nay, there is no stand or impediment in the wit, but may be wrought out by fit studies; like as diseases of the body, may have appropriate exercises. Bowling is good for the stone and reins; shooting for the lungs and breast; gentle walking for the stomach; riding for the head; and the like. So if a man’s wit be wandering, let him study the mathematics; for in demonstrations, if his wit be called away never so little, he must begin again. If his wit be not apt to distinguish or find differences, let him study the Schoolmen; for they are cymini sectores. If he be not apt to beat over matters, and to call up one thing to prove and illustrate another, let him study 197 the lawyers’ cases. So every defect of the mind, may have a special receipt.


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