A Book of Words

Rudyard Kipling

The Uses of Reading

A. “When I heard thy words, my Father, I almost fell asleep through weariness.” B. “Had I foreseen that sleep, my Son, I would have put aside all else to have pleased thee alone.”

To the late Mr. Pearson’s House at Wellington College:
May 1912
YOU have done me the honour of asking me to read a paper to your society this evening. Before I begin, I may as well confess that this is the first time I have ever read a paper in school since I was a member of the Natural History Society at my old school, when, for reasons which I need not explain to you, I had to read a paper whether I liked it or not.

It is one thing to write and quite another thing to read. And that brings me directly to what I wanted to speak about—which is the use and value of a little reading.

There is, or there was, an idea that reading in itself is a virtuous and holy deed. I can’t quite agree with this, because it seems to me that the mere fact of a man’s being fond of reading proves nothing one way or the other. He may be constitutionally lazy; or he may be overstrained, and so take refuge in a book to rest himself. He may be full of curiosity and wonder about the life on which he is just entering; and for that reason may plunge into any and every book he can lay hands on, in order to get information about things that are puzzling him, or frightening him, or interesting him.

Now, I am a very long way from saying that literature ought to be a chief or a leading interest in most men’s lives, or even in the life of a nation. But a man who goes into life with no knowledge of the literature of his own country and without a certain acquaintance with the classics and the value of words, is as heavily handicapped as a man who takes up sports or games without knowing what has been done in these particular sports or games, before he came on the scene. He doesn’t know the records and so he can’t have any standards. I have a book at home that gives a summary with diagrams, of practically every attempt at perpetual-motion machines that have ever been invented for the last two hundred years. It was compiled for the purpose of saving inventors trouble; and the compiler says in his preface: “One of the grossest fallacies of the mind is that of taking for granted that ideas of mechanical construction, apparently the result of accident, must of necessity be quite original. The most doubtful originality is that which the inventor attributes to his ignorance of all previous plans coupled with his isolated position in life.”

There you have precisely the position of the man who has no knowledge of literature—ignorant that is, of all previous plans. Such a man is more likely than not to waste his own time and the patience of his friends—perhaps even to endanger the safety of the community—by inventing schemes for the conduct of his own, or his neighbours’ affairs, which have been tried, found wanting, and laid aside any time these thousand years; and the record of which—the diagram and specification, so to say, of which—he could turn to if he had only taken the trouble to read.

One of the hardest things to realise, specially for a young man, is that our forefathers were living men who really knew something, I would go further and say they knew a very great deal. Indeed, I should not be surprised if they knew quite as much as we do about the things that really concern men. What each generation forgets is that while the words which it uses to describe ideas are always changing, the ideas themselves do not change so quickly, nor are those ideas in any sense new.

If we pay no attention to words whatever, we may become like the isolated gentleman who invents a new perpetual-motion machine on old lines in ignorance of all previous plans, and then is surprised that it doesn’t work. If we confine our attention entirely to the slang of the day—that is to say, if we devote ourselves exclusively to modern literature—we get to think the world is progressing when it is only repeating itself. In both cases we are likely to be deceived, and what is more important, to deceive others. Therefore, it is advisable for us in our own interests, quite apart from considerations of personal amusement, to concern ourselves occasionally with a certain amount of our national literature drawn from all ages. I say from all ages, because it is only when one reads what men wrote long ago that one realises how absolutely modern the best of the old things are.

About fifteen hundred years ago some early Anglo-Saxon writer saw, or heard about (I imagine in those days men had generally seen what they wrote about) the ruins of an old Roman city half buried and going to pieces in the jungle somewhere in the south of England; with its walls split and falling; its roofs stripped of its tiles; its towers fallen, and all its, luxurious baths and heating arrangements open to the air. The man begins to wonder about the people who built all this magnificence and he says:

Earth’s grasp holdeth
The mighty workmen
Worn away; lorn away [geworen forloren]
In the grip of the grave.

Then he thinks of the strong man who commanded the place when it was first built—most likely it was a Roman prefect—and he describes him:

Gorgeous and gold-bright,
Gaudily jewelled,
Haughty and wine-hot,
Shining in armour.

And as the poem goes on, we can almost see the band of Anglo-Saxon hunters or raiders, who have scrambled through the bushes, and stand, picking the thorns out of their legs, in the presence of this great, mysterious dead city. There is one touch which is exactly what hot and dirty men would think, when they saw all the paraphernalia of the old Roman baths:

There stood courts of stone.
The steam hotly rushed,
With a wide eddy,
Between shut walls.
There were the baths
Hot to bathe in.
That was a boon indeed!

The whole thing is as modern as to-day’s evening paper—but with a freshness and a directness and a simplicity that isn’t common in modern work.

I’ll take another instance. About five hundred years ago, Chaucer wrote a poem on how a man ought to manage his life. The last verse of it—it is only three verses long—runs:

That thee is sent receive in buxomnesse [be thankful for what you get]
The wrestling of this world asketh a fall.
Here is no home—here is but wildernesse:
Forth pilgrime—forth beast from out thy stall!
Look up on high and thanke the God of all.
Weive thy lusts and let thy ghost thee lead [That means, keep yourself in hand and trust your spirit]
And truth shall thee deliver, it is no drede.

The whole thing absolutely covers the few facts in life that really matter.

A last instance. In the course of his wonderful career, Sir Walter Raleigh had occasion to write his opinion, as you may have to some day, on the value of forts for coast and harbour defence. Well, his practical experience showed him, what we forgot and only realised a few years ago, that mere forts on the land aren’t enough to maintain an effective defence or blockade, unless they are supported by ships. And he says so. But he doesn’t say it as you and I would. For some inscrutable reason Elizabethans, apparently, could not put pen to paper without producing uncommonly good prose. So he gives his reasons and his experiences thus: “In this age a valiant and judicious man-of-war will not fear to pass by the best appointed fort of Europe, with the help of a good tide and a leading gale of wind; no, though forty pieces of great artillery open their mouths against him, and threaten to tear him in pieces. It was not long since, that the Duke of Parma, besieging Antwerp and finding no possibility to master it otherwise than by famine, laid his cannon on the bank of the river so well to purpose that he thought it impossible for the least boat to pass. Yet the Hollanders and Zeelanders, not blown up by any wind of glory, but coming to find a good market for their butter and cheese—even the poor men attending their profit, when all things were extreme dear at Antwerp—passed in boats of ten or twelve tun, by the mouth of the duke’s cannon in despight of them, when a strong westerly wind and flood favoured them. As also with a contrary wind and ebbing tide they returned back again. So he was forced in the end to build his stockade overthwart the river, to his marvellous trouble and charge. It is true, that where a fort is so set that there is no passing along beside it, or that ships are driven to turn upon a bow-line towards it, wanting all help of wind and tide; there, and in such places, it is of great use and fearful. Otherwise not.”

Here I have given you three specimens of not exactly modern literature in three different keys; the first dealing with a concrete thing seen and brought home to a man’s mind; the second describing a man’s thoughts on the conduct of his own soul; and the third a practical man’s plans for dealing with an actual situation—a piece, that is, of pure intellect.

But it is very possible that when you come to read them, these three specimens may not appeal to you. No matter. That is just a question of temperament; and a man is no more to be blamed for not caring for certain forms of literature than he is for not thriving on certain forms of food.

But your choice is practically illimitable; for the literature of our England is strewn from end to end with a prodigality that almost frightens one—strewn with gems and jewels and glories and beauties fitted to every conceivable need that can arise in the course of any human being’s life. But we make very little use of them. That again is quite natural. If we could buy knowledge, prudence, forethought and all the elementary virtues out of sevenpenny editions of standard authors, we should long ago have become a race of unbearably perfect archangels. And we are still quite a little lower than the angels. None the less, it is possible that our reading, if so be we read wisely, may save us to a certain extent from some of the serious forms of trouble; or if we get into trouble, as we most certainly shall, may teach us how to come out of it decently.

Here is an instance, which has nothing to do directly with written words, that shows the extraordinary value of getting at another man’s experience and using it. I was talking some time ago with our greatest General and he told me that when he went out first to India as a subaltern of Artillery, about seventeen years old, he was posted to his father’s Command in Peshawur. A short time before that, his father had commanded a brigade in one of the big Frontier wars, which war, to put it gently, hadn’t been a success. The general in charge of those operations had occupied a town and had put his guns in one place, his forage and his provisions in another, and had tried to hold more ground than he could with the troops at his disposal. Then the country rose round him and there was a series of regrettable incidents. (That was a campaign which, I have always thought, helped to bring on the Indian Mutiny.) Well, you can imagine how the young subaltern, sitting at the bottom of his father’s table at Peshawur, must have heard the failure of the campaign discussed from every possible point of view by his father’s comrades who had taken part in it—majors and colonels of the old hooka-smoking times of the early ’50’s. And you can think of ’em throwing him a word here and there in the middle of their talk and saying: “Look here, youngster, if you’re ever caught in such and such a position, you do so-and-so”.

Then, years later, this young subaltern of Artillery became a general commanding an army and, by the luck of war, he found himself on the identical ground and in the identical city under practically the same conditions that he had heard discussed in his youth, by the men who had taken part in the old war. He said, telling me the tale: “It all came back to me. I put my guns and my forage and my rations where I could lay my hands on ’em; and I took very good care not to try and hold more ground than I had troops for; and I settled in quite comfortably. I sent a wire to the Indian Government telling them exactly how long I could hold out for—and—that was all there was to it.” Of course there was a lot more to it—there was his own genius—but you can see the tremendous advantage he had in having got his knowledge in his youth. True, it was hereditary knowledge—more sound, more adhesive than anything he was likely to have got out of a book.

But the main idea is in line with what I’ve been talking about.

If a man brings a good mind to what he reads he may become, as it were, the spiritual descendant to some extent of great men, and this link, this spiritual hereditary tie, may help to just kick the beam in the right direction at a vital crisis; or may keep him from drifting through the long slack times when, so to speak, we are only fielding and no balls are coming our way.

You know those curious half-waking dreams that one dreams, about one’s future—a sort of story without words of the things we mean to do later on? They shade off into a vision of a gloriously successful career in our chosen line with all the world at our feet, recognising at last what splendid fellows we were. Then we forgive all our enemies, after we’ve got our feet on their necks; take our seat either as a Viceroy or a legislator or a Field-Marshal or some insignificant trifle of that kind—and then we wake! Sometimes the dreams have a knack of coming true. A man does achieve something out of the ordinary; finds himself saddled with tremendous responsibilities and expected to play up to a new part. Well, that is the time that he should have provided himself with all the knowledge and strength that can be drawn from noble books, so that whatever has happened to him may not be overwhelming nor unexpected. And to do that, to keep his soul fit for all chances, a man should associate at certain times in his soul (there is no need to tell everyone about it) with the best, the most balanced, the largest, finest, and most honourable and capable minds of the past. It may be a snobbish way of putting it, but a man should know “the right people” in the great world of books, and they’ll help to show him what the world really means. Men will tell you that the days are over when one can suddenly be called to power and glory. Don’t you believe it! A chance may open suddenly in front of one at a minute’s notice. A man’s superior may die and leave him in temporary charge of a district half the size of France with ten million people in it. A flood, a storm, an outbreak of sickness may change a man’s position and outlook and responsibility between breakfast and lunch. One never knows one’s luck, but one ought always to be ready for it. I have seen men very little over twenty get one chance and take it. To give you an instance, I happened to be in Bloemfontein after a “regrettable incident” called Sanna’s Post—where we lost five or six hundred men and several guns in a little ambush. I met one of the survivors a few hours after the thing had happened. He had done very well in a losing game, and he had come out of it, looking exactly like a man after the last half of a really hectic footer game. His clothes were ripped to bits, but his temper was quite good. After he’d told his tale I said to him “What are we going to do about it?” He said: “Oh, I don’t know. ‘Thank Heaven we have within the land five hundred as good as they.’”

Then he went off to report himself, and see if he could get on to the column that was going out in support. But not half an hour before I met him, I’d seen an agitated gentleman flogging a horse along the veldt and he had told me that the “flower of the British Army had been destroyed”. Here were two men, under severe strain and excitement. One of them threw up a steadying quotation from the ancient, but quite modern, ballad of “Chevy Chase” and went on with his job. The other made bad worse by shouting what was nothing better than a newspaper, scare head-line; and, judging by the rate he was travelling, I don’t think he reported for duty that night.

And that brings me to what I fear you will find more than usually dull.

I have spoken already of the advisability of a man knowing something about the classics. I have no Greek. Mine stopped at a little Greek Testament on Monday morning by gaslight before breakfast, and I depend for the rest of my knowledge on Bohn’s cribs. But I got the ordinary allowance of Latin, ending with Virgil and Horace—specially Horace. I don’t pretend that I liked it, any more than I should have liked anything else that purported to be education, but looking back at it now, it strikes me as valuable. I believe in the importance of a man getting some classics ground into him in his youth even though, as far as his elders can see (but I don’t think one’s elders are quite the judges) there is no visible result. Men tell us that what we want nowadays is a modern and scientific education—something that will be of immediate use to a man in “the battle of life”. They say that you could teach a child of twelve in a couple of terms as much Latin as the average public schoolboy carries away at the end of seven years; and the rest of the time could be devoted to studying modern languages and science and the things that are of immediate use to him. I haven’t the least doubt you could. Any child of twelve could kodak any masterpiece of Greek sculpture in less time than the cleverest artist in the world could begin to get ready to draw it. Any bright-minded intelligent pride of a prep.-school could in two terms learn the twenty or thirty odds and ends of quotations, the half-remembered Latin tags, which represent what the bulk of us carry away from our schools. I know a man who did much better than this.

He was a wonderful Greek scholar and at school and at college he took every scholarship and gold medal that was in sight, and before he was twenty-five he was appointed lecturer to his own College. Then he called on one of the dons who was a bit of a philosopher as well as a scholar. The old man asked him a few polite questions. Then he said: “You know Plato of course”. My friend in a modest way said he thought he did. He had an idea at the back of his head that he knew Plato rather better than most men of his time. “Well,” said the old man, “what’s it all about?”

My friend scratched his head a little. Then it slowly dawned on him that he literally and absolutely did not know what Plato was all about. He knew pretty much everything else connected with the gentleman, but to put it roughly, what Plato was after, what Plato’s game was in the world, my friend did not know. Then he sat down and began to think what Plato was all about. He’s still thinking.

I have a notion that our intelligent child of twelve would be rather like my college friend without my friend’s willingness to go back and think. He would know his quotations probably more accurately than we do for a while; but I doubt if he would know what they were about. They would not be part of his system, incorporated into him in seven years. They would not come back to him unconsciously, and most certainly their spirit would not.

I attach a certain amount of importance to the spirit of a few old Latin tags and quotations. Some of them, not more than three lines long, give one the very essence of what a man ought to try to do. Others, equally short, let you understand once and for all, the things that a man should not do—under any circumstances. There are others—bits of odes from Horace, they happen to be in my case—that make one realise in later life as no other words in any other tongue can, the brotherhood of mankind in time of sorrow or affliction. But men say that one can get the same stuff in an easier way and in a living tongue. They say there is no sense in dragging men up and down through grammar and construe for years and years, when at the last, all they can produce (“produce” is a good word) is a translation that would make Virgil, Horace or Cicero turn in their graves. Here is my defence of this alleged wicked waste of time. The reason why one has to parse and construe and grind at the dead tongues in which certain ideas are expressed, is not for, the sake of what is called intellectual training—that may be given in other ways—but because only in that tongue is that idea expressed with absolute perfection. If it were not so the Odes of Horace would not have survived. (People aren’t in a conspiracy to keep things alive.) I grant you that the kind of translations one serves up at school are as bad and as bald as they can be. They are bound to be so, because one cannot re-express an idea that has been perfectly set forth. (Men tried to do this, by the way, in the revised version of the Bible. They failed.) Yet, by a painful and laborious acquaintance with the mechanism of that particular tongue; by being made to take it to pieces and put it together again, and by that means only; we can arrive at a state of mind in which, though we cannot re-express the idea in any adequate words, we can realise and feel and absorb the idea. To put it in this way. No one can play cricket like Ranji at his best. But to appreciate Ranji’s play; to pick up enough from it to try and improve your own with; you must have played cricket for more than two terms.

Our ancestors were not fools. They knew what we, I think, are in danger of forgetting—that the whole background of life, in law, civil administration, conduct of life, the terms of justice, the terms of science, the value of government, are the everlasting ramparts of Rome and Greece—the father and mother of civilisation. And for that reason, before they turned a man into life at large, they arranged that he should not merely pick up, but absorb into his system (through his hide if necessary) the fact that Greece and Rome were there. Later on, they knew, he would find out for himself how much and how important they were and they are, and that they still exist.

Some time ago I had the honour to meet a statesman who had been in charge of a great portion of the Empire. He was an old man, trained in the old school, and, talking about this very subject, he said something like this: “All I took away from school and college was the fact that there were once peoples who didn’t talk our tongue and who were very strong on sacrifice and ritual, particularly at meals, whose gods were different from ours and who had strict views on the disposal of the dead. Well, you know, all that is worth knowing if you ever have to govern India.”

I have never had to govern India, but I quite agree with him.

A certain knowledge of the classics is worth having, because it makes you realise that all the world is not like ourselves in all respects, and yet in matters that really touch the inside life of a man, neither the standards nor the game have changed.

I suppose I ought to apologise for the attitude I’ve taken. I certainly do apologise for taking so long to explain it. We will now revisit calmer scenes. Let me assure you for your comfort that Literature can’t be taught, unless a man really wants to know something about it. Pieces or periods can be set and studied with notes, but that, thank goodness, is the worst that can happen.

One can’t prescribe books, even the best books, to people unless one knows a good deal about each individual person. If a man is keen on reading, I think he ought to open his mind to some older man who knows him and his life, and to take his advice in the matter, and above all, to discuss with him the first books that interest him.

This idea applies only to what are called the standard authors—and—this is only my own theory. I don’t know how it would work with you—the Elizabethan dramatists. You mustn’t be afraid of fashions. The thing to remember is that all first-class stuff is as good and as new and as fresh now as in the day it was made.

But there are some things a man can’t discuss with anyone, and it isn’t right that he should. We have times and moods and tenses of black depression and despair and general mental discomfort which, for convenience sake, we call liver or sulks. But so far as my experience goes, that is just the time when a man is peculiarly accessible to the influence of a book, as he is to any other outside influence; and, moreover, that is just the time when he naturally and instinctively does not want anything of a mind-taxing soul-stirring nature. Then is the time to fall back on the books that , neither pretend to be nor are accepted as masterpieces, but books whose tone and temper soothe your trouble for the time being. A man who knows you and your life may be able to recommend such books. Ask him.

The thing to be careful of when you are in this mood is to come out of it as soon as it lifts, and not to continue dreaming over books because they suit that mood or because they minister to your own vanity. There have been a few great dreamers in the world who have achieved great things for the world; but for every dreamer whose dreams have been good, or at least not harmful, there are thousands who have been a hindrance to themselves, an expense to their families and a nuisance to mankind. Books used intemperately to excess become most dangerous drugs, and there is a type of book—modern I regret to say, as Mr. Pecksniff did not say about the Sirens—which is to be avoided when one’s mind is a little off colour. One reads in a newspaper occasionally of the bold youth of ten who goes off with a knife and sevenpence halfpenny in coppers, to become a demon chauffeur or to lariat Red-Indians or shoot cowboys, and is then brought into court, weeping, by a policeman. And the magistrate says it’s the sad result of reading—Deadwood Dick or The Terror of Bloody Gulch. It’s hard to realise that there is a mass of modern stuff which is practically no more than Deadwood Dick and the penny dreadful disguised and flavoured to modern taste. They fill the mind, they are meant to fill the mind, with a lot of vague and windy ideas that one can start off to do miracles or benefit one’s fellow-men (which is the fashion just now), without training or equipment of any kind except a desire to astonish the world and show one’s independence—exactly like the kid with the penknife and the stolen coppers. It is not probable that you’ll come much in the way of these books, but if you do, before you read them, watch the men who discuss ’em and recommend ’em to you. If they strike you as the kind of men you’d like to be with in a tight place, or to go to if you were in trouble, then read them. Otherwise, as Sir Walter Raleigh said—“Otherwise not”.

Most of you are going to enter what is called the life of action, in which you will discover that you will have to think harder, closer, and quicker than the bulk of men who take up what is so kindly called “the intellectual life”. Harder, because you will be thinking against men, not books; closer, because your thoughts will be translated, several times a day perhaps, into action that may affect the lives and interests of men; quicker, because, even if you don’t eventually make ghastly mistakes, you may have to alter your plans at a minute’s notice to meet a changed situation. Incidentally, you will have to express your thoughts, wants, and orders both in speech and writing with much more clearness than the average literary man, and under circumstances that will not exactly lend themselves to clear thinking or easy writing. It is almost worse for a C.O. not to have expressive written (not spoken) words at his command than not to have men. With luck you can always scratch a few men together out of the hospitals or the Army Service Corps; but if you send in a report that nobody can make head or tail of, because you haven’t the words to tell your case, you can lose a thousand men in half an hour. So you must get your words, and a working knowledge of the use of words. And words come out of literature—even if you make no other use of it.

Those of you who go into the Service will find out that, in spite of aeroplanes, you will have to guess, most of your time, at what is going on behind the next hill; and this is not only the whole business of war but of life. And those who have read the Green Curve, which is a splendid book, know that you will have to think what is in the mind of the man who is opposed to you. And you must do that in life as well as in the Service.

Well, half of Literature is placing fields that aren’t there, and the rest of it is recording how every conceivable kind of ball that can be bowled by the Fates or life or circumstances has, at one time or another, been bowled at some wretched or happy man; and how he has played it. Life is too short to hunt up the individual record in each case; but, over and above all the help we can get from our ordinary training, association with our betters, and our very limited experience, we can pick up from Literature a few general and fundamental ideas as to how the great game of life has been played by the best players.

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