In 1843, a young man wrote a letter to Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish essayist, historian and teacher, asking for advice about what to read to improve himself.
This is Carlyle’s reply. 150+ years later, it’s still excellent advice.
Chelsea, March, 1843
Some time ago your letter was delivered to me; I take literally the first free halfhour I have had since to write you a word of answer.
It would give me true satisfaction could any advice of mine contribute to forward you in your honourable course of self-improvement, but a long experience has taught me that advice can profit but little; that there is a good reason why advice is so seldom followed; this reason, namely, that it so seldom, and can almost never be, rightly given. No man knows the state of another; it is always to some more or less imaginary man that the wisest and most honest adviser is speaking.
As to the books which you — whom I know so little of — should read, there is hardly anything definite that can be said. For one thing, you may be strenuously advised to keep reading. Any good book, any book that is wiser than yourself, will teach you something — a great many things indirectly or directly, if your mind be open to learn.
This old counsel of Johnson’s is also good, and universally applicable: “Read the book you do honestly feel a curiosity to read.” The very wish and curiosity indicate that you, then and there, are the person likely to get good of it. “Our wishes are presentiments of our capabilities.” That is a noble saying, of deep encouragement to all true men; applicable to our wishes and efforts in regard to reading as to other things.
Among all the objects that look wonderful or beautiful to you, follow with fresh hope the one which looks wonderfullest, beautifullest . You will gradually find, by various trials (which trials see that you make honest, manful ones, not silly, short, fitful ones), what is for you the wonderfullest, beautifullest — what is your true element and province, and be able to profit by that. True desire, the monition of nature, is much to be attended to.
But here, also, you are to discriminate carefully between the true desire and false. The medical man tells us we should eat what we truly have an appetite for; but what we only falsely have an appetite for we should resolutely avoid. It is very true; and flimsy, desultory readers, who fly from foolish book to foolish book, and get good of none, and mischief of all — are not these as foolish, unhealthy eaters, who mistake their superficial false desire after spiceries and confectioneries for their real appetite, of which even they are not destitute, though it lies far deeper, far quieter, after solid nutritive food? With these illustrations, I will recommend Johnson’s advice to you.
Another thing, and only one other, I will say. All books are properly the record of the history of past men — what thoughts past men have had in them — what actions past men did: the summary of all books whatsoever is there. It is on this ground that the class of books specifically named History can be safely recommended as the basis of all study of books — the preliminary to all right and full understanding of anything we can expect to find in books.
Past History, and especially the past history of one’s own native country, everybody may be advised to begin with that . Let him study that faithfully; innumerable inquiries will branch out from it; he has a broad, beaten highway, from which all the country is more or less visible; there travelling, let him choose where he will dwell.
Neither let mistakes and wrong directions — of which every man, in his studies and elsewhere, falls into many — discourage you. There is precious instruction to be got by finding that we are wrong. Let a man try faithfully, manfully, to be right; he will grow daily more and more right. It is, at bottom, the condition on which all men have to cultivate themselves. Our very walking is an incessant falling — a falling and a catching of ourselves before we come actually to the pavement! It is emblematic of all things a man does.
In conclusion, I will remind you that it is not by books alone, or books chiefly, that a man becomes in all points a man. Study to do faithfully whatsoever thing in your actual situation, then and now, you find either expressly or tacitly to your charge – that is your post; stand in it like a true soldier. Silently devour the many chagrins of it, as all human situations have many; and see you aim not to quit it without doing all that it, at least, required of you.
A man perfects himself by work much more than by reading. They are a growing kind of men that can wisely combine the two things — wisely, valiantly, can do what is laid to their hand in their present sphere, and prepare themselves withal for doing other wider things, if such lie before them.
With many good wishes and encouragements,
I remain yours sincerely,
Are you trying to improve yourself by working or by reading alone? How much faster might you progress if you did both?
(Hat tip: thanks to the Art of Manliness for bringing my attention to this wonderful letter.)