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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

On Reading

By Voltaire (1694–1778)

From the ‘Philosophical Dictionary’

THERE is this good in a large library, that it frightens the beholder! Two hundred thousand volumes are enough to discourage a man tempted to print a book. But unfortunately he very soon says to himself, “Most of those books are not read, and perhaps mine will be!” He compares himself to the drop of water that complained of being confounded and lost in the ocean; a génie took pity on it, and made an oyster swallow it. It became one of the finest pearls in the ocean, and in time the chief ornament of the great Mogul’s throne. Those who are mere compilers, imitators, commentators, pickers of phrases, critics by the week,—in short, those on whom no génie will take pity,—will forever remain the drop of water.

Our man, then, is working in his garret in hopes of becoming the pearl.

It is true that in that immense collection of books there are about one hundred and ninety-nine thousand that will never be read, at least never read through; but one may need to consult some of them once in his life. And it is a great advantage to the seeker to find without delay, under his hand, in the palace of kings, the volume and the page he is looking for. The library is one of the noblest of institutions. There has never been an expense more magnificent and more useful.

The public library of the French king is the finest in the world; less indeed as to number and rarity of volumes, than in the facility and politeness with which the librarians lend them to all the learned. That collection is unquestionably the most precious monument there is in France.

Let not that astonishing multitude of books daunt the student. Paris contains seven hundred thousand people; one cannot live with them all, and must make choice of three or four friends,—and we ought not to complain more of a superfluity of books than of men.

A man who wishes to know something of his own being, and who has no time to lose, is much puzzled. He feels that he ought at once to read Hobbes and Spinoza; Bayle, who has written against them; Leibnitz, who has opposed Bayle; Clarke, who has disputed the theories of Leibnitz; Malebranche, who differs with all of them; Locke, who is supposed to have confounded Malebranche; Stillingfleet, who thinks he has vanquished Locke; Cudworth, who sets himself up above all because no one can understand him! One would die of old age before he could go through a hundredth part of the metaphysical romance!