From the Archives: Orison Swett Marden

UPDATED: March 2, 2011
PUBLISHED: March 2, 2011

Carlyle has said that a collection of books is a university. What a pity that the thousands of ambitious, energetic men and women who missed their opportunities for an education at the school age, and feel crippled by their loss, fail to catch the significance of this, fail to realize the tremendous cumulative possibilities of that great life-improver, that admirable substitute for a college or university education – reading. Many of the world’s most eminent men acquired an excellent education mainly by reading. Franklin, the printer’s devil, by self-effort, self-discipline, self-schooling, educated himself so well that the extent of his knowledge surprised the haughty English lords and the incredulous French scientists and authors.

Lincoln, who, to use his own phrase, had possibly a year’s schooling “by littles,” is a conspicuous example of self-education through reading, even with very few books, amidst the most primitive conditions and with no inspiring associates.

Elihu Burritt, working all day in a blacksmith’s shop, had little opportunity for education, yet through his industry and love of reading and study he became one of the greatest linguists in the world, and won for himself the honorable sobriquet of “the learned blacksmith.” Speaking of Burritt’s profound learning, Edward Everett said, “It is enough to make one who has had good opportunities for education hang his head in shame.”

The trouble with many of those who lack early opportunities and many others who see no chance for a college course, and say they have no opportunity for self-improvement, is that if they can not set aside several years for schooling or college, they think it is of no use to try to educated themselves. They do not realize the wealth that exists in spare moments – what can be accomplished in them, the opportunities they offer for repairing the loss of a college education. Even ten or fifteen minutes spent each day in concentrating the mind in thinking, in reading with a purpose, will enlarge your mental capacity and add to your knowledge to an extent of which you have no conception. At the end of the year you will see the change in yourself.

I know a man who went to school only a few months during his life, but who is one of the best informed men I have ever met. The very consciousness that he lacked the advantages of an early education spurred him on to make up for the deficiency in other ways. By reading in his spare moments he has absorbed an amount of information that surprises people who know him. His knowledge on many subjects, such as history, astronomy, geology, political economy, psychology, is so great that most people take him for a college graduate.

It is really wonderful how much can be gained by improving odds and ends of time in keen, analytical observing, thinking, reading, studying. Think of the untold wealth locked up in the spare moments and long winter evenings of every life. It is possible to pick up an education in the odds and ends of time which most people throw away.

If those who have been deprived of a college education would only make up their minds to get a substitute for it, they would be amazed to see what even the evenings of a few weeks devoted conscientiously to the college studies would accomplish.

When a noted literary man was asked how he managed to accomplish so much with so little friction or apparent effort, he replied, “By organizing my time. To every hour its appointed task or duty, with no overlapping or infringements.”

There is a great deal of time wasted even in the busiest lives, which, if properly organized, might be used to advantage.

Many housewives who are so busy from morning to night that they really believe they have no time for reading books, magazines, or newspapers would be amazed to find how much they would have if they would more thoroughly systematize their work. Order is a great time saver, and we certainly ought to be able to so adjust our living plan that we can have a fair amount of time for self-improvement, for enlarging life. Yet many people think that their only opportunity for self-improvement depends upon the time left after everything else has been attended to.

What would a business man accomplish if he did not attend to important matters until he had time that was not needed for anything else? The good business man goes to his office in the morning and plunges right into the important work of the day. He knows perfectly well that if he attends to all the outside matters, all the details and little things that come up, sees everybody that wants to see him, and answers all the questions people want to ask, that it will be time to close his office before he gets to his main business.

Most of us manage somehow to find time for the things we love. If one is hungry for knowledge, if one yearns for self-improvement, if one has a taste for reading, he will make the opportunity to satisfy his desires.

Think of young Abe Lincoln being so busy that he could not find time to think, to read, to improve his mind. It was said by one who early knew him that “he lost not time at home; when he was not at work he was at his books; and he carried his books to work that he might read when released from labor.”

Vice-President Wilson, when a boy, was bound out on a farm and obliged to work from daylight to dark, but he found time to educate himself. Before he was twenty-one he had read a thousand volumes.

Where the heart is, there is the treasure. Where the ambition is, there is time.

It takes not only resolution but determination to set aside unessentials for essentials, things pleasant and agreeable to-day for the things that will prove best for us in the end. There is always temptation to sacrifice future good for present pleasure; to put off reading to a more convenient season, while we enjoy idle amusement or waste the time in gossip or frivolous conversation.

The greatest things of the world have been done by those who systematized their work, organized their time. Men who have left their mark on the world have appreciated the preciousness time, regarding it as the great quarry out of which they have carved reputations or fortunes, hewn instruments with which to continue other works of progress and civilization.

The faithfulness with which you improved every spare moment, every little chance to develop yourself to your highest possible power, is an indication of the sort of man or woman you will be, the sort of man or woman you are; it is an evidence of the ability that wins.

Lincoln used to say that there was a good education in the newspapers. He applied for the position of postmaster in New Salem because he was too poor to subscribe for papers, and he knew that he would read those which came through the post-office for others, as the country was sparsely settled and many people did not call for their mail more than once or twice a week. He thought he was one of the most fortunate persons in the world to have access to this, to him a rich mine of knowledge.

What would he have thought of the marvelous wealth of reading open to the poorest in the land to-day? Never before was a practical substitute for college education at home made so cheap, so easy, and so attractive. Knowledge of all kinds is placed before us in a most attractive and interesting manner. The best of the literature of the world is found to-day in thousands of American homes where fifty years ago it could only have been obtained by the rich.

What a shame it is that under such conditions as these an American should grow up ignorant, should be uneducated in the midst of such marvelous opportunities for self-improvement! Indeed, most of the best literature in every line to-day appears in the current periodicals, in the form of short articles. Many of our greatest writers spend a vast amount of time in the drudgery of travel and investigation in gathering material for these articles, and the magazine publishers pay thousands of dollars for what a reader can get for ten or fifteen cents. Thus the reader often gets for a trifle in periodicals or books the results of months and often years of hard work and investigation of our greatest writers. There is a wealth within the reach of the poorest mechanic and day-laborer in this country that kings in olden times could not possess, and that is the wealth of a well-read, cultured mind. In this newspaper age, this age of cheap books and periodicals, there is no excuse for ignorance, for a coarse, untrained mind. To-day no one is so handicapped if he has health and the use of his faculties, that he can not possess himself of wealth that will enrich his whole life, and enable him to converse and mingle with the most cultured people. No one is so poor but that it is possible for him to lay hold of that which will broaden his mind, which will inform and improve him, and lift him out of the brute stage of existence into their godlike realm of knowledge.

The reading habit, if not abused, will not only give you infinite pleasure and profit, but it will make you a larger, fuller, better informed, more interesting man, a better worker.

An English tanner noted for the high quality of his leather said that he never could have produced such a good article had he not read Carlyle!

There are numerous examples of men whose careers and characters have been completely changed by the reading of inspiring books – sometimes a single volume.

After reading Homer, one writer says that on going out into the street men seemed to be ten feet high. This suggestion of superiority in reading the work of this great writer made a powerful impression upon his mind. It is a great thing to read books which inspire high ideals and grand purposes during the formative years.

How heroic we feel after reading the inspiring life story of some one who has achieved great things under difficulties! We feel almost as if we were the hero ourselves for the time being, just as we do sometimes after seeing some great character in a stirring play. For the moment we assume the personality which has stirred our sympathy and aroused our admiration. We feel that we actually have the qualities which we admire.