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Many ingenious readers complain that their memory is defective, and their studies unfruitful. This defect arises from their indulging the facile pleasures of perceptions, in preference to the laborious habit of forming them into ideas. Perceptions require only the sensibility of taste, and their pleasures are continuous, easy, and exquisite. Ideas are an art of combination, and an exertion of the reasoning powers. Ideas are therefore labours; and for those who will not labour, it is unjust to complain, if they come from the harvest with scarcely a sheaf in their hands. . . .
It is an observation of the elder Pliny . . . that there was no book so bad but which contained something good. To read every book would, however, be fatal to the interest of most readers; but it is not always necessary, in the pursuits of learning, to read every book entire. Of many books it is sufficient to seize the plan, and to examine some of their portions. Of the little supplement at the dose of a volume, few readers conceive the utility; but some of the most eminent writers in Europe have been great adepts in the art of index-reading. I, for my part, venerate the inventor of indexes. . . .
A reader is too often a prisoner attached to the triumphal car of an author of great celebrity; and when he ventures not to judge for himself, conceives, while he is reading the indifferent works of great authors, that the languor which he experiences arises from his own defective taste. But the best writers, when they are voluminous, have a great deal of mediocrity.
On the other side, readers must not imagine that all the pleasures of composition depend on the author; for there is something which a reader himself must bring to the book, that the book may please. There is a literary appetite which the author can no more impart, than the most skilful cook can give an appetency to the guests. When Cardinal Richelieu said to Godeau, that he did not understand his verses, the honest poet replied, that it was not his fault. It would indeed be very unreasonable, when a painter exhibits his pictures in public, to expect that he should provide spectacles for the use of the short-sighted. Every man must come prepared as well as he can. Simonides confessed himself incapable of deceiving stupid persons; and Balzac remarked of the girls of his village, that they were too silly to be duped by a man of wit. Dulness is impenetrable; and there are hours when the liveliest taste loses its sensibility. The temporary tone of the mind may be unfavourable to taste a work properly, and we have had many erroneous criticisms from great men, which may often be attributed to this circumstance. The mind communicates its infirm dispositions to the book, and an author has not only his own defects to account for, but also those of his reader. There is something in composition, like the game of shuttlecock, where, if the reader does not quickly rebound the feathered cork to the author, the game is destroyed, and the whole spirit of the work falls extinct. . . .