Watts’ early rules to circumscribe pride, promote humility, and encourage inquiry

I’m reading Isaac Watts’ The Improvement of the Mind. His first chapter is titled ‘General Rules for the Improvement of Knowledge.’ He grounds improvement of the mind first in sober self-reflection. He urges his readers to first consider how much misery could have been avoided in their lives had they properly exercised their rationality and made sound judgments. The beginning of understanding is to face the chastening reality that some things could have been better for me had I paid closer attention. This indeed is sobering, but sometimes truth stings. He does not propose to solve the philosophical problem of the reality of evil or why some people suffer unjustly. This rule is only a few lines. He simply calls upon his readers to face facts that some bad things could have been avoided with sharper analytical skills, wider awareness, keener perception, and precise reasoning. In popular parlance, life is hard, but it’s harder when you’re stupid. Like I said, sometime truth stings. He’s not wrong, you know. His next rule is to consider the “weaknesses, frailties, and mistakes of human nature.” In other words, if life is hard, and if it’s harder when you’re stupid, think about much worse it is when everyone else is also stupid. Seriously, ponder this truth and consider how we have collectively made it much worse for ourselves. Watts does not offer a balm for the stupid, as if taking solace in a community of fools is much solace at all. Rather, he grounds any effort at improvement in a theological and ontological frame. We’d best begin at the reality of the fall. Not just you, it’s me, too. And not just me, but you also. Me, and you, and us. I should say that this book follows his Logick, albeit by many years, and that book is really the beginning point for this one. But I digress. Begin with a sober analysis of the fall.

Now that the ground is tilled, we are ready for the third rule, which is to “acquaint yourself with your own ignorance.” And what is coming here in a few lines is the paragraph that struck me. Watt’s begins with what is a familiar refrain: We don’t know what we don’t know. And this is the upshot of Watts’ book: to help us think through how to improve. No small wonder then that he begins by forcefully calling readers to grapple with ignorances, deficiencies, blind spots, prejudices, and errors. If you’re not willing to do that, stop kidding yourself with any attempt to improve and go back to whatever it is you were doing fifteen minutes ago. Now, he presents these rules in brief fashion, but I do not read him as presenting them casually or expecting you to tick them off like filling up the cart at the grocery store.

So then, under this heading he has some sub-points. The first is to urge readers to rehearse the wide, wide range of human inquiry: behold the breadth of the disciplines! How vast and wide! Next, consider the wide variety of questions and problems and intellectual real estate within the one area in which you are most expert. Watts is inching us along toward greater self-awareness. From the big picture of all the disciplines of learning, he moves us to our speciality, our focus, our majors, our own little area of training and expertise. This, of all branches of learning, ought to be where we are most familiar, and out of that familiarity we are perhaps in the best position to take stock of our limitations. His third sub-point presses this a bit further, taking an example from geometry.

“Spend a thoughts sometimes on the puzzling Enquiries concerning Vacuums and Atoms, the Doctrine of Infinites, Indivisibles and Incommensurables in Geometry, wherein there appear some insolvable Diffi-[p. 9] culties: Do this on Purpose to give you a more sensible Impression of the Poverty of your Understanding, and the Imperfection of your Knowledge. This will teach you what a vain Thing it is to fancy that you know all Things, and will instruct you to think modestly of your present Attainments, when every Dust of the Earth, and every Inch of empty Space, surmounts your Understanding, and tramples over your Presumption.”

I. Watts, The Improvement of the Mind… 4th London edition, 1761, pp. 8-9.

Skip the bosh and twaddle

Below T. R. advises son Kermit re. his reading strategy. I don’t know three things about Teddy Roosevelt, but this quote is smart and crisp and so it makes the cut for inclusion in my higgledy-piggledy assortment of bookish quotes.

I quite agree with you about Tom Pinch. He is a despicable kind of character; just the kind of character Dickens liked, because he had himself a thick streak of maudlin sentimentality of the kind that, as somebody phrased it, “made him wallow naked in the pathetic.” It always interests me about Dickens to think how much first-class work he did and how almost all of it was mixed up with every kind of cheap, second-rate matter. I am very fond of him. There are innumerable characters that he has created which symbolize vices, virtues, follies, and the like almost as well as the characters in Bunyan; and therefore I think the wise thing to do is simply to skip the bosh and twaddle and vulgarity and untruth, and get the benefit out of the rest. Of course one fundamental difference between Thackeray and Dickens is that Thackeray was a gentleman and Dickens was not. But a man might do some mighty good work and not be a gentleman in any sense.

From Letters to His Children, 1919, pages 218-219.

And I recently learned of this fine illustration from Robert William Buss. Sometimes dead Campbellites pass through my mind in a similar fashion:

Image: https://beasley.sdsu.edu/British%20Studies.htm

“I believe Mr. Schuster is right in this,…”

“… but I also believe that this cannot be accomplished without a complete revolution of our methods of education.”

[pause…Mr. Schuster is Lincoln Schuster who “wrote a paper for the Publisher’s Weekly not long ago” in which he opined that college graduates who do not know how to read are an indictment first of the universities that minted them and back of that the grammar schools that nursed them. Somehow along the way these children learned or observed or absorbed or intuited–who knows really– that ‘distinterested reading’ was frowned upon in favor of ‘burning the midnight oil and the drudgery of homework.’]

“I hold that all the discipline of a child should be confined to the primary grades and throughout the primary grades this discipline should be thorough. As things are, our discipline is lax in the primary grades and it begins to tighten up in the secondary schools. It is carried to an absurdity when adults, as boys and girls of college age actually are, are still treated as children, who must learn conjugations and declensions for “discipline of the mind” instead of being taught languages as the media of an ever-living literature and who must answer elaborate and irrelevant questionnaires on points of pedantic Shakespearean scholarship before reading Hamlet or Antony and Cleopatra for pleasure as poetry and drama.

“For myself I must confess that, culturally, I got very little out of high school and almost nothing out of college; but out of the books I read in the [p. 34] public library when I was in high school and in the college library when I was in university I got a great deal. I have often said I quit college before taking my degree because I found that college was interfering too much with my education. That may sound facetious, but it is the solemn truth. Cut-and-dried class routine and ‘disciplinary’ homework cut seriously into the time I was able to put in at the library to satisfy my consuming desire for an education, my curiosity about life, men and emotions, the things of the heart and intellect that are expressed in the art of the written word.”

–Burton Rascoe, The Joys of Reading, Life’s Greatest Pleasure. New York: Nelson Doubleday, Inc. 1937, pages 33-34.


Interesting to hear this critique from 1937. Specifically: that he regarded college students as adults, that discipline was too lax, and that college interfered with his education. Sometimes it strikes me, based on observations alone, that college students are often somewhere between two years and fifteen minutes removed from middle school. Care to quibble? I present YikYak as exhibit A, then rest my case. Yes, it is extreme, but only as a variation of degree–not kind–from any number of other social media plagues. It is a symptom of larger problems the brightest of us probably will not more fully know about or understand for years to come. Would that all we had to contend with were the banalities of the disciplinary homework Burton Rascoe bemoaned.

Before any get in a twist, yes I understand a good many college students are just as eager and curious about the “things of the heart and intellect” as Burton Rascoe was. And a good many who teach engage their students as adults, not children, who in turn repay the investment with genuine development. Yes, yes, yes. I understand. All that aside, what drew me to this passage is Rascoe’s point that where more formal educational structures sometimes failed to nurture his spirited free inquiry, the library did not. Structures and conventions and pedagogies that result in “elaborate and irrelevant questionnaires” about this-that-and-the-other is one thing if the library has your back. Thank goodness for the librarians in Burton Rascoe’s life who ensured a good supply of reading material was readily available to him.

What would become of him if there was no library as a recourse to the dead-end he saw in the classroom?

We’d do well to spend more time in purposeful, recreational, curiosity-driven reading. We’d do well to lay off the social media, quit Yakking, and start reading. All well and good. But we librarians must, must, ensure that the resources necessary for spirited free inquiry are widely and freely and easily available. The time will come, I’m afraid, when that will be an uphill battle.

More from Rascoe in future posts.

Thirty years on: some thoughts on my bibliophilia

This follows a post of a few days ago containing Burton Rascoe’s autobiographical reflection on the purchase, with his own earnings, of his first book.

I was fifteen years old and at last persuaded my mother to let me drive into Nashville to check out the antique store on 8th Avenue, South which advertised itself as having a large selection of used books. I either saw the ads in the paper or the phone book. While I forget the name of the bookstore, I remember the anticipation since I also liked antique stores. Two for one. With few thousand books inside an antique store, surely something would catch my eye. I had some money, stashed from a summer of mowing grass for Randy Stamps, but I did not yet have a license to drive. My persistence probably wore her thin, but she relented I think after I was able to convince her that traffic on I-65 would be lightest on a Saturday morning. It was. Which worked out well since that may have been the first time I navigated our Buick on the interstate. The weather in Nashville, Tennessee on November 30, 1991 was on the cool side, not cold, but overcast. I remember the grey sky.

The books were way in the back left corner, in three adjoining rooms. The largest had shelving probably nine feet high on the outside wall of the store, which was an early 20th c. brick store front. Tile floor, high tin-covered ceilings, lots of antiques. The two smaller rooms were adjuncts to the large one, probably all offices in an earlier day. They had lower ceilings within easy reach and both were lined with shelving packed full, most of them double-stacked. The big room had a stool and a small step-ladder available on a self-serve basis to access the upper shelves. Books in every conceivable genre and the shelves were well-labelled. Every so often there was handwritten 3×5 card thumb-tacked to the front of a shelf reminding you that prices are in the inside front end page, in pencil, non-negotiable. And reshelve where you found it, please.

Antique stores I knew. Bookstores I knew. But this was the first used-book store I’d seen up close and in-person. The bookstore I knew best was Jan’s Hallmark. It was two doors down from H. G. Hill’s grocery store in Hendersonville, Tennessee, next to Ace Hardware. They sold new books and could order almost anything. They carried lots of magazines, Popular Science, Hot Rod, Car and Driver, Field and Stream. We went to church with the owners. I bought Mad Magazines there. Each Christmas I bought a Louis L’Amor for Grandad there. If I think for minute I can almost always remember the way the place smelled. Like paper. Not musty, but it was a distinct smell and it was certainly paper. Gift wrapping, greeting cards, magazines, and paperbacks.

The antique store on 8th Avenue smelled like cigarettes and varnish. Three rooms smelled like cigarettes, varnish, and old musty paper. When you first walked in, on a dark buffet not six feet from the door, sat a fine set of Scott’s Bible in six volumes. I already loved it. I eyed that set every time I went in thereafter (which was often after I arrived on the DLC campus three years later). $175 for the set. I never in my life saw such a price tag on a book, much less a fine matched set circa about 1810. It took be aback. I later acquired a set of Scott’s Bible, and each time I see it I remember that distinct impression I had then.

I remember the layout of the big book room and one of the smaller rooms. The smaller room held the history sections: military history, political histories, all kinds of world and American histories, you name it. State and local histories, too. Inside, right in the middle, was a small wooden desk such as one would find in a child’s room. Not large. Plain with three or so drawers on each side of the knee-hole. Painted green? I think. On it was a single desk lamp, which helped because otherwise there was no light in the drop ceiling. The larger room, about in the middle of the long exterior wall, just below waist-height, held the religious section. Those would have been my interests in November 1991. I probably also looked for anything about old cars or motorcycles. Floyd Clymer paperbacks? Hot Rod issues? I don’t think he had anything like that, or if he did it was unremarkable or otherwise did not add to what I already owned. Any memory of the other small room is now lost. The magazines, such as they were, were around the corner past the toilet. What antique store doesn’t have more Life magazines than anyone wants? And National Geographics. I do remember those. Probably a literal ton of them.

This is enough to say it made an impression, quite an impression. But it is less than accurate to say this Saturday morning experience birthed my bibliophilia. It did not, for in fact I never was not a book-lover. I never was not a reader. I was read to as a child, and the presence of my ‘own’ books in my ‘own’ space is as much a feature of my earliest memories as anything else. Neither did this Saturday morning experience birth an interest in antiquarian books. By age fifteen I even owned some old books. Each was a hand-me-down either from my parents or grandparents. I also bought books. Always at school book fairs. Always. With my own money, and usually also my parents or grandparents would get me a book or two as well.

No, bibliophilia did not leap onto the scene. It neither crashed down on me nor flashed up at me. There was no epiphany.

Rather, it crept up on me in such a normal non-descript way that on November 30, 1991, standing at the counter with Russell Conwell in one hand and a ten-dollar bill in the other felt so natural that there was nothing to do but go right ahead.

It was no epiphany, but it was eureka, and in hindsight I can say surely it was some kind of rubicon. I think every bibliophile can tell a story about how they crossed their line. It is a liminal experience all right to fork out your own hard-earned dough for a book someone else doesn’t want, doesn’t know what they have, or at least is willing to sell if price is right. Every bibliophilus antiquarius can take you back to a moment, perhaps the moment of acquisition for book zero, their first old book.

I was aware of James A. Garfield. His tragic assassination, and that so early in his administration, gained for him a place in my ten-year-old consciousness. (I at one point had all the presidents memorized, in order from Washington to Reagan, thanks of course–who is surprised?– to a fascinating book in the Hendersonville Elementary School library about the US presidents). I was also aware of Garfield because my great-grandfather attended Hiram College, the same school which Garfield attended, taught at and served only a few years earlier. My great-grandfather’s youngest brother was named James Abram Garfield Ice. Family lore has it that sometime about 1908 he rode into town and for all we know kept right on riding. Nary hide nor hair was ever heard of him since. His place in the genealogy my grandmother compiled has a date of birth and question mark. That also made an impression. So I was aware of James Abram Garfield.

When I saw Russell Conwell’s The Life, Speeches, and Public Services of James A. Garfield, Twentieth President of the United States. Including an account of his assassination, lingering pain, death, and burial (Portland, Maine: George Stinson and Company, 1881), bound in publisher’s brown cloth, modestly shelf-worn but complete, with illustrations intact, I knew. This is it. This is the one. I will buy this one. Every bibliophile knows the feeling.

I was staring down the shelves of the history section in the small room. The desk lamp helped, but it was slow going in the corners where it was darkest. And slow going because they were double-shelved. It was gloriously slow-going. And they were gloriously double-shelved. Not a chore in the least. Ooo, look at that! And wow, that’s sounds good! Truthfully about all of lot of it was over my fifteen-year-old head. I was not prepared at that age to recognize scholarship. Nor equipped to pick out the scholarship from so much rubbish that often fills used-book stores. But it was all new, and all used, and some of it old and that alone was exciting.

So there in the small room about a shelf or two up from the floor, near the corner but not in it, I saw a book older than many of the others. That much I could tell. My eye even at that age was trained by experience in the Reynoldburg genizah to notice an old book. I snapped it up, looked it over once quickly then again slowly. I knew this was it. I kept browsing so long as my mother’s patience allowed, but Conwell was either right at hand or right in my hand. Nevermind we were the only souls in the place, save for the nice lady at the counter. But should a contender enter the ring, they would not leave with the book I found!

I felt something like a mixture of conquest, or conclusively solving a mystery and happening upon a treasure, and a solid dose of sheer dumb luck. Also relief. Probably greed, too. In my mind I built up this experience for a few weeks, if not months, I don’t remember. Going to Nashville was sort of a big deal. It’s not like we had to plot the journey or anything, it is just that we didn’t often go unless we needed something we couldn’t get close by. So it would have been a big let-down to drive all the way into to 8th Avenue, South only go home empty-handed. But Russell Conwell was no consolation prize. It was a genuine find, and I was proud of it.

I finished casing the joint and decided I could do no better that this choice item. My mother also said, “I’m leaving now and unless you want to walk home, you are too.”

It cost ten dollars. $10.78 with tax. I paid the nice lady at the counter, she put Conwell in a paper bag and I drove us home.

Every library I had ever seen, been in, or heard of stamped their claim to ownership all over their books. My mother wrote her name in all of the books she had in her classroom. Every book I received as a gift, I think, came with a gift inscription in it. All of the books at 5775 Refugee Road bore at minimum one of two names, sometimes both: K. C. Ice or M. C. Ice. So I thought everyone put their names in their books. Surely it was good and right although I can’t conceive of why I thought I needed to do such a thing, other than sheer imitation. I had no siblings from which I need to mark my literary territory. I was not about to lend my books, so if they do not leave home there is no reason to indicate a return address.

I wrote my full name, the date, and the price, followed by a decisively-written #1 as a capstone to my accomplishment. Gosh I was proud of it. I guess I thought at time the commencement of a personal library deserved at very least the kind of formality such as obtained for communications to and from the state, or from one’s mother when you were really in trouble. That is the only time I heard my full name, so I learned to associate it with important occasions. So why not emblazon your name on your book? I did. It felt so good. Pomp and circumstance for a party of one please.

If you have not already picked up on this irony, let me spell it out forthrightly just here. By November 1991 I had a shelf full of books. Shelves, plural, actually. In a very real way, not a thing began on 30 November 1991. Not one thing. Russell Conwell was just another in a long line of books I bought.

Yet up to that point it was the oldest, and for all the reasons I describe above, it was unique.

I guess that is why I denominated this one as number one.

With thirty years behind me, here are some thoughts.

–I knew then that I wanted to learn and understand and that there were some things available in old books that I might not get otherwise. And that if I was to learn and understand I could do such a thing for myself and not rely only on what I have heard or been told. In this I am indebted to three or four high school teachers. By my sophomore year of high school I had already studied under three of them; the fourth would become my English teacher the following year. The larger context surrounding 30 November 1991 was the beginning of the life of my mind, at least in a self-conscious way. I was curious and old books if they do anything feed and breed curiosity. It is still the same now.

–I think that is the best way to explain why this book is ‘Number One.’ Number one makes no sense aside from numbers two and three…all the way to five thousand or ten thousand, or more. I know without any doubt that I had then a clear sense that this was the beginning of a library. I had purpose and intent. I had no idea what books would constitute such a library and no idea how I would pay for them. But I had then every intention of building a personal library along whatever lines interested me, and all I needed to do was sleuth enough to locate them and work enough to buy them. These books would help me learn, they would become teachers and tutors. I did not have the language then to think of them as conversation partners, but they would become that, too. Some bibliophiles acquire or collect books only or primarily as objects. I understand, and sympathize, and appreciate such interests. They are not far from my mind. But I have always acquired books because of what they can teach me. But you build a library–you keep them–because they can teach and re-teach. Libraries evolve, sure, but they also are remarkably stable, on the whole. The stability and kept-ness of the books is what I’m after here. I knew then I wanted to build a library to retain, to go back to over and over again. By and large, I have done that. Tastes changes, interests change. You learn new things and collect in different areas. It should change. Things come and go. Sure. But even through all the change and in all of the stability, private libraries reflect their librarians.

–I believed then that the past was worth knowing about. I believed then that the past mattered. I did not have any conceptual framework in place to distinguish between the events of the knowable past with constructed history. I had no consciousness of history as a discipline and I naively conflated history with the past. But I knew old books were once new books. I knew in some basic sense that old books contained the thoughts of their day, and thereby contained a means of access to an earlier time. I knew they were a snapshot of their time. I knew then that the object itself (aesthetics aside) could hold information about the past, and information from the past. Family Bibles for example, contain both the words of scripture, sometimes in beautiful form and blank pages upon which my ancestors chronicled their vital statistics. They also in rare instances reflected self-consciously by means of notations, underlines, parenthetical comments, and sometimes an outright burst of poetic or prosaic reflection. The books said something sure enough; and the containers themselves conveyed information. Same now as then. I’m still learning what the books might teach.

–The upshot here is that by 1991 I became interested in the totality of the printed book as an object by which to learn about the past. I could not have articulated it that way at the time, but I think that is where I was headed. For example, all appearances suggest the first owner of this copy of Conwell’s Life of Garfield, was W. A. Bills of Farmington, Tennessee. I know this because he, too, scrawled his name across most of the front blank endpaper. Already there was a story of a past owner who had his own reason’s for acquiring and using the book. Already there was a sense of the past with its own beckoning unknowns. It is a trite sense of wonder, but it is a place to begin. For what it is worth, it is one of the places I began.

–I read Conwell’s book right away. I did not finish that day, but soon thereafter. I no longer annotate in pen, and never annotated or created marginalia in a heavy way. But I will occasionally scrawl notes on slips of paper. Evidently I was doing that as early as 1991. Point being: I buy to read and while there are many I have not read through, I read in just about all of them, even if only for a quick reference. Looks like I read Conwell all the way through. Someone asked me once, have you read all those books? Well, some of them I’ve read twice. True, some of them I have read twice. But a lot I just read in, here or there, now and again. But I read Conwell through and began it that afternoon. Not much has changed: I read something in each new book. It was a habit formed early and I blame elementary school book fairs.

I returned to that shop on 15 January 1993 and will tell about that acquisition in a future post. The trips became more frequent after I moved out for college, and I might have bought more than two books there over the years. But so far as I can remember only these two books stand out.

Thirty years on I am still as excited about what a used book store or antique shop might hold as I was in November 1991. I am still as curious and the pull of old books is as strong now as then.