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Good books are a house's soul.
(John Watkins Chapman. In the Library. Source)
I wish I could explain in a few words just how important it is to surround yourself with good books, and to run away from bad ones! I also wish I knew a failproof way to tell the difference between good books and bad books, without having to read every single book in the world!
Since I'm not able to do this, you will have to settle for a few of my thoughts on these topics, partly based on Chapter 7.A of A.-D. Sertillanges' excellent book called The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods.
A few quotes from Antonin Eymieu's Le Gouvernement de soi-mÍme, p. 123-134:
If we believe their confessions, letters or memoirs, it's in books that most men, famous for their good or evil deeds, found their vocation; it's books that made Saint Augustine and Saint Ignatius of Loyola; [...] just as it's books that made Tropman, Ravachol and so many other infamous assassins; it's books that continue to supply clients to jails and the guillotine. [...]
The Englishman Jowet, professor at Oxford, said Dante was mistaken when he wrote on the door of his Inferno: "Oh ye who enter here, abandon all hope!" He should have written: "Here, we read French novels". [...]
But, some will say, I love reading so much! - Maybe you also love mushrooms; but that's not a reason to gobble them up any which way without choosing them, since some are harmful.
But everything is healthy for a healthy soul! - Probably just as much as everything is healthy for a healthy stomach. Try the effects of poison on your stomach. Anyway, there are corrupt souls in the world: that is one of the least deniable facts. But, before being corrupt, they were healthy; and, since they were able to become corrupt, that proves that everything was not healthy for those then healthy souls.
But everybody is talking about this book! - God will talk to you about it too, and maybe you'll be very grateful to be able to tell Him you didn't read it.
Whatever the case, if you read it, it will have an effect on you. If you don't want that to happen, you have to avoid reading it.
Another quote, this time from Pope Pius X:
Everyone knows the great influence that is exerted by the voice of a friend who gives candid advice, assists by his counsel, corrects, encourages and leads one away from error. Blessed is the man who has found a true friend [Si 25:12]; he that has found him has found a treasure [Si 6:14].
We should, then, count pious books among our true friends. They solemnly remind us of
our duties and of the prescriptions of legitimate discipline; they arouse the heavenly
voices that were stifled in our souls; they rid our resolutions of listlessness; they
disturb our deceitful complacency; they show the true nature of less worthy affections
to which we have sought to close our eyes; they bring to light the many dangers which
beset the path of the imprudent. They render all these services with such kindly
discretion that they prove themselves to be not only our friends, but the very best of
friends. They are always at hand, constantly beside us to assist us in the needs of our
souls; their voice is never harsh, their advice is never self-seeking, their words are
never timid or deceitful.
[Haerent Animo, my emphasis]
Strictly speaking, it is impossible to know whether a book is good or bad without opening it. But our lives are short, careful reading takes a lot of time, most books are not worth reading, and quite a few of them are downright dangerous. So we need good advice to help us select good books quickly and effectively.
3.1) Trust a good master. By definition, you can't know before knowing. But you need to know to avoid pitfalls and poisons. This is a case where it's good to believe someone, if you have good reasons to trust him. My current recommendation is Saint Thomas Aquinas in Theology and Philosophy.
3.2) Find good reading lists. One of the many advantages of finding a good spiritual director and good teachers is that they can give you good advice on which books to read.
3.3) Birds of a feather, stick together. When you do find a very good author, look at which books he considers excellent. Often one excellent book will have an annotated bibliography which will lead you to many other good books.
3.4) The friend of my enemy is my enemy. The inverse of the previous tip is that if you discover a really bad author, any admirer of that author will probably also be bad. (For example, in Philosophy, Nietzsche is a bad author, and Michel Foucault admires Nietzsche. Surprise, surprise, Michel Foucault is one of the worst philosophers!)
3.5) Quality, not quantity. There is a disproportion between the gargantuan number of written things, and the limited time to read them. Yes, it's true that every author says at least a few truths. But why sift through a landfill to find a few pieces of small change, when you can get an ATM to quickly spit out many large bills? Sertillanges says: "Read only first hand, where shine the key ideas. These books are few. Books either repeat, or dilute, or contradict, which is another way of repeating."
3.6) Reputation of the publisher. Of course, I don't know of a publishing house that only publishes good books. But most of the time, bad publishers don't print good books. (For example, in Computer Science, I now avoid like the plague books by sloppy publishers like Que, Sam's Publishing, O'Reilley, etc.)
3.7) Price. Of course, a book can be very expensive, and yet be very bad! Nevertheless, the Internet has fundamentally altered the relation between price and the quality of a book. First, more and more classic books are available for free on the Internet. Of course, this is a major advantage! Anybody with a computer and an Internet connection has immediate access to a huge library! (See also How can I get free copies of good books?) Second, once again because of the Internet, the price of new books (still protected by copyright) doesn't have the same relation with quality as before. It seems that actual paper books are now often rather worthless, if they cost less than 100$ CAN (in 2012). The reason seems to be that if several persons with impressive degrees collaborate for years to write a good book, it cannot sell for only 20$. And if this "book" was written by only one person in less than a year, then you can probably find the same information, for free, on the Internet.
3.8) Reactions of bad students. One of the tips which works surprizingly well is to look at the reactions of the worst students in your class. Lazy and stupid students tend to trash-talk the best books!
Some people are very fussy about how they choose their cloths or their furniture. Others rightly give more importance to the quality of the food they eat. But even better is to be very careful about the books you read.
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