Wednesday, January 02, 2013


In Praise of Books

al-Jāḥiẓ (776-868), "In Praise of Books," in The Life and Works of Jāḥiẓ: Translations of Selected Texts, by Charles Pellat. Translated from the French by D.M. Hawke (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), pp. 130-132:
A book is a receptacle filled with knowledge, a container crammed with good sense, a vessel full of jesting and earnestness. It can if you wish be more eloquent than Sahbān Wā'il, or less talkative than Bāqil: it will amuse you with anecdotes, inform you on all manner of astonishing marvels, entertain you with jokes or move you with homilies, just as you please. You are free to find in it an entertaining adviser, an encouraging critic, a villainous ascetic, a silent talker or hot coldness.


Moreover, have you ever seen a garden that will go into a man's sleeve, an orchard you can take on your lap, a speaker who can speak of the dead and yet be the interpreter of the living? Where else will you find a companion who sleeps only when you are asleep, and speaks only when you wish him to?


You denigrate books, whereas to my mind there is no pleasanter neighbour, no more fair-minded friend, no more amenable companion, no more dutiful teacher, no comrade more perfect and less prone to error, less annoying or importunate, of a sweeter disposition, less inclined to contradiction or accusation, less disposed to slander or backbiting, more marvellous, cleverer, less given to flattery or affectation, less demanding or quarrelsome, less prone to argument or more opposed to strife, than a book.

I know no companion more prompt to hand, more rewarding, more helpful or less burdensome, and no tree that lives longer, bears more abundantly or yields more delicious fruit that is handier, easier to pick or more perfectly ripened at all times of the year, than a book.

I know no animal product that despite its youth, the short time that elapsed since its birth, its modest price and its ready availability brings together so much excellent advice, so much rare knowledge, so many works by great minds and keen brains, so many lofty thoughts and sound doctrines, so much wise experience or so much information about bygone ages, distant lands, everyday sayings and demolished empires, as a book.


For all its smallness and lightness, a book is the medium through which men receive the Scriptures, and also government accounts. Silent when silence is called for, it is eloquent when asked to speak. It is a bedside companion that does not interrupt when you are busy but welcomes you when you have a mind to it, and does not demand forced politeness or compel you to avoid its company. It is a visitor whose visits may be rare, or frequent, or so continual that it follows you like your shadow and becomes a part of you.

A book is a companion that does not flatter you, a friend that does not irritate you, a crony that does not weary you, a petitioner that does not wax importunate, a protégé that does not find you slow, and a friend that does not seek to exploit you by flattery, artfully wheedle you, cheat you with hypocrisy or deceive you with lies.

A book, if you consider, is something that prolongs your pleasure, sharpens your mind, loosens your tongue, lends agility to your fingers and emphasis to your words, gladdens your mind, fills your heart and enables you to win the respect of the lowly and the friendship of the mighty. You will get more knowledge out of one in a month than you could acquire from men's mouths in five years—and that at a saving in expense, in arduous research by qualified persons, in standing on the doorsteps of hack teachers, in resorting to individuals inferior to you in mortal qualities and nobility of birth, and in associating with odious and stupid people.

A book obeys you by night and by day, abroad and at home; it has no need of sleep, and does not grow weary with sitting up. It is a master that does not fail you when you need him and does not stop teaching you when you stop paying him. If you fall from grace it continues to obey you, and if the wind sets fair for your enemies it does not turn against you. Form any kind of bond or attachment with it, and you will be able to do without everything else; you will not be driven into bad company by boredom or loneliness.

Even if its kindness to you and its benevolence towards you consisted merely in saving you from the tedium of sitting on your doorstep watching the passers-by—with all the aggravations that posture entails: civilities to be paid, other people's indiscretions, the tendency to meddle in things that do not concern you, the proximity of the common people, the need to listen to their bad Arabic and their mistaken ideas and put up with their low behaviour and their shocking ignorance—even if a book conferred no other advantage but this, it would be both salutary and profitable for its owner.

Salomon Koninck (1609-1656), The Hermit

Hat tip: Eric Thomson.

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