Leo Tolstoy
· The Circle of Reading
Translated by Dmitry Fadeyev

January 1

It is better to know a little of what is truly good and necessary than a great deal of the mediocre and the unnecessary.


Consider what you have in the smallest chosen library. A company of the wisest and wittiest men that could be picked out of all civil countries in a thousand years have set in best order the results of their learning and wisdom. The men themselves were hid and inaccessible, solitary, impatient of interruption, fenced by etiquette; but the thought which they did not uncover to their bosom friend is here written out in transparent words to us, the strangers of another age. We owe to books those general benefits which come from high intellectual action. They impart sympathetic activity to the moral power.

— Emerson


We are of the ruminating kind, and it is not enough to cram ourselves with a great load of collections; unless we chew them over again, they will not give us strength and nourishment.

— Locke


Be careful not to let the reading of many writers and different kinds of books cause haziness and confusion in your mind. If you want to glean something useful, you should nourish your mind only with writers of doubtless worth. Too many books distract the mind. This is why you should only read books that are recognized as indisputably good. If you sometimes feel like going over for a while to other kinds of works, never forget to return again to the former.

— Seneca


Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.

— Thoreau


You should only read when the source of your own ideas dries up, which happens not infrequently even to most intelligent people. But to frighten away your own nascent thought for the sake of a book—that is to commit a crime against the spirit.

— Schopenhauer


Literature repeats life. Wherever one turns, one is confronted with the incorrigible rabble of humankind—its name is legion—teeming everywhere and defiling everything, like summer flies. This is where such a propagation of bad books comes from, such an extraordinary harvest of literary weed that muffles good seed. These books steal people’s time, money and attention, which should really only be spent on a portion of selected works.

Bad books are not only useless, they are positively harmful. After all, nine tenths of today’s literature is only printed in order to extract from the pocket of the gullible public a couple of extra thalers; this is why authors, publishers and printers intentionally make their books thicker.

An even more harmful, impudent and shameless fraud is perpetrated by the hacks who get paid by the line: taking a penny for a line of their fudge, these dayworkers pervert the reader’s taste and destroy true enlightenment.

To counteract this harm one should break the habit of reading, or, more accurately, one should not be reading the books that are making noise and occupying the public’s attention. Simply put, what one needs to do is avoid all those publications whose first year of existence is also going to be their last.

It is impossible not to add that the one who writes for fools is always sure to find a vast readership; and meanwhile, humankind ought rather to use its short and limited existence to get to know first class authors of all ages and peoples, highly gifted creators who tower above the multitude of bad writers. Only these kinds of writers can instruct and teach.

One cannot read too few bad books, and one will never be able to read too many good ones. Bad books are a moral poison that dulls the mind.

As a consequence of the fact that the mob insists on reading not the best books of all times, but only the newest creations of contemporary literature, present day hacks revolve in a tight circle of the same stale ideas and keep saying the same things, and our century is unable to crawl out of its own filth.

— Schopenhauer

The difference between material and mental poisons is that the majority of material poisons are disgusting to taste, but mental poisons, in the form of newspapers and bad books, are, unfortunately, oftentimes attractive.