Speech In Support Of The London Library "A Good Book Is The Purest Essence Of A Human Soul"

Thomas Carlyle

"A Good Book Is The Purest Essence Of A Human Soul"

Context: The greatest library in London, and one of the greatest in the world, is of course the British Museum. Its holdings, however, do not constitute a lending collection for the general reader but a research collection for the scholar. In 1840 Thomas Carlyle had finished his great work on the French Revolution and was beginning his study of Oliver Cromwell. He felt the need, for himself and for the citizens of London, for the establishment of a general lending library. He marshaled all of his influence among persons of political or financial importance and pushed the project to fruition. His contributions included plans, enthusiasm, and one powerful speech. Today the London library stands as one of his finest monuments. In his speech he emphasized the need of the common people of London for a library:

We will leave the British Museum standing on its own basis, and be very thankful that such a Library exists in this country. But supposing it to be managed with the most perfect skill and success, even according to the ideal of such an Institution, still I will assert that this other Library of ours is requisite also. In the first place by the very nature of the thing, a great quantity of people are excluded altogether from the British Museum as a reading room. Every man engaged in business is occupied during the hours it is kept open; and innumerable classes of persons find it extremely inconvenient to attend the British Museum Library at all. But granting that they all could go there, I would ask any literary man, any reader of books, any man intimately acquainted with the reading of books, whether he can read them to any purpose in the British Museum? A book is a kind of thing that requires a man to be self-collected. He must be alone with it. A good book is the purest essence of a human soul. How could a man take it into a crowd, with bustle of all sorts going on around him? The good of a book is not the facts that can be got out of it, but the kind of resonance that it awakens in our own minds.