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Thomas Jefferson and His Books

JeffersonReading

“I cannot live without books.”

This Independence Day weekend I went to Monticello, and there I bought Douglas Wilson’s Jefferson’s Books, a delightful monograph that shows us Jefferson as the remarkable book collector and reader that he was. Much of it deals with his decades-long, setback-ridden (fires! thieves!) building of his library, whose 6,700 volumes became the founding contribution to the Library of Congress upon his retirement.

I have more, much more, to learn about Jefferson, but at least in the matter of books and reading, he may be my ultimate role model. Not that I want to build extensive, world-renowned libraries, but I want to dedicate myself to the systematic study of books to improve my knowledge and to share it with others and encourage them to read more – all things at which Jefferson excelled.

Below are some choice quotes from the book, a recommended reading schedule he gave to a friend, and a picture of his revolving bookstand, one of the coolest (okay, maybe cool isn’t the right word here) items in his Monticello house.

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“As Jefferson’s library revealed, books were for him not ornaments but instruments for coming to terms with the world.” (8)

“…the book-hunting chores he tirelessly performed for his friends back home far outnumbered his own requests for help.” (25)

“The amount of money [he] spent for books while he was in Paris and throughout his life was prodigious…He was aware that his indulgence in books amounted to extravagance and sought to moderate it by buying cheaper and smaller format editions wherever possible, and driving a hard bargain when offered an expensive book.” (25)

“His library, from an early period, formed an essential part of his vision of the good life.” (26)

“Jefferson was dependent on books, tended to take his knowledge from them rather than from direct experience, and approached the world with studied eyes.” (29)

“The need to know seemed to to come as naturally to him as the need to breathe. He spoke often of his belief that nature had formed him for study, and he exercised his remarkable powers of discipline to find time for reading even in the busies and most hectic times of his life.” (29)

“I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid; and I find myself much the happier.” (46)

His favorite granddaughter, Ellen Randolph Coolidge, said of him: “Of history he was very fond, and this he studied in all languages [he knew seven], though always, I think, preferring the ancients. In fact, he derived more pleasure from his acquaintance with Greek and Latin than from any other resource of literature…I saw him more frequently with a volume of the classics in his hand than with any other book.” (48-49)

“Jefferson was constantly being consulted on matters relating to books and education and conscientiously made out dozens of reading lists at the requests of his friends.” (50)

To a friend he recommended this reading schedule:

– Before 8 am: Physical Studies, Ethics, Religion, Natural Law

– Eight to 12 pm: Law

– 12-1 pm: Politics

– Afternoon: History

– From dark to bedtime: Belles-lettres [literary works admired for their style], Criticism, Rhetoric, Oratory

And finally, his revolving bookstand, on which he liked to have five reference books while he wrote letters to friends:

bookstand

Welcome!

Have you ever in your reading come across that gem of an insight that got you so excited, you had to stop reading and share it with a friend?

Have you ever felt frustrated at the sheer quantity of good books that have been written, waiting to be read and discovered anew, knowing there simply isn’t as much time as we’d like to read all of them, much less reread the ones that merit the compliment?

Have you ever come to that place where you realize that books offer such a vast world of wisdom and delight and experiences, that you knew you had to begin capturing some of this for yourself, not only for your own education and enjoyment, but for better knowing how to do this thing called life?

This blog was born out of such experiences.

When we delight in something, we instinctively want to share it with others. That’s exactly what I want to do here. As someone who loves books and the treasures they have to offer, I invite you to join me as I share what I consider to be the “choice morsels” from my reading diet with friends and anyone willing to stop by. Following my interests, this blog will be heavy on liberal arts and humanities, theology and philosophy in particular; but you’ll find other subjects interspersed between Aristotle and Augustine, as I strive to wander out of my favorite neighborhoods into unfamiliar yet equally fascinating territory.

Thanks for reading!