“He fed his spirit with the bread of books.”
Every now and then someone comes into my office and asks me this personal question, “Have you read all of these books?” And I always reply with the words I learned from a friend of mine years ago, i.e. “Some of them I have read more than once.” After smiling I do admit that my answer sort of evades the question but, I usually clarify, that I have indeed read (essentially) all of them.
Of course there are some books which are research tools and are not particularly intended to be read all the way through like a novel. Others are dictionaries or multi-volume encyclopedias which we pick up to look at a specific article and are rarely read all the way through.
Just the other day, however, I was looking for some leadership tools and I came across an old book which I had never read. I don’t even remember where I got it. But when I took it off the shelf and held it in my hands, I knew I had found a new friend.
Lauren Willig describes me with these words, “Old books exert a strange fascination for me—their smell, their feel, their history; wondering who might have owned them, how they lived, how they felt.”
All of these impressions came upon me as I held that old book. I felt like a whole new world might open up before me. And it did.
According to the title page, the book was written by Newell Dwight Hillis and it was in its fourteenth printing, originally published in 1898. After some additional research I learned that Hillis was a Congregationalist minister, philosopher and prolific author of more than ten books.
He served as the pastor of the historic Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn where Henry Ward Beecher, the first pastor and masterful orator, had also served.
I also learned that the Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims became “Grand Central Station” for the Underground Railroad. Earlier, Beecher’s famous sermons challenged the evils of slavery in America where he even hosted in his pulpit a young Abraham Lincoln before he was known on the national stage.
As you can imagine, by now I was intrigued by the life and influence of Hillis. The book I was holding was titled Great Books as Life-Teachers; Studies of Character Real and Ideal. In it he captures some of the life lessons from the great authors. He writes about Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Browning’s Saul, Blaikie’s Life of David Livingstone, etc.
But it was opening chapter which really grabbed my attention. There he speaks of the inspiration of new opportunities. “Today men are saying God is ancient history. Gone forever the age of poetry and romance and heroism. No more Shakespeares! No more Dantes! Genius has forsaken the temple. Hollow-eyed, she haunts the market-place. Ours is the age of humdrum and realism. At home the critics tell us Emerson and Lowell and Longfellow are gone, and have left no successors.”
Hillis looked beyond that pessimism and wrote these inspiring words, “But God is seed, not a dying leaf. God is a rosy dawn, not a falling star. God is a flaming sun, not the astronomy that describes it. God is a living voice, not the creed that explains Him. God is flaming, eternal truth, not the manuscripts in which some sage once wrote.”
He called “…for each youth to stand in the line of heroes and seers, with Paul and Socrates and Savonarola; with Hampden, Washington and Lincoln” so that “…the patriot of today emulate and surpass the heroes of yesterday.”
James Bryce said, “The worth of a book is to be measured by what you carry away from it.” This old book has become a new friend and what I will carry from it will last a long time.
Think about it.
Dr. Don Meyer is President of Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA
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