George Dunea, MD
Hektoen Institute, Chicago, Illinois, United States
As the publishing industry is going through a technological revolution and enhanced digital books come loaded with videos, songs, animated shorts, pop-up graphics, and interactive features, two issues long resonating with scholars and educators seem irrelevant but actually are not. Should one read widely or concentrate on a few authors? And is there still a role for the man of one book?
The debate has been going on for at least 2,500 years. “The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing,” wrote the Greek poet Archilochus around 650 BCE. In his essay “The Man of One Book,” Isaac Disraeli (1766–1848), father of the illustrious British prime minister, mentions that the Romans, Pliny and Seneca, “gave very safe advice that one should read much but not many books.” In this they were later echoed by St. Thomas Aquinas, Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard's Almanac, Gustave Flaubert, and Edward Gibbon in his autobiography.
Relevant to this issue is the old tale about a powerful oriental king, father of two sons, who possessed a great library. On his deathbed he left his entire library to one son and only one book to the other. The latter became a wise man; the former a fool—clearly a warning against reading too widely.
But are these precepts still valid in an age of instant communication? One looks up the news on the Internet because the daily newspaper may be out of date. The publishing industry is changing; bookstores are closing their doors, some are filing for bankruptcy; books are read on Kindle; and most classical books are now available at no charge on such sites as Project Guttenberg. The newspapers still regularly publish best-seller lists, but according to Disraeli such lists were available even in the early 1800s.
Isaac Disraeli did indeed read widely. In his youth he had greatly disappointed his father, a successful businessman, by evincing a strong distaste and lack of attitude for commerce and finance. He later spent most of his time in the British Library collecting items of literary interest and writing them up in the form of essays. His son described him as “a complete literary man, a man who really passed his life in his library.” Between 1791 and 1823 he published his essays in successive volumes as Curiosities of Literature, very popular, widely read, and still in print. Notable is his essay “The Man of One Book,” he addressed the issue of reading too widely as follows: “The multiplicity of books is an evil for the many who . . . even to the prejudice of their own health, persist only in reading the incessant book-novelties of our own time [and] will after many years acquire a sort of learned ignorance.”
Yet, as an aside, it is better still to read indiscriminately than not to read at all! For in another essay, “Bibliomania,” Disraeli comments on the affliction of collecting “an enormous heap of books without intelligent curiosity” in “a splendid library, where volumes arrayed with all the pomp of lettering, silk linings, triple gold bands, and tinted leather, are locked up in wire cases and secured from the vulgar hands of the mere reader,” a gallery of pictures that the owner “seldom traverses alone, for he rarely reads.”
But on the issue of concentrating one’s reading and not spreading oneself too thin, this is no different from other fields of human endeavor. Generals in battle rarely divide their army, as the part is so more easily destroyed than the whole; and investment advisors often counsel against excessive diversification of one's assets. The philosopher Schopenhauer, a curmudgeon in many respects, compared the human mind to a diamond, most valuable when left uncut, less so when divided into many smaller parts. Reading every new book on the best-sellers’ list until they all merge into one vast blank of forgetfulness may likewise lead to remembering little and learning even less. By contrast, “a book read three times is remembered better than one read but once.”
In “The Man of One Book,” Isaac Disraeli develops this theme even further. It appears that John Wesley described himself as a man of one book when he decided to read only the Bible and nothing else. But St. Thomas Aquinas actually wrote that he feared the man of one book (hominem unius libri timeo), meaning that he who has immersed himself into the writings of a favorite author is to be feared, having acquired special powers that make him a formidable figure in conversation and a dangerous adversary in debate.
Disraeli cites many historical figures, rulers, kings, generals, and scholars, who constantly read the works of one particular author, immersing themselves in his writings, some always having his book by their side. In that long list he notes that Demosthenes always kept on hand the works of Thucydides, Scipio Africanus constantly read Xenophon, and others immersed themselves into the Commentaries of Caesar, Livy, Tacitus, Racine, Moses, Homer, Cicero, Virgil, Rabelais, Cervantes, Plutarch, Montaigne, Lock, Machiavelli, or St. Paul. Brutus, who took part in the conspiracy against Julius Caesar, reportedly read Polybius even on the eve of his fatal battle with Mark Anthony and Octavius at Philippi.
Disraeli concludes that a “predilection for some great author, among the vast number which must transiently occupy our attention, seems to be the happiest preservative for our taste,” and that those who do not form a permanent attachment to an author may be acquiring knowledge at the cost of developing an “enervated taste.” But he who has long been intimate with one great author and has “saturated his mind with the excellence of genius” will always be found to be a formidable antagonist, hence the Latin proverb: “beware of the man of one book.”
It would be rare to nowadays encounter such a man of one book, other than perhaps in those who limit their reading to the Bible. But it is not uncommon to come across persons who to their own advantage have delved deeply into the writings of a few authors, have read them often, revisited them repeatedly, and in the process absorbed their style, their thoughts, and their sayings.
Thus among the great medical figures of our modern era we find some who preferentially spent much time reading one particular author. Harvey Cushing, the illustrious Boston neurosurgeon, immersed himself in the works of the iconic Sir William Osler, who in his turn often returned to the works of the 17th century physician stylist Sir Thomas Browne. Even modern medical students and practicing doctors may sometimes spread themselves too thinly. An old physician once reminisced how his professor of anatomy would criticize him for studying from too many books. One of my former chiefs maintained that most doctors would be better off if once a year they were to read a standard textbook of medicine from cover to cover, rather than subscribing to a whole host of medical journals. And indeed many medical students, residents, and practicing physicians nowadays confine themselves to consulting Medical Letter, Prescribers Notes, Up to Date, or Epocrates, leaving the New England Journal of Medicine and the Lancet to the wise university professors who know all about mitochondria and translation factors but have forgotten (as a much mourned chief of medicine once put it bluntly) how to treat the clap!
Disraeli, Isaac. 1849. Curiosities of Literature. London: Edward Moxton.
GEORGE DUNEA, MD, FACP, FRCP, FASN is the president and CEO of the Hektoen Institute of Medicine. He is also a professor of medicine at University of Illinois at Chicago, the medical director of Chicago Dialysis Center, and founding chairman emeritus, Division of Nephrology, Stroger Hospital of Cook County. He also serves as Editor-in-Chief of Hektoen International.