Quotes


ON FICTION

A little attention however to the nature of the human mind evinces that the entertainments of fiction are useful as well as pleasant. That they are pleasant when well written, every person feels who reads. But wherein is it's utility, asks the reverend sage, big with the notion that nothing can be useful but the learned lumber of Greek and Roman reading with which his head is stored? I answer, every thing is useful which contributes to fix us in the principles and practice of virtue.

Thomas Jefferson to Robert Skipwith, Monticello, 3 Aug. 1771 [1]



ON ROMANCE, TRAGEDY, COMEDY & EPIC POETRY

The spacious field of imagination is thus laid open to our use, and lessons may be formed to illustrate and carry home to the mind every moral rule of life. Thus a lively and lasting sense of filial duty is more effectually impressed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading King Lear, than by all the dry volumes of ethics and divinity that ever were written. This is my idea of well-written Romance, of Tragedy, Comedy, and Epic Poetry.

Thomas Jefferson to Robert Skipwith, Monticello, 3 Aug. 1771 [2]



ON THE BENEFITS OF READING IN ONE’S YOUTH

But that time is not lost which is employed in providing tools for future operation: more especially as in this case the books put into the hands of the youth for this purpose may be such as will at the same time impress their minds with useful facts and good principles. If this period be suffered to pass in idleness, the mind becomes lethargic and impotent, as would the body it inhabits if unexercised during the same time.

Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIV [3]



ON THE REPUTATION OF GOOD BOOKS OVER TIME

Books, really good, acquire just reputation in that time, and so become known to us and communicate to us all their advances in knowledge.

Thomas Jefferson to Charles Bellini, Paris, 30 Sept. 1785 [4]



ON THE BENEFITS OF READING

… read good books because they will encourage as well as direct your feelings.

Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, Paris, 10 Aug. 1787 [5]



ON THE SIMPLE PLEASURES OF READING, FAMILY & FRIENDS TO POSITION

I had rather be shut up in a very modest cottage, with my books, my family and a few old friends, dining on simple bacon, and letting the world roll on as it liked, than to occupy the most splendid post which any human power can give.

Thomas Jefferson to Alexander Donald, Paris, 7 Feb. 1788 [6]



ON HIS PREFERENCE FOR UTILITY AND ECONOMY IN HIS BOOK ACQUISITIONS

When I name a particular edition of a book, send me that edition and no other.

When I do not name the edition, never send a folio or quarto if there exists an 8vo. or small edition. I like books of a handy size.

Where a book costs much higher than the common price of books of that size do not send it, tho I write for it, till you shall have advised me of the price.

I disclaim all pompous editions and all typographical luxury; but I like a fine white paper, neat type, and neat binding, gilt and lettered in the modern stile. But while I remain in Europe it will be better to send my books in boards, as I have found that scarcely any method of packing preserves them from rubbing in a land transportation.


Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Payne, Paris, 2 Oct. 1788 [7]



ON HIS BIBLIOMANIA

Sensible that I labour grievously under the malady of Bibliomanie, I submit to the rule of buying only at reasonable prices, as to a regimen necessary in that disease.

Thomas Jefferson to Lucy Ludwell Paradise, Paris, 1 June 1789 [8]



ON READING BOOKS IN THEIR ORIGINAL LANGUAGE

I am [sorry] La Motte has put me to the expence of 140 [livre tournois] for a French translation of an English poem, as I make it a rule never to read translations where I can read the original.

Thomas Jefferson to Edmund Randolph, Monticello, 3 Feb. 1794 [9]



ON HIS LIBRARY AT MONTICELLO

We are now living in a brick-kiln, for my house, in it's present state, is nothing better. I shall recommence my operations on it the next summer, and no small part of the pleasure I promise myself in it's future accommodations, is founded in the hope of possessing you here sometimes, and of gratifying your taste for books, by introducing you to a collection now certainly the best in America.

Thomas Jefferson to George Wythe, Monticello, 23 Oct. 1794 [10]



ON WORKS OF IMAGINATION (OR FICTION)

Some of the most agreeable moments of my life have been spent in reading works of imagination which have this advantage over history that the incidents of the former may be dressed in the most interesting form, while those of the latter must be confined to fact. they cannot therefore present virtue in the best & vice in the worst forms possible, as the former may.

Thomas Jefferson to Charles Brockden Brown, Philadelphia, 15 Jan. 1800 [11]



ON GREEK & LATIN CLASSICS

… to read the Latin & Greek authors in their original is a sublime luxury … I enjoy Homer in his own language infinitely beyond Pope’s translation of him, & both beyond the dull narrative of the same events by Dares Phrygius, & it is an innocent enjoyment. I thank on my knees him who directed my early education for having put into my possession this rich source of delight: and I would not exchange it for any thing which I could then have acquired & have not since acquired.

Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, Philadelphia, 27 Jan. 1800 [12]



ON THE SIZE OF THE LIBRARY HE HAD AMASSED

My bibliomany has possessed me of perhaps 20,000. volumes [13]… sober reason tells me it is time to leave off buying books.

Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Law, Monticello, 23 Apr. 1811 [14]



ON GIVING UP NEWSPAPER READING IN HIS RETIREMENT

I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus & Thucydides, for Newton & Euclid; & I find myself much the happier.

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, Monticello, 21 Jan. 1812 [15]



ON READING AS THE GREATEST OF ALL AMUSEMENTS

... my greatest of all amusements, reading.

Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Adams, Monticello, 22 Aug. 1813



ON HIS DEPENDENCE ON BOOKS

I cannot live without books; but fewer will suffice where amusement, and not use, is the only future object.

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, Monticello, 10 June 1815



ON HOW LETTER WRITING KEPT HIM AWAY FROM READING

... my greatest oppression is a correspondence afflictingly laborious, the extent of which I have been long endeavoring to curtail. this keeps me at the drudgery of the writing table all the prime hours of the day, leaving for the gratification of my appetite for reading only what I can steal from the hours of sleep. could I reduce this epistolary corvée within the limits of my friends, and affairs, and give the time redeemed from it to reading and reflection, to history, ethics, mathematics, my life would be as happy as the infirmities of age would admit …

Thomas Jefferson to Charles Thomson, Monticello, 9 Jan. 1816



ON NOVELS AND POETRY

A great obstacle to good education is the inordinate passion prevalent for novels, and the time lost in that reading which should be instructively employed. when this poison infects the mind, it destroys it's tone and revolts it against whol[e]some reading … this mass of trash however is not without some distinction, some few modelling their narratives, altho fictitious, on the incidents of real life. have been able to make them interesting and useful vehicles of a sound morality… for a like reason too much poetry should not be indulged. some is useful for forming style and taste. Pope, Dryden, Thomson, Shakespeare, and of the French, Molière, Racine, the Corneilles may be read with pleasure and improvement.

Thomas Jefferson to Nathaniel Burwell, Monticello, 14 Mar. 1818



ON HIS CANINE APPETITE FOR READING

My repugnance to the writing table becomes daily & hourly more deadly & insurmountable. in place of this has come on a canine appetite for reading. and I indulge it; because I see in it a relief against the taedium senectutis; a lamp to lighten my path thro’ the dreary wilderness of time before me, whose bourne I see not. losing daily all interest in the things around us, something else is necessary to fill the void. with me it is reading, which occupies the mind without the labor of producing ideas from my own stock.

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, Monticello, 17 May 1818



ON HISTORY

I read no newspaper now but Ritchie's, and in that chiefly the advertisements, for they contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper. I feel a much greater interest in knowing what passed two or three thousand years ago, than in what is now passing. I read nothing therefore but of the heroes of Troy, of the wars of Lacedaemon & Athens, of Pompey and Caesar, and of Augustus too, the Bonaparte and parricide scoundrel of that day … I slumber without fear, and review in my dreams the visions of antiquity.

Thomas Jefferson to Nathaniel Macon, Monticello, 12 Jan. 1819



ON HIS RETURN TO READING IN HIS RETIREMENT

I was a hard student until I entered on the business of life, the duties of which leave no idle time to those disposed to fulfil them; & now, retired, and at the age of 76, I am again a hard student. indeed, my fondness for reading and study revolts me from the drudgery of letter writing … I am not so regular in my sleep as the Doctor [Benjamin Rush] says he was, devoting to it from 5. to 8. hours, according as my company or the book I. am reading interests me; and I never go to bed without an hour, or half hour’s previous reading of something moral, whereon to ruminate in the intervals of sleep.

Thomas Jefferson to Vine Utley, Monticello, 21 Mar. 1819



ON BOOKS AS A NECESSARY OF LIFE

Books are indeed with me a necessary of life …

Thomas Jefferson to Richard Rush, Monticello, 22 June 1819



ON THE CLASSICS

Among the values of classical learning, I estimate the Luxury of reading the Greek & Roman authors in all the beauties of their originals. and why should not this innocent & elegant luxury take its preeminent stand ahead of all those address[ed] merely to the senses? I think myself more indebted to my father for this, than for all the other luxuries his cares and affections have placed within my reach: and more now than when younger, and more susceptible of delights from other sources. when the decays of age have enfeebled the useful energies of the mind, the classic pages fill up the vacuum of ennui, and become sweet composers to that rest of the grave into which we are all, sooner or later, to descend.

Thomas Jefferson to John Brazer, Poplar Forest, 24 Aug. 1819



ON THE RELIEF READING BROUGHT IN HIS RETIREMENT

My business is to beguile the wearisom[e]ness of declining life, as I endeavor to do by the delights of classical reading and of Mathematical truths and by the consolations of a sound philosophy, equally indifferent to hope & fear.

Thomas Jefferson to William Short, Monticello, 31 Oct. 1819



ON ENDORSING WORKS

... you ask me my opinion of the work you send me, and to let it go out to the public. this I have ever made a point of declining (one or two instances only excepted.) complimentory thanks to writers who have sent me their works have betrayed me sometimes before the public, without my consent having been asked. but I am far from presuming to direct the reading of my fellow citizens, who are good enough judges themselves of what is worthy their reading.

Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Ritchie, Monticello, 25 Dec. 1820



ON KNOWLEDGE AS LASTING CAPITAL

Books constitute capital. a library book lasts as long as a house, for hundreds of years. it is not then an article of mere consumption but fairly of capital.

Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, Monticello, 16 Sept. 1821



NOTES:

1. PTJ, 1:76.

2. Ibid., 1:77.

3. Notes, 148.

4. PTJ, 8:569.

5. PTJ, 12:15.

6. Ibid., 12:572.

7. Ibid., 13:650.

8. Ibid., 15:163.

9. Ibid., 28:16.

10. Ibid., 28:181.

11. Ibid., 31:308.

12. Ibid., 31:340.

13. The figure of 20,000 appears overstated. Jefferson seems to have been unsure about the number of volumes he had in his library. In his letter to Thomas Cooper dated 16 January 1814, he placed the figure at "about 7 or 8 thousand volumes." Several months later, he mentions a figure of "9. or 10,000 vols." in his letter to President James Madison on 24 September 1814.

14. PTJ:RS, 3:578.

15. Ibid., 4:429.

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