Today is my birthday, which I have no problem sharing with Benjamin Franklin. He would have been 306 today—a good thing in that it reminds me of how young I am—a sprite 57 in comparison to Ben. The word sprite means for me a soul alive, which comes from the Latin spiritus, or spirit. I believe in the soul and its forever existence.
One of the things I like to do, not just on my birthday, is to spend time in bookshops, preferably with shelves and shelves, stacked floor to ceiling with used books. I love the words, sentences, paragraphs, feel of old paper on my fingers, the cover art and smell of the soiled pages. I find books that I hadn’t read since I was a child; books I had heard about but had never read; books full of ideas from people who may be dead now but their ideas, like their souls, still live on; first printings of first editions that no one would care about but me. Lately, I have a place I go to buy these forlorn books four-for-one-dollar. Sometimes, I read them right away. Other times, I re-find a book in my home library when life just happens to remind me of it.
One such book is a 1931 textbook (revised 1939 ed.) which boasts in its preface: “The editors believe that nowhere else will be found gathered in a single volume for use in high school the variety and the charm of the present-day selections in the fields of the modern short story, the recent personal essay, the new poetry, biography, and the one-act play.” I keep the book atop an antique, flip-top school desk in my house, along with a copy of Dale Carnegie’s Lincoln the Unknown (1932) and an edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses (1895), which I bought for change and is signed by “Frederic Blair Johnson 31 January 1899” in India ink, with fine attention to penmanship, in the front cover. From one man’s library 113 years ago to mine. From Stevenson’s soul to mine. Not exactly communing with the dead, mind you, but I’m just sayin’.
The revised 1931 textbook that I found, American Writers, contains a story which I found appropriate to reread today, excerpted by the editors from Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, a story entitled: “A Boy’s Plans for Self-Improvement.” We can all learn from Franklin, in many respects. He was kind enough to write down a great deal of the ups and downs of the processes he followed in becoming the educator that he now remains. Here is an excerpt from the story that I hope will inform, please and maybe even persuade you. –SB
[Cross, Tom Peete, Reed Smith, Elmer C. Stauffer and Elizabeth Collette, ed. American Writers. 1931. “Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) A Boy’s Plans for Self Improvement [From the Autobiography, 1771].” Ginn and Company, 1939.]
[At this time Franklin was twelve years old and was learning the printing trade in his brother James’s shop in Boston.]
A question was once, somehow or other, started between Collins and me, of the propriety of educating the female sex in learning, and their abilities for study. He was of the opinion that it was improper, and that they were naturally unequal to it. I took the contrary side, perhaps a little for dispute’s sake. He was naturally more eloquent, had a ready plenty of words, and sometimes, as I thought, bore me down more by his fluency than by the strength of his reasons. As we parted without settling the point, and were not to see one another again for some time, I sat down to put my arguments in writing, which I copied fair and sent to him. He answered, and I replied. Three or four letters of a side had passed, when my father happened to find my papers and read them. Without entering into the discussion, he took occasion to talk to me about the manner of my writing; observed that, though I had the advantage of my antagonist in correct spelling and pointing (which I owed to the printing-house), I fell far short in elegance of expression, in method, and in perspicuity, of which he convinced me by several instances. I saw the justice of his remarks, and thence grew more attentive to the manner in writing, and determined to endeavor at improvement.
About this time I met with an odd volume of the Spectator [A famous English periodical which was highly thought of in Franklin’s day because of the polished essays of Addison and Steele, which appeared in it. It was founded in London in 1711.]. It was the third. I had never before seen any of them. I bought it, read it over and over, and was much delighted with it. I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, tried to complete the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them. But I found I wanted [Lacked.] a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them, which I thought I should have acquired before that time if I had gone on making verses, since the continual occasion for words of the same import, but of different length, to suit the measure, or of different sound for the rime, would have laid me under a constant necessity of searching for variety, and also have tended to fix that variety in my mind, and make me master of it. Therefore I took some of the tales and turned them into verse; and, after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again. I also sometimes jumbled my collections of hints into confusion, and after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into the best order, before I began to form the full sentences and complete the paper. This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts. By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language, and this encouraged me to think I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English writer, of which I was extremely ambitious.
While I was intent on improving my language, I met with an English grammar (I think it was Greenwood’s), at the end of which there were two little sketches of the arts of rhetoric and logic, the latter finishing with a specimen of a dispute in the Socratic method [The method of Socrates was to lead his opponent on gradually, by question after question, until his opponent himself finally uttered or admitted the truth that Socrates wished to prove.]; and soon after I procured Xenophon’s Memorable Things of Socrates, wherein there are many instances of the same method. I was charmed with it, adopted it, dropped my abrupt contradiction and positive argumentation, and put on the humble inquirer and doubter. I found this method safest for myself and very embarrassing to those against whom I used it; therefore I took a delight in it, practiced it continually, and grew very artful and expert in drawing people, even of superior knowledge, into concessions [In argument a concession is the admitting of a point claimed by one’s opponent.], the consequences of which they did not foresee, entangling them in difficulties out of which they could not extricate themselves, and so obtaining victories that neither myself nor my cause always deserved.
I continued this method some few years, but gradually left it, retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced anything that may possibly be disputed, the words “certainly,” “undoubtedly,” or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, “I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so”; “It appears to me,” or “I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons”; or “I imagine it to be so”; or “It is so, if I am not mistaken.”
This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions, and persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engaged in promoting; and, as the chief ends of conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner, that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us, to wit, giving or receiving information or pleasure.
For if you would inform, a positive and dogmatical manner in advancing your sentiments may provoke contradiction and prevent a candid attention. If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fixed in your present opinions, modest, sensible men who do not love disputation will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error. And by such a manner you can seldom hope to recommend yourself in pleasing your hearers, or to persuade those whose concurrence [Agreement.] you desire.