The books of four great writers have been used almost exclusively by way of illustration throughout this discussion of the relation of books to culture. This limited selection may have seemed at times too narrow and rigid; it may have conveyed an impression of insensibility to the vast range and the great variety of literary forms and products, and of indifference to contemporary writing. It needs to be said, therefore, that the constant reference to Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe has been made for the sake of clearness and force of illustration, and not, in any sense, as applying an exclusive principle of selection. The books of life are to be found in every language, and are the product of almost every age; and no one attains genuine culture who does not, through them, make himself familiar with the life of each successive generation. To be ignorant of the thought and art of one’s time involves a narrowness of intelligence which is inconsistent with the maturity of taste and ripeness of nature which have been emphasised in these chapters as the highest and finest fruits of culture. The more generous a man’s culture becomes, the more catholic becomes his taste and the keener his insight. The man of highest intelligence will be the first to recognise the fresh touch, the new point of view, the broader thought. He will bring to the books of his own time not only a trained instinct for sound work, but a deep sympathy with the latest effort of the human spirit to express itself in new forms. So deep and real will be his feeling for life that he will be eager to understand and possess every fresh manifestation of that life. However novel and unconventional the new form may be, it will not make its appeal to him in vain.
It remains true, however, that literature is a universal art, expressive and interpretative of the spirit of humanity, and that no man can make full acquaintance with that spirit who fails to make companionship with its greatest masters and interpreters. The appeal of contemporary books is so constant and urgent that it stands in small need of emphasis; but the claims of the rich and splendid literature of the past are often slighted or ignored. The supreme masters of an art ought to be the objects of constant study and thought; there is more of life, truth, and beauty in them than in their fellow-artists of narrower range of experience and artistic achievement. For this reason these greatest interpreters of the human spirit are in no sense exclusively of the past; they are of the present and the future. To know them is not only to know the particular periods in which they wrote, but to know our own period in the deepest sense. No man can better prepare himself to enter into the formative life of his time than by thoroughly familiarising himself with the greatest books of the past; for in these are revealed, not the secrets of past forms