Luther’s Thoughts on Personal Libraries

luther 99Isn’t it a crying shame that heretofore a boy was obliged to study for twenty years or even longer merely to learn enough bad Latin to become a priest and mumble through the mass? Whoever got that far was accounted blessed, and blessed was the mother who bore such a child! And yet he remained all his life a poor ignoramus, unable either to cackle or to lay an egg.

Everywhere we were obliged to put up with teachers and masters who knew nothing themselves, and were incapable of teaching anything good or worthwhile. In fact, they did not even know how to study or teach. Where does the fault lie? There were no other books available than the stupid books of the monks and the sophists. What else could come out of them but pupils and teachers as stupid as the books they used?

A jackdaw hatches no doves, and a fool cannot produce a sage. That is the reward of our ingratitude, that men failed to found libraries but let the good books perish and kept the poor ones.

My advice is not to heap together all manner of books indiscriminately and think only of the number and size of the collection. I would make a judicious selection, for it is not necessary to have all the commentaries of the jurists, all the sentences of the theologians, all the quaestiones of the philosophers, and all the sermons of the monks. Indeed, I would discard all such dung, and furnish my library with the right sort of books, consulting with scholars as to my choice.

First of all, there would be the Holy Scriptures, in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and German, and any other language in which they might be found.

Next, the best commentaries, and, if I could find them, the most ancient, in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin.

Then, books that would be helpful in learning the languages, such as the poets and orators, regardless of whether they were pagan or Christian, Greek or Latin, for it is from such books that one must learn grammar.

After that would come books on the liberal arts, and all the other arts.

Finally, there would be books of law and medicine; here too there should be careful choice among commentaries.*

If I might offer a condensed version: fill your library with reference books that you will use more than once. If you are only going to read something once, don’t buy it, borrow it. Buy the most useful commentaries and the language tools which you will find valuable over the course of your life’s work. As Luther remarks, if you study junk, you’ll teach junk. If you study quality, you’ll teach quality.  And you can only do that if you have a decent library.

*The Christian in Society II, (Vol. 45, pp. 375–377).