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You Tell Me: Your Favorite Jefferson Biography EVER

by Anna Berkes Lots of people ask us for recommendations for which Jefferson biography to read, but the choices...More »

Quotations on Reading

1771 August 3. (to Robert Skipwith) "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 its 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, everything is useful which contributes to fix in the principles and practices of virtue."[1]

c.1781. (Notes on the State of Virginia) "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."[2]

1794 February. 3. (Edmund Randolph) "I am sorry La Motte has put me to the expense of one hundred and forty livres for a French translation of an English poem, as I make it a rule never to read translations where I can read the original."[3]

1800 January 15. (to Charles Brockden Brown) "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 and vice in the worst forms possible, as the former may."[4]

1812 January 21. (to John Adams) "I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid; and I find myself much the happier."[5]

1813 August 22. (to Abigail Adams) "...My greatest of all amusements, reading."[6]

1815 June 10. (to John Adams) "I cannot live without books."[7]

1816 January 9. (to Charles Thomson) "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."[8]

1818 March 14. (to Nathaniel Burwell) "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 its tone and revolts it against wholesome reading....This mass of trash, however, is not without some distinction; some few modelling their narratives, although fictitious, on the incidents of real life, have been able to make them interesting and useful vehicles of sound morality....For a like reason, too, much poetry should not be indulged. Some is useful for forming style and taste. Pope, Dryden, Thompson, Shakespeare, and of the French, Molière, Racine, the Corneilles, may be read with pleasure and improvement."[9]

1818 May 17. (to John Adams) "My repugnance to the writing table becomes daily and hourly more deadly and 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 through 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."[10]

1819 January 12. (to Nathaniel Macon) "I feel a much greater interest in knowing what has 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 and 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."[11]

1819 March 21. (to Vine Utley) "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; and now, retired, and at the age of seventy-six, 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 says he was, devoting to it from five to eight 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."[12]

1819 August 24. (to John Brazier) "Among the values of classical learning, I estimate the luxury of reading the Greek and Roman authors in all the beauties of their originals. And why should not this innocent and elegant luxury take its preëminent stand ahead of all those addressed 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." [13]

1819 October 31. to (William Short) "My business is to beguile the wearisomeness 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 and fear."[14]

1820 December 25. (to Thomas Ritchie) "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."[15]


  1. Peterson, Writings, 741.
  2. Notes, 148.
  3. PTJ, 28:16.
  4. Library of Congress.
  5. Cappon,Adams-Jefferson Letters, 2:291.
  6. Ibid, 2:367.
  7. Ibid, 2:443.
  8. Peterson,Writings, 1373.
  9. Ibid, 1411-12.
  10. Cappon, Adams- Jefferson Letters, 2:524.
  11. Peterson, Writings, 1415.
  12. Ibid, 1416-17.
  13. Ibid, 1423.
  14. Ibid, 1432.
  15. Ibid, 1447.

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