“In my youthful days, I never entered a great library, suppose of one hundred thousand volumes, but my predominant feeling was one of pain and disturbance of mind, — not much unlike that which drew tears from Xerxes, on viewing his immense army, and reflecting that in one hundred years not one soul would remain alive. To me, with respect to the books, the same effect would be brought about by my own death. Here, said I, are one hundred thousand books, the worst of them capable of giving me some pleasure and instruction; and before I can have had time to extract the honey from one-twentieth of this hive, in all likelihood I shall be summoned away. This thought, I am sure, must have often occurred to yourself; and you may judge how much it was aggravated when I found that, subtracting all merely professional books—books of reference, as dictionaries, &c. &c. &c. — from the universal library of Europe, there would still remain a total of not less than twelve hundred thousand books over and above what the presses of Europe are still disemboguing into the ocean of literature, many of them immense folios or quartos. Now, I had been told by an eminent English author, that, with respect to one single work, namely, the History of Thuanus, a calculation had been made by a Portuguese monk, which showed that barely to read over the words (and allowing no time for reflection) would require three years’ labour, at the rate of (I think) three hours a day. Further, I had myself ascertained that to read a duodecimo volume, in prose, of four hundred pages — all skipping being barred, and the rapid reading which belongs to the vulgar interest of a novel — was a very sufficient work for one day. Consequently, three hundred and sixty-five per annum — that is (with a very small allowance for the claims of life on one’s own account and that of one’s friends), one thousand for every triennium; that is, ten thousand for thirty years — will be as much as a man who lives for that only can hope to accomplish. From the age of twenty to eighty, therefore — if a man were so unhappy as to live to eighty — the utmost he could hope to travel through would be twenty thousand volumes,— a number not, perhaps, above five per cent, of what the mere current literature of Europe would accumulate in that period of years. Now, from this amount of twenty thousand make a deduction on account of books of larger size, books to be studied and books to be read slowly and many times over (as all works in which the composition is a principal part of their pretensions), — allow a fair discount for such deductions, and the twenty thousand will perhaps shrink to eight or five thousand. All this arithmetical statement you must not conceive to relate to any fanciful case of misery. No; I protest to you that I speak of as real a case of suffering as ever can have existed. And it soon increased; for the same panic seized upon me with respect to the works of art. I found that I had no chance of hearing the twenty-five thousandth part of the music that had been produced. And so of other arts. Nor was this all; for, happening to say to myself, one night as I entered a long street, “I shall never see the one thousandth part of the people who are living in this single street,” it occurred to me that every man and woman was a most interesting book, if one knew how to read them. Here opened upon me a new world of misery; for, if books and works of art existed by millions, men existed by hundreds of millions. Nay, even if it had been possible for me to know all of my own generation, yet, like Dr. Faustus, who desired to see “Helen of Greece,” I should still have been dissatisfied; for what was one generation to all that were past? Nay, even if it had been possible for me to know all of my own generation, yet, like Dr. Faustus, who desired to see “Helen of Greece,” I should still have been dissatisfied; for what was one generation to all that were past? Nay, my madness took yet a higher flight; for I considered that I stood on a little isthmus of time, which connected the two great worlds, the past and the future. I stood in equal relation to both; I asked for admittance to one as much as to the other. Even if a necromancer could have brought up the great men of the seventeenth century, I should have said, “What good does all this do me? Where are those of the twentieth century? —and so onward! In short, I never turned my thoughts this way but I fell into a downright midsummer madness. I could not enjoy what I had, — craving for that which I had not, and could not have; was thirsty, like Tantalus, in the midst of waters; even when using my present wealth, thought only of its perishableness; and “wept to have what I so feared to lose.”
Thomas De Quincey. “Letters to a young man whose education has been neglected; and other papers.” Pages 82-85.