To judge from the entry for Christoph Meiners (1747–1810) in the Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, one would think he was always either reading a book, or writing one. His impressive, if fearsome output includes speculative philosophy, psychology, theology, and history after history (of religion, science in the Ancient World, women, law). Meiners’ views on race (he put the Jews just above orang-utans) drew the attention of the Nazis, but this little book, ‘Instructions for Youth for working on one’s own, particularly Reading, Excerpting, and Writing’, is more worthy of modern attention and offers a fascinating insight into late eighteenth-century reading habits.
Meiners defines two types of reading: recreational and educational. We learn the questions we must ask ourselves—which books should one read on a given subject? in which order? how many?—and the importance of drawing up a reading plan. ‘Nothing promotes order in thinking better than order in reading.’ You must keep a list of books you want to read, and write up notes on the main books you have read (there is a whole section on note-taking), with the year and the order you read them in. Important books must be read with care (a slow process); you should not read a book quicker than you are able to think. Books for relaxation are only allowed if other reading is not going well. Suggestions are the memoirs of Temple, Bussy-Rabutin, Hamilton, Rochefoucauld, Noailles, and the novels of Smollett, Le Sage and especially Fielding. Richardson, however, is to be avoided, as his novels are ‘too long-drawn-out for youths and men’.