Ralph Waldo Emerson's Advice on Reading and Writing
Introduction: Emerson on Reading
In 1837 Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke to Harvard's Phi Beta Kappa Society. Addressing an audience of newly minted graduates, he gave one of those inspiring pep talks that commencement speakers have been giving ever since. The result became one of his classic essays, "The American Scholar," which offered a roadmap for a life of the mind that moved beyond the worship of books and a life of un-reflected reading. Emerson understood that reading is crucial to a person's intellectual well-being, but it's not the only thing we should be doing, far from it.
He wanted us to know there was more to life than books. We must find time to live as well. Books are best thought of as tools used to kickstart our own creativity. We read to write; we write to create and create so we can tap into something larger than ourselves. The inspiration people still get from reading Emerson's essays comes from his contagious optimism that our potential goes far beyond what we end up settling for. To become ourselves, we must go outside of ourselves and so gain the experience needed to level up in life. Books are an essential part of that growth. But there's more to it than that.
Emerson began "American Scholar" with a synopsis of how books shaped civilization. Think of them as depositories where great minds take facts from the world and convert them into durable ideas for the rest of us to use. Such are the building blocks of culture. Man Thinking, to use Emerson's term for the individual as an actively thinking being in the world, is someone able to express ideas in original, resonating ways. Thoughts transferred from mind to document become solid objects in the world for anyone to read.
Thus we got writing, and writing gave us a record, and so was born the first information technology. Nothing would ever be the same. As long as ideas survive to be read, these reified ghosts of our psyche achieve a kind of immortality. The mind that created them must eventually return to dust. At the same time, the best ideas will continue inspiring, shaping, and defining culture for centuries. Plato, the authors of the Gospels and Paul too, Mohammed, Bill Shakespeare, John Milton, John Locke, J.J. Rousseau, and Ernest Hemmingway, are just a few examples of what this means in practice.
Emerson elaborates, "The theory of books is noble. The scholar of the first age received into him the world around; brooded thereon; gave it the new arrangement of his own mind, and uttered it again. It came into him—life; it went out from him—truth. It came to him—short-lived actions; it went out from him—immortal thoughts. It came to him—business; it went from him—poetry. It was—dead fact; now, it is quick thought. It can stand, and it can go. It now endures, it now flies, it now inspires. Precisely in proportion to the depth of mind from which it issued, so high does it soar, so long does it sing."
Emerson on Reading, Writing, Creating
We've all had these "immortal thoughts" from time to time, the occasional glimpse of the sublime that hints at some higher truth we can't quite put into words. Sadly, the sublime often dies unexpressed in the prison of our skulls. That is, of course, unless it's unlocked and freed by a writer of genius able to find the words that we can't. That's what genius is, by the way; it's not all about a high IQ. Hardly. For how many brilliant minds out there are creatively and emotionally sterile? They're good at math, maybe, and puzzles and trivia, but otherwise they're nothing but efficient intellect. High-functioning robots. For Emerson, genius is useless if it doesn't create anything. It's a fruit tree that doesn't bear any fruit.
Emerson wrote, Genius creates. To create—to create—is the proof of a divine presence. Whatever talents may be, if the man create not, the pure efflux of the Deity is not his—cinders and smoke, there may be, but not yet flame."
For anyone who's ever tried to write down a complicated thought, the challenge is communicating what we're experiencing in a way other people can understand. Left to our own devices, we're usually unable to describe what we're thinking, especially where emotions and abstractions are involved.
Dreaming is the most common example where people run into this problem. How many times have you dreamt of something that evoked some powerful emotion? Perhaps it was a terrifying nightmare, an erotic dream, or any other Salvador Dali-esque phantasmagoria that left you shaken. You wake up out of breath, in a cold sweat, and your heart beating like a rabbit's. But then it all dissolves as soon as you begin to describe it. The dream vision turns into a crude crayon drawing. Dumbfounded, we retreat in frustration. "You just had to be there!"
Enter the writer, the best of whom find the words to describe the indescribable. They're linguistic guides, mapmakers of the soul, and sculptors of mind. That's what good writing does: It takes unspoken but experienced intuitions and gives them form. We find resonance in hearing our vague ideas expressed so much better by someone else. This carries even more weight when the words transcend time and space and still have meaning for us.
"It is remarkable, the character of the pleasure we derive from the best books. They impress us with the conviction that one nature wrote and the same reads. We read the verses of one of the great English poets, of Chaucer, of Marvell, of Dryden, with the most modern joy—with a pleasure, I mean, which is in great part caused by the abstraction of all time from their verses. There is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this poet, who lived in some past world, two or three hundred years ago, says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had well nigh thought and said."
But like any information technology, there's a risk. Even as we bask in the enlightened glow of someone else's thoughts, we're incomplete if that's all we do. Readers who only read, who never take what they read as a springboard to create something unique, never really think on their own. They're what Emerson contemptuously referred to as "bookworms" or the "book-learned class." They worship books as objects instead of for the contents contained therein. Readers who are merely book smart forever remain vicarious thinkers. They often have stacks and stacks of books, most of which they've never read.
Don't get me wrong, Emerson believed that reading is far better than not, and I most certainly agree, though it's like anything else. If done in excess, it takes away more than it gives. If we're not careful, we'll read uncritically and lose the ability to sort sense from nonsense. It's passive reading for the sake of reading; it's assuming that reading in and of itself is a good thing, no matter the content or the intent of that reading.
I confess that's been my personal view for years. I'm not alone in lamenting that deeper forms of reading that demand our attention are dying in the face of digital technologies that reward passivity. My settling for "good enough" in this brave new world has been to encourage others to read something, anything, for Christ's sake, instead of staring at a screen and zombie-scrolling shallow crap all day long. But that's not good enough for Emerson. Readers must learn to write, create, and think for themselves. Reading ought to inspire that process. It needs to be an activity that supplements the soul's diet, not serves as the entire meal. Quality reading demands our attention. But, yeah, I know, that's easier said than done.
Moreover, even those who try to write are often intimidated by the quality of what they've already read. Good writing breeds copycats, and copycats rarely exceed the original in style and content. Finding one's own voice is challenging when we've gotten into the habit of not doing so. How often I've finished a novel and marveled at the world the author was able to immerse me in. "My God, I could never write anything like that" is the insidious acid that burns away our willpower, mainly because it's often true. The paradox of creativity stifling creativity can scale up to the societal level, with fine-tuned traditions and authoritative elites encouraging the uncritical worship of canon. Their canon.
Emerson quips that Shakespeare's genius was so overshadowing that English poets have only "Shakespearized" in the two centuries since his death. As he puts it, "Genius is always sufficiently the enemy of genius by over-influence." We read a work of genius and are so impressed and intimidated that we can see no other way of doing it better. And so we don't, and console ourselves with forever being consumers rather than creators.
While books give us access to a culture's intellectual greatest hits, they can also impede the development of new thoughts. "The book, the college, the school of art, the institution of any kind, stop with some past utterance of genius. This is good, say they—let us hold by this. They pin me down. They look backward and not forward."
It's a curious paradox: On the one hand, reading frees us from the subjective island of our solitary selves and connects us to a vast trade network of other minds that transcend space and time. This enriches us beyond measure. Then again, over-reading saps our own mental vigor. We end up neither here nor there, devouring the ideas of others while creating none of our own.
Emerson's Advice for the Reader
Okay, so what's Emerson's advice for the reader? For all the aforementioned dangers, he wanted us to keep reading but to take a more instrumental approach. "There is then creative reading, as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion." Creative reading leads to creative writing. Creative reading is another way of saying active reading, or reading that interrogates and critiques the author. We should approach a book with an idea of what we want to get out of it and then leave the rest. We are to do with books as we please. "The discerning will read in his Plato or Shakespeare, only that least part—only the authentic utterances of the oracle—all the rest he rejects, were it never so many times Plato's and Shakespeare's."
All this is meant to do two things. First, active reading should inspire our own creative efforts. Don't just read, write as well; find a voice, have something to say, and learn to say it with some eloquence. Remember, genius doesn't merely consume content; it creates. Emerson's philosophy demands that we do so on our own terms. Everyone has something to say. This is far from the aristocratic elitism of the European thinkers. On the contrary, it's a refreshingly democratic plea intended for all of us. Reading Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, for example, is to wade through the dripping contempt they have for the average person's potential.
Emerson's approach lacks that stinging snobbery. It was meant for all of us. He believed each person had a bit of the divine spark and something interesting to say. It's our job to unlock the muse imprisoned in our minds. We all have one. She's in there, somewhere, waiting. Yet reading is but the half of it. For that muse to sing her song, we must set her free, even if those first efforts are clumsy and out of tune. Practice, passion, and persistence will change that.
Second, if reading ought to be instrumental and inform our creative approach to life, we must also not forget the simple wisdom of life experience. In other words, there's another avenue to replenish our creative juices, which involves putting the books away and directly experiencing what the world has to offer. That includes the natural world, which for Emerson represented a sort of pantheistic majesty. The Truth is in nature; our task is to translate its mysterious language for others when they can't themselves. That's all of us most of the time. Emerson believed that tapping into that unity is one of the most creatively edifying things we can do.
But he was talking about the social world as well. We mustn't cloister ourselves in our libraries and shun human society. Wisdom is also found in the community, the church, the club, and conversations with close friends. Emerson wanted us to maintain an equilibrium in our lives between acting, experiencing, and intellectual pursuits like reading. Done with the right balance, they are like three legs of a stool, each holding the other two up.
Finding this balance puts us in the best position to sing our own songs, write our own poems, and leave our own bit of sublimity in the world when our bodies are gone. This is the closest any of us will get to immortality. The quality of our reading is better when we have our personal experience to contrast it with. Likewise, life is infinitely richer when we've fed our minds with good books written by humanity's greatest thinkers. Do the one, then the other, and do them over again.
At the end of another essay, "Nature," Emerson proclaims, "Every spirit builds itself a house, and beyond its house a world, and beyond its world a heaven." And, "Build, therefore, your own world." Reading, writing, and experiencing the world directly are part of that never-ending construction project. Those provide us with the materials to build with. Writing is the architect. It lets us construct a world in our heads where we must inevitably reside.
So make it beautiful.
Make it a refuge.
Make it your own.
Just make it.