Ralph Waldo Emerson on the adoration of books

"Petra" by Guy Laramée

"Petra" by Guy Laramée
Photo by Guy L’Heureux
Image credit: Magers & Quinn Booksellers

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 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.

Or, I might say, it depends on how far the process has gone, of transmuting life into truth. In proportion to the completeness of the distillation, so will the purity and imperishableness of the product be. But none is quite perfect. As no air-pump can by any means make a perfect vacuum, so neither can any artist entirely exclude the conventional, the local, the perishable from his book, or write a book of pure thought, that shall be as efficient, in all respects, to a remote posterity, as to contemporaries, or rather to the second age. Each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the succeeding. The books of an older period will not fit this.

Yet hence arises a great mischief. The sacredness which attaches to the act of creation, the act of thought, is transferred to the record. The poet chanting was felt to be a divine man: henceforth the chant is divine also. The writer was a just and wise spirit: henceforward it is settled the book is perfect; as love of the hero corrupts into worship of his statue. Instantly the book becomes noxious: the guide is a tyrant. The sluggish and perverted minds of the multitude, slow to open to the incursions of Reason, having once so opened, having once received this book, stands upon it, and makes an outcry if it is disparaged. Colleges are built on it. Books are written on it by thinkers, not by Man Thinking; by men of talent, that is, who start wrong, who set out from accepted dogmas, not from their own sight of principles. Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given; forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books.

Instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm. Hence the book-learned class, who value books, as such; not as related to nature and the human constitution, but as making a sort of Third Estate with the world and the soul. Hence the restorers of readings, the emendators, the bibliomaniacs of all degrees.

Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire. I had better never see a book than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system. The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul. This every man is entitled to; this every man contains within him, although in almost all men obstructed, and as yet unborn. The soul active sees absolute truth and utters truth, or creates. In this action it is genius; not the privilege of here and there a favorite, but the sound estate of every man. In its essence it is progressive. 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. But genius looks forward: the eyes of man are set in his forehead, not in his hindhead: man hopes: genius creates.
Ralph Waldo Emerson in “The American Scholar,” an oration delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge on August 31, 1837. Published in Emerson’s Nature; Addresses and Lectures, (J. Munroe, 1849), p. 83. Also available online here.

Ralph Waldo Emerson Posted on behalf of Ralph Waldo Emerson on Sunday, January 3rd, 2010 under Quotations.

One comment so far

  1. That’s a good one … and the petra book is sublime. I often think on this issue myself, usually the more mundane angle of what describes creation, or even art. I’ve heard it said from some of the more artistic kinds, that pop art (in the sense of that art which induces temporary, though potent, fame) is in fact the highest achievement in all the arts. That is: to find that center of the moment that touches so many and so much, and to impart within it some small signature of ones artistic immortality.

    Maybe it’s like accepting on some deep level that your creation has very little, in fact, to do with you; after all. Accepting that your yield is but a ramification, at best, in a stream of endeavours, some that live more vibrantly in the past and some in the future, but only a handful in the present moment and right there at the center.

    Especially in writing. In words. Where one tends to “set out from accepted dogmas.” Where, I wonder, should one set out from if otherwise? Reminds me of a conversation I recently had with my father, about the depreciation of the word “existential.” He was horrified that people tend to use this word now, seemingly ignorant of, or indifferent to, the existentialism of the early twentieth century; and its plight of “isolation of the individual experience in a hostile or indifferent universe.”

    Rather, in the modern parlance, existential starts to mean “pertaining to existence” as our dictionaries start catching up with the spate of the colloquial usage, and, always with latent irony, returning to some proverbial “etymological foundation.” But why shouldn’t they? — dictionaries, that is. And what a beautifully direct method of subversion. It seems to say, ‘let us not create a new form, but rather let us sublimate an old one. Let us dissolve you, and vitiate your influence, by making it as though you never were; by changing the very meaning of what you defined your meaning to mean.’ And so we do.

    Yes, Emerson is beautiful, and the forms of the past seem a trap for some, while an asylum for a multitude. And that which is epiphany for the first, not but sordid connivance for the ladder. And she partaking in the mysteries and wonders of the unknown, is also he who is brandished unacceptable, improper, untenable or indiscrete. And they who champion the forms of the forebears, are also those that perish in the conflagration of the neophytes. And for each lost convention wilts a root of wisdom, and from every original thought sinters forth a nascent sin. But time, indifferent to it all, pours forward … pouring ever forward.

    So where is one to settle in, I do wonder? And which is somehow the proper view? Maybe to be the memory and the torch? To brand the future with the past? To restore some immaterial glory in an act of impossible redemption? Yes … maybe that’s it … to meld … to meld with the impossible ….

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