“The great object of education is to acquaint the youthful man with himself, to inspire in him self-trust.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
The essence of self-reliance is a commitment to making decisions based on one’s own native instinct, personal values, and primary experience over external advice, cultural conformity, and second-hand information.
At the heart of this kind of radical self-trust, however, is something of a conundrum.
If you eschew outside sources, how can you rely on your intuition, which, being untutored, is possibly ignorant and unwise?
Yet, if you try to “train” your instinct, and open yourself up to studying the ideas of others, how do you prevent your own voice from being submerged in the resulting cacophony of counsel?
Perhaps no one wrestled with this question more than the prime progenitor of the very concept of self-reliance: Ralph Waldo Emerson.
On the one hand, the philosopher who adhered to the maxim “obey thyself” was deeply dubious of the ultimate value of books and media in general. Emerson believed the two best sources of education were Nature and action — making firsthand observations of one’s environment and learning from personal experimentation.
In contrast, books are a step removed from the beating heart of things — the mere “transcripts” of other men’s experiences; even “the best are but records, and not the things recorded.”
“What are books?” Emerson asked one of his lecture audiences. “They can have no permanent value . . . When we are aroused to a life in ourselves, these traditional splendors of letters grow very pale and cold.”
On another occasion, Emerson excoriated literature as “a heap of nouns and verbs enclosing an intuition or two.” And he approved the remark of Thomas Hobbes, who said, “If I had read as much as other men I should be as ignorant.”
“For the most part,” Emerson firmly held, “[books] work no redemption in us.”
Yet that caveat — for the most part — could not contain more import. For despite Emerson’s skepticism of the value of books, he was in fact an absolutely voracious reader his whole life through. In his junior year of college, he began keeping a list of all the books he read, and after his formal education ended, he continued to spend a significant part of each day expanding that list, working his way through tomes both classic and new. Indeed, as Emerson’s biographer Robert Richardson observes, “it sometimes seems as though no book published from 1820 until his death evaded his attention completely.”
While Emerson felt that the educative value of books was secondary to that of Nature and action, he still saw them as playing a vital role in inspiring moral power, spurring creative thought, stoking imagination, and shaping culture. Rather than contradicting the learning which came from more existential sources, books had at least the potential to enhance them.
While reading could be a passive pursuit, it could also increase one’s capacity for action by providing inspiration and building up a storehouse of knowledge to draw upon in better recognizing opportunities and making decisions.
And rather than squashing the kind of curious awe Emerson felt was so crucial to the proper development of character and soul, greater knowledge could elevate one’s faculty for wonder and insight — one’s ability to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. Reading could allow the reader to discern more in his environment, and make profounder observations and keener connections. Or as Coleridge put it in a saying Emerson himself affirmed, “Every object rightly seen unlocks a new faculty of the Soul.”
Thus, as Richardson notes, “Far from praising ignorance, Emerson kept repeating in his journal Coleridge’s quiet incitement to study, quantum scimus sumus — we are what we know. The greater one’s knowledge, the more justified one’s self-reliance.”
Where some might see a contradiction in Emerson’s views on reading, he saw a creative tension. Most media was dross: at best a waste of the time that could have been better spent sucking out the marrow of life firsthand, and at worst a mental clog that clouded one’s deeper instincts and conformed one’s original impulses to society’s most banal denominator. But, there were a few books that rewarded the effort in reading — that left a man better able to understand himself, and what he wished to do in the world.
Emerson’s key to reading for greater, rather than lesser self-reliance, can thus be summed up in one word: discrimination.
Emerson himself admitted to often being overwhelmed by the sheer number of books available to read. In his time, he estimated there were around a million in existence, and observed how easy it was to despondently gaze around a large library, “count the number of pages which a diligent man can read in a day, and the number of years which human life in favorable circumstances allows to reading; and to demonstrate that though he should read from dawn till dark, for sixty years, he must die in the first alcoves.”
Fortunately, Emerson observes, though there are endless texts at our disposal, only a tiny percentage of them are actually worth reading. A man’s job is thus to learn how to discern the wheat from the chaff — to “be sure then to read no mean books.”
To this end, Emerson proposes three rules for reading with discrimination:
- Never read a book that is not a year old.
- Never read any but famed books.
- Never read any but what you like.
Let us now unpack Emerson’s rationale for these rules, as well as additional self-reliance-strengthening reading habits he practiced himself and advised others to adopt. For if the ability to discriminate between pieces of information of varying value and hold onto one’s individuality in the face of society’s din was vital in Emerson’s day, when a “mere” million books were extant, it’s a hundred times more so in our own, when the steady stream of media has turned into a relentless, flattening flood.
How to Read for Greater Self-Reliance
“Keep close to realities. Then you accustom yourself to getting facts at first hand. If we could get all our facts so, there would be no necessity of books; but they give us facts, if we know how to use them.”
Read Only What Interests You
“The best rule of reading will be a method from Nature, and not a mechanical one of hours and pages. It holds each student to a pursuit of his native aim, instead of a desultory miscellany. Let him read what is proper to him, and not waste his memory on a crowd of mediocrities.”
“A point of education that I can never too much insist upon is this tenet, that every individual man has a bias which he must obey, and that it is only as he feels and obeys this that he rightly develops and attains his legitimate power in the world. It is his magnetic needle, which points always in one direction to his proper path, with more or less variation from any other man’s. He is never happy nor strong until he finds it, keeps it; learns to be at home with himself; learns to watch the delicate hints and insights that come to him, and to have the entire assurance of his own mind.”
Emerson’s third rule for books — “Never read any but what you like” — may seem overly parochial, or even lazy. Shouldn’t we all aim to be Renaissance men?
Certainly, even we’ve previously advised the pursuit of that aim. But it’s one of those things that sounds good as a hypothetical, as an abstract principle to preach, but that very few people actually follow, and perhaps works against both the individual’s and society’s benefit.
Emerson’s advice takes a more realistic, and ultimately generative, track. He proposes following Nature as to what each individual should read. What this means is that each person has a special set of interests and talents — something unique to do in the world. In order to bring this latent potential to fruition and accomplish his personal mission, he thus ought to follow the contours of his mind and heart, heeding the texts to which they lend a particular emphasis, and studying to become really excellent and knowledgeable in that area. A man should direct his reading to be able to do the thing that no one else can do.
Further, you get far more from a book in line with your interests then one you feel you “should” read but really don’t care for. Emerson buttresses his rule #3 with Shakespeare’s phrase:
“No profit goes where is no pleasure ta’en:
In brief, sir, study what you most affect”
He puts the same principle himself this way: “only that book can we read which relates to me something that is already in my mind.” This is another of the philosopher’s statements we may initially resist out of hypothetical principle, but, which reflection on personal experience reveals to be exactly true. We can only incorporate what we are ready for.
John M. Fletcher, author of a century’s old summary of Emerson’s educational philosophy, brings it home this way:
“Reading along the line of natural bent is like striking with a hammer when we have the force of gravity as an ally. This accounts for the difference between what a boy gets out of a book which he must read on the sly and one which he is compelled to read.”
Keep in mind that reading what interests you doesn’t necessarily mean only reading what you agree with. Emerson notes that “We read either for antagonism or confirmation,” and argues that it doesn’t matter which. We may profoundly disagree with a point of view, and still find it wonderfully thought-provoking.
Further, reading what interests you doesn’t limit yourself to a single interest. Nor does liking a book require it to be an easy read. While Emerson sometimes read systematically, to glean insights for a specific project, generally he delved into widely ranging and often challenging texts, including ancient classics, travel accounts, scriptures (and scriptural exegesis) from all the world’s religions, Norse mythology, academic journals, books on art, architecture, and science, and even dry documents like the “1849 Report of the Commissioner on Indian Affairs.” Emerson understood that you never know where inspiration will come from, and Richardson appropriately calls those periods in which he was “reading in all directions” an “active seedtime,” for it often resulted in the fruitful cross-pollination of ideas.
Emerson’s readings in chemistry, biology, and botany, for example, created a positive feedback loop in terms of his immersion in Nature; his studies allowed him to discern and understand more detail in the environment, which both heightened his experience of Nature’s spiritual forces, and yet grounded his descriptions of such. Richardson describes the way Emerson’s fascination with the “strange union of precision and wonder in scientific inquiry . . . [and] openness to science kept his thought ballasted with fact and observation and his writing anchored solidly in the real world.”
One of his favorite books, The Fruits and Fruit Trees of America, formed a similar feedback loop in which the botanical writings aided him in planting over one hundred fruit trees of his own, and both the text, and the experience of tending, pruning, and grafting his orchard, inspired reflections on the analogies between cultivating the soil, and cultivating the mind, as well as the way in which trees and men go through similar seasons of fertility and drought.
Still, there were some genres for which Emerson had little taste, like fiction (he found it yawn-inducing), and even within the genres he liked, there were certain sub-genres he read more than others. He had no qualms about ignoring that which didn’t pluck the iron string of his heart.
Ultimately, he believed you could read widely and discriminately, expanding your curiosity throughout your life, but never forcing yourself to start, or finish, a book that fell outside the pursuit of your “native aim,” nor wasting time feeling guilty over a tome rightly gathering dust on your nightstand.
Read Original Writing
“there are books . . . which take rank in our life with parents and lovers and passionate experiences, so medicinal, so stringent, so revolutionary, so authoritative, — books which are the work and the proof of faculties so comprehensive, so nearly equal to the world which they paint, that though one shuts them with meaner ones, he feels his exclusion from them to accuse his way of living.”
“Read those men who are not lazy; who put themselves in contact with the realities. So you learn to look with your eyes too.”
One of the ways Emerson further culled even the genres that interested him, was to read only the books he felt were most original. Given that the educative value of books was secondary to Nature and action because they only transcribed primary experiences, books that came closest to capturing those visceral, lived realities were superior to those whose contents were further removed.
Emerson thus selected texts that offered firsthand accounts — travelogues, testaments, journals, descriptions of discovery, forthright arguments, autobiographies, poems, and the like. He wanted to read one’s personal, unapologetic witness — works, Richardson explains, “that declared solidly, without derivation or support, without apology or disclaimer, what the author observed and knew.” These books pumped with as much blood as a static text could, and thus provoked the kind of convictions of heart that move a man to live differently.
Conversely, Emerson cast aside those writings which were banally derivative of more original works, and offered only opinions and commentaries on more visceral writing without adding a fresh angle. Such second-hand texts often suited the trends and controversies of the hour but held no lasting worth; they were “books by the dead for the dead.”
Read the Classic, Time-Tested Standards
“Consider what you have in the smallest chosen library. A company of the wisest and wittiest men that could be picked out of all civil countries in a thousand years have set in best order the results of their learning and wisdom.”
“As whole nations have derived their culture from a single book, — as the Bible has been the literature as well as the religion of large portions of Europe; as Hafiz was the eminent genius of the Persians, Confucius of the Chinese, Cervantes of the Spaniards; so, perhaps, the human mind would be a gainer if all the secondary writers were lost.”
“The inspection of [a library’s vast] catalogue brings me continually back to the few standard writers who are on every private shelf; and to these it can afford only the most slight and casual additions.”
In his essay on “Books” (originally given as a lecture to college students), Emerson offers a set of very specific reading recommendations. His list of suggested authors is very much like what one would find in a volume of Great Books of the Western World: Plato (a particular favorite), Herodotus, Plutarch, Aurelius, Bacon, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Montaigne, Goethe, Wordsworth, and the like. Emerson not only recommended these works to others, but they served as the main repast of his own daily reading diet. He read them not once, but many times throughout his life.
Given Emerson’s penchant for iconoclasm and admonition to read only what one likes, it may seem surprising that he would make specific recommendations at all, and that his suggestions for others (as well the backbone of his own library) would largely consist of such “conventional” classics. Yet, rather than being a contradiction of Emerson’s commitment to originality, his championing of old, standard authors was in fact an extension of it.
Another way to follow Nature in your reading, he argued, was to only read those works which had stood the test of time (this accounts for the first and second of his three reading rules).
Trying to find books with real value, Emerson observes, is much like playing a lottery in which the odds are quite long. For every gem you serendipitously discover, you must crack open a multitude of absolute duds.
Nature, however, has provided a way of increasing our chances of hitting the jackpot. For it enacts an organic sifting process: only people who are successful and bright end up writing books, and only the best of those will end up published. (This is, of course, less true in our age of self-publishing.) Even of those published, few will still be around after a year’s time, even less after a decade, and very, very few — the most brilliant and original — will still be printed and read hundreds or even thousands of years after they were first penned. “Nothing can be preserved which is not good.”
The “fame” of old books is thus earned, and not just the result of manufactured hype and splashy media attention. Whereas when it comes to modern books, “it is not so easy to distinguish betwixt notoriety and fame.”
Old books also benefit from the “first mover advantage”; that is, it was easier to make one’s writing truly original millennia ago, before many more generations of authors had a chance to weigh in and explicate the laws of life from every possible angle — before the number of published texts had expanded from the hundreds to the thousands to the millions. The philosophers and authors of antiquity got the first crack at etching insights into the tabula rasa of the written record. “The crowds and centuries of books” that have been birthed since then, Emerson observes, “are only commentary and elucidation, echoes and weakeners of these few great voices of time.”
For these reasons, he concludes, “It is therefore an economy of time to read old and famed books.”
In addition to helping you waste less time on reading mediocre media, Emerson argues that getting a foundation in the classics allows you to participate in Western culture’s “Great Conversation.” If you don’t know the basic fundamentals and background of a subject, he wisely declares, “you are not entitled to give any opinion.” And if you ever hope to contribute an original thought (which, though more challenging in the modern age, is still possible), you must know what has come before, and whether what you perceive to be a novel and unassailable premise has in fact already been forwarded and countered.
“Whenever any skeptic or bigot claims to be heard on the questions of intellect and morals,” Emerson writes by example, “we ask if he is familiar with the books of Plato, where all his pert objections have once for all been disposed of. If not, he has no right to our time. Let him go and find himself answered there.”
Read Actively for Creativity Rather Than Passively for Consumption
“Every man is a consumer, and ought to be a producer. He fails to make his place good in the world unless he not only pays his debt, but also adds something to the common wealth.”
“I find certain books vital and spermatic, not leaving the reader what he was: he shuts the book a richer man. I would never willingly read any others than such.”
“The mind is first only receptive. Surcharge it with thoughts in which it delights and it becomes active. The moment a man begins not to be convinced, that moment he begins to convince.”
So, read what you like, read what is original, and give special heed to the classics. No matter what one reads, however, Emerson argues that one’s posture towards the material matters at least as much as the material itself.
Media is not input to be poured mindlessly into the brain. It is not to be read to affirm pre-drawn conclusions nor adopt another’s philosophy wholesale, no matter how much it resonates. Books are not there to function as a substitute for one’s own thought; you should not shut off your own mind to borrow the author’s brain.
Readers, Emerson says, are not to be passive consumers, parasites who suck the juice from the leaves of others’ works, without being rooted themselves in the soil of originality, without breathing something back into the ecosystem.
Instead, readers should be creators; reading should be a creative act. You read original thought in order to catalyze your own original thought.
Even when it comes to the best books, the text should not be overly reverenced and worshipped. This is true, Emerson says, even when it comes to that which is literally canonized, to scripture itself. Written revelation should be read to generate your own personal revelation.
Rather than being overawed by the greats of the past, you should enter into a book believing you have the capacity to generate equally original insight. Emerson laments the fact that 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 those books.”
In order to maintain this creative, active stance in your reading, you first must not become too engrossed in media, letting the author’s thoughts, theories, and opinions overwhelm and submerge your own. “Reading long at one time in any book, no matter how it fascinates, destroys thought as completely as the inflections forced by external causes,” Emerson warns. “Do not permit this. Stop, if you find yourself becoming absorbed, at even the first paragraph. Keep yourself out and watch for your own impressions.”
As a further aid to active reading, one would do well to adopt Emerson’s practice of copious note taking. As Richardson reports, “from almost everything he read, he culled phrases, details, facts, metaphors, anecdotes, witticisms, aphorisms, and ideas.” Over his lifetime, these jottings added up to 230 notebooks and indexes (as well as indexes of indexes) — a comprehensive treasury of insights and thought starters on every subject that ever interested him, which could be tapped in forming his own reflections and writings.
For Emerson’s standard for originality didn’t preclude the use of inspiration from other authors — either more generally by way of broad ideas or more concretely in the use of quotations. He didn’t feel that originality always meant coming up with something entirely novel; sometimes it meant taking the thoughts of others, and riffing on them in a new way.
In his own work, he quoted other writers more than three thousand times, and he openly acknowledged the debt his writing owed to them, noting with approval Goethe’s saying that “the greatest genius will never be worth much if he pretends to draw exclusively on his own resources. What is genius, but the faculty of seizing and turning to account anything that strikes us . . . every one of my writings has been furnished to me by a thousand different persons, a thousand different things.” As Emerson himself put it, “Shall I tell you, the secret of the true scholar? It is this: Every man I meet is my master in some point, and in that I learn of him.”
Read Biographies and Autobiographies
“[Biographies] impart sympathetic activity to the moral power. Go with mean people and you think life is mean. Then read Plutarch [Lives], and the world is a proud place, peopled with men of positive quality, with heroes and demigods standing around us, who will not let us sleep.”
One genre of books Emerson saw as especially strengthening to self-reliance was biography and autobiography (Benjamin Franklin’s was a favorite). To understand why, you need to know a bit more about his philosophy on human nature.
Emerson believed all people shared a common nature, mind, and spirit — a “Universal Soul” or “Over-Soul.” The intellectual and spiritual energy of every person was drawn from a single, eternal, inexhaustible source.
Therefore, both the great and the average in every age are made out of the very same stuff. Heroes, titans, and geniuses were inspired by the very same force that animates every other man. They had the same kinds of emotions as he does, and may even have read the same books. Therefore, any man has access to the same experiences and expressions: “What Plato has thought, he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel; what at any time has befallen any man, he can understand.”
When looked at from this perspective, the strictly linear concept of history collapses, for “When a thought of Plato becomes a thought to me, when a truth that fired the soul of St. John, fires mine, time is no more.”
What this means for Emerson, is that there is no reason to nostalgize the past or deify history’s greatest figures. Because the Universal Soul has been present throughout time in the same way, any age is as good as any other; any age can be just as original, just as heroic, just as self-reliant. What was possible for any man in the past, is possible for any man in the present.
Great men were not of a different kind from the ordinary, but simply demonstrate the full actualization of human potential, of our common nature, in a particular area; “every talent has its apotheosis somewhere,” Emerson said, and great figures show us what that looks like. As Richardson explains, for Emerson, “Great persons are not superior to us; they are exemplary, symbolic, or representative of us.”
As symbols, Emerson said, the name of every great man was a “seed.” Reading biography could plant that seed in our own lives, leading to a greater fecundity of spirit. This growth happened not by copying every detail of the lives of eminent men, of course, which would contradict the aim of seeking a self-reliant, original path. Rather, reading biographies enhances one’s own generativity in a few different ways.
First, it simply revives one’s belief in “the absolute boundlessness of our capacity,” a belief all the more inspiring when one feels he is made of the very same stuff as the heroes of yesteryear. Rather than making us feel bad about ourselves, and the ways we yet fall short, great figures should serve as a mirror of our potential — a “fortification of hope.”
Second, biographies expand the palette of possibilities you can draw from in shaping your own life — they illuminate a wider range of paths and choices open to humanity. Emerson saw biographies as a medium, a kind of language, that could help us articulate our yearnings and express our own lives in fuller ways.
Lastly, biographies can also furnish direction as to more concrete, specific habits to adopt. While Emerson didn’t believe in duplicating every jot and tittle of another person’s life, he did see the value in incorporating methods that resonated and fit with one’s own native aim and way of thinking and working.
Emerson admonished us to remember that the story of the world’s great figures is only the story of every one of us. “All biography then,” Richardson observes, “is at last autobiography.”
Learn to Speed Read and Skim
“learn how to tell from the beginnings of the chapters and from glimpses of the sentences whether you need to read them entirely through. So, turn page after page, keeping the writer’s thought before you, but not tarrying with him, until he has brought you to the thing you are in search of; then dwell with him, if so be he has what you want. But recollect you read only to start your own team.”
“Do not attempt to be a great reader; and read for facts, and not by the bookful.”
“learn to divine books, to feel those that you want without wasting much time over them. Often a chapter is enough. The glance reveals when the gaze obscures. Somewhere the author has hidden his message. Find it, and skip the paragraphs that do not talk to you.”
Besides tossing out the injunction that you must read certain books, even if they don’t interest you, another “should” Emerson encourages us to discard is that of reading every book in full.
Emerson was in fact an unapologetic speed reader and book skimmer. This was part of his commitment to active, economical, discriminatory reading; he read not to engross himself in the text, and in another’s thought, but to glean their best bits, the insights most salient to him. No book was sacrosanct; it wasn’t a farm you had to buy wholesale; rather, it was a mine, from which you needed only to extract the gems.
While there are some texts that reward line by line reading, which have a valuable insight in many paragraphs, and in every chapter, most do not. This is especially true of modern books, many of which seem better suited to being an article (and in fact often started as one), and which, in order to reach the size of a standard volume, have had their central thesis padded with superfluous anecdotes and pop culture pysch studies. It is a waste of time to read such books cover to cover, when you can easily glean the best bits from the introduction and conclusion.
Of course, it is often a waste of time to read these kinds of books at all, and a quick skim allows you to speedily “divine” this fact.
Even when a book is of high quality through and through, not of all it will speak to you. Not all of it is meant for you. Everyone will get something different out of a book. This is why skimming should not be further short-cutted by looking at a book’s most popular highlights on Goodreads or Kindle; just because a passage resonates with the masses, doesn’t mean it’s the book’s most valuable gem for you.
“Do your own quarrying,” Emerson advises.
Spend Little Time on the News
“Shun the spawn of the press on the gossip of the hour. Do not read what you shall learn, without asking, in the street and the train.”
Emerson considered the news one of the lowest, if not the lowest form of media. While he admitted it could very, very occasionally, contain “the gem we want,” in the lottery of valuable, insightful texts, the news was almost always a bust. By nature ephemeral — “Like some insects, it died the day it was born” — it holds little lasting value. Therefore, Emerson advises, “transfer the amount of your reading day by day from the newspaper to the standard authors.”
Emerson also acknowledged to an audience of college students that newspapers “occupy during your generation a large share of attention” and that the “engaged man can neglect them only at his cost.” Meaning, one supposes, that failing to keep up with the news can hinder social interactions when the discussion turns to current events. Still, though, Emerson advises the young men to spend as little time as possible on the news, since much of it can simply be absorbed through the cultural ether and by judiciously skimming through the papers:
“Learn how to get their best too, without their getting yours. Do not read them when the mind is creative. And do not read them thoroughly, column by column. Remember they are made for everybody, and don’t try to get what isn’t meant for you . . . There is a great secret in knowing what to keep out of the mind as well as what to put in. The genuine news is what you want, and practice quick searches for it. Give yourself only so many minutes for the paper. Then you will learn to avoid the premature reports and anticipations, and the stuff put in for people who have nothing to think.”
Act and Experiment on What You Read
“Do it, bridge the gulf well and truly from edge to edge and the dunces will find it out. There is but one verdict needful and that is mine. If I do it, I shall know it.”
“the step from knowing to doing is rarely taken. ‘Tis a step out of a chalk circle of imbecility into fruitfulness.”
“Action . . . is essential. Without it [the scholar] is not yet man. Without it thought can never ripen into truth. Inaction is cowardice, but there can be no scholar without the heroic mind . . . Only so much do I know, as I have lived. Instantly we know whose words are loaded with life, and whose not.”
“The true scholar grudges every opportunity of action passed by, as a loss of power.”
For Emerson, reading is not an end in and of itself. Accumulation of information for its own sake is not the ultimate goal. Reading is to function as a spur to your own original thought, and as the catalyst for experimenting with and acting on it. Books must lead you back to Nature and action. Media can never become a substitute for “keep[ing] to close realities,” nor “accustom[ing] yourself to getting facts first hand.” Experience furnishes the most potent material for thought, and the validity of thought can be verified in no other way.
Should you discover some great insight in your reading that really resonates, there is only one way to know if it will ultimately prove vital and generative — if it will help you access greater Truth, hatch the seed of your own greatness, and attain your native aim.
You must try it, test it, do it.
Be Willing to Break All Externally-Sourced Rules, Including These
“Allow your mind to change; to be inconsistent; never fear to contradict yourself.”
“individual minds as well are not to be bound by the shackles of reverence for consistency, but they must be brave enough to contradict to-morrow what they have said to-day. Respect is due to the inspiration of the moment.”
Aspects of Emerson’s reading rules, as well as his overall philosophy, can seem to conflict and clash. He wouldn’t have thought this a bad thing. Is not the very nature of life, of our desires, often thoroughly contradictory? Sometimes we want one thing. Sometimes another. Sometimes one method works best. Another time calls for a different approach.
Emerson would have you embrace life’s contradictions, no less concerning your reading than anything else.
Sometimes what we need to move forward is a book. Sometimes we simply need to act. Sometimes we can be self-reliant in the absence of any external advice. Sometimes others’ counsel is exactly what we need to stay the course towards our own true north.
Let the view you pick up from one book change after reading another. And let how you read change too, depending on what is needful at a certain time, for you.
Respect is due to the inspiration of the moment.
So don’t be afraid to break rules, including these. In most cases, they’ll be eminently helpful in changing your reading habits from self-reliance sapping, to self-reliance strengthening. But Emerson wouldn’t have wanted you to be slavishly devoted to them.
After hearing Emerson debase the value of novels, a young college student and acolyte, Charles Woodbury, became deeply disappointed in the mentor he nearly worshipped. Nervously, with “quivering lips,” Woodbury said he simply couldn’t agree with the philosopher’s stance.
“Very well,” Emerson answered with a twinkling eye. “I do not wish disciples.”
This moment, Woodbury later remembered, “was a long step toward manhood.”
“Books” by Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Natural History of Intellect” by Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Emerson’s Educational Philosophy” by John Madison Fletcher
Talks With Ralph Waldo Emerson by Charles J. Woodbury
Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert D. Richardson, Jr.
Last updated: December 2, 2017