What is genius but the faculty of seizing and turning to account everything that strikes us? … The greatest genius will never be worth much if he pretends to draw exclusively from his own resources…. Every one of my writings has been furnished to me by a thousand different persons, a thousand different things.
In the last couple of years, I have found myself asking two simple questions, Why do we read? Why do we write? One context for this curiosity is my facilitating classes of writing and reading, in homes and on-line. If you, too, want or need to engage in such self-examination, I recommend biographer Robert D. Richardson’s First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process. You may find your own riches, as I have in what follows…
RDR: He glanced at thousands of books. He read carefully many hundreds that caught his attention. He returned over and over to a favorite few, including Montaigne, Plutarch, Plato, Plotinus, Goethe, de Stael, and Wordsworth.
RWE: It seemed to me as if I had written [Montaigne’s Essays] myself in some former life. … No book before or since was ever so much to me as that.
RWE: Each of the books I read invades me, displaces me.
RWE: If a man reads a book because it interests him and reads in all directions for the same reason, his reading is pure and interests me.
RWE: No matter where you begin, read anything for five hours a day and you will soon know.
RWE: For a few golden sentences we will turn over and actually read a volume of 4 or 5 hundred pages.
RDR: As much as Emerson recognized the claims of the classics (“it is always an economy of time to read old books”), he opposed the passive ingestion and approval of canonical texts just because they were famous.
RDR: Emerson read for personal gain, for personal use.
RWE: For only that book can we read which relates to me something that is already in my mind.
RWE: You have seen a skillful man reading Plutarch. Well, the author is a thousand things to a thousand persons. Take that book into your own two hands and read your eyes out. You will never find there what the other finds.
RWE: It makes no difference what I read. If it is irrelevant I read it deeper, I read it until it is pertinent to me and mine, to nature and to the hour that now passes. A good scholar [writer] will find Aristophanes and Hafiz and Rabelais full of American history.
RWE: No one can select the beautiful passages of another for you. It is beautiful for him—well! Another thought, wedding your aspirations, will be the thing of beauty for you. Do your own quarrying.
RWE: [L]earn to divine books, to feel those that you want without wasting too much time over them. Remember you must know only the excellent of all that has been presented. But often a chapter is enough. The glance reveals what the gaze obscures.
RWE: [L]earn how to tell from the beginning of the chapters and from glimpses of the sentences whether you need to read them entirely through. So turn page after page, keeping your writer’s thought before you, but not tarrying with him, until he has brought you the thing you are in search of; then dwell with him, if so be he has what you want. But recollect you only read to start your own team.
RDR: Emerson learned German in order to read through the complete works of Goethe, which he actually did.
RDR: Reading was just the means. The end—the purpose—was writing.
RDR: What Emerson kept, and what he recommended enthusiastically to others, were what used to be called commonplace books, blank bound volumes in which one writes down vivid images, great descriptions, striking turns of phrase, ideas, high points from one’s life and reading—things one wants to remember and hold on to. A commonplace book is not a diary, an appointment calendar, or a record of one’s feelings. If your journal consists of the best moments of your life and reading, then rereading it will be like walking a high mountain trail that goes from peak to peak without the intervening descent into the trough of routine. Just reading in such a journal of high points will tighten your strings and raise your pitch.
RDR: Emerson abandoned the system of predetermined subject headings. Elizabeth Peabody: “He advised me to keep a manuscript book and write down every train of thought which arose on any interesting subject with the imagery in which it first came into my mind. This manuscript was to be perfectly informal and allow of skipping from one subject to another with only a black line in between. After it was written I could run a heading of subjects over the top—and when I wanted it make up an article—there were all my thoughts, ready.”
RDR: [Emerson’s] journals… are his greatest, preserving as they do the play of mind, the very-changing focus, the wise sympathies, the unconventionality of Emerson’s mind in its first encounters with events, books, and people.
RDR: The aimlessness and lack of system were part of the point, which was to preserve things just as they came to him, without second thoughts, without fitting them into predetermined niches. This fidelity to the first blush of an idea or a perception makes Emerson’s journals true records of hsi actual days. 21
RWE: If you desire to arrest attention, to surprise, do not give me the facts in the doer of cause and effect, but drop one or two links in the chain, and give me a cause and an effect two or three times removed.
RDR: Emerson’s non-Calvinist, Rousseau-like belief that we are born not just good, but open—to the world and to others—led him to prize first thoughts, hints, glimmers, premonitions, first-formings, harbingers, and he took extraordinary care all his life to capture in writing his first impressions.
RWE: The most interesting writing is that which does not quite satisfy the reader. Try and leave a little thinking for him… A little guessing does him no harm, so I would asset him with no connections. If you can see how the harness fits, he can. But make sure that you see it.
RDR: He was sure that process mattered more than product, that the act of writing was more important than the written and finished piece.
RWE: Strict conversation with a friend is the magazine out of which all good writing is drawn.
RWE: Happy is he who looks only into his work to know if it will succeed, never into the times of the public opinion; and who writes for the love of imparting certain thoughts and not from the necessity of sale—who writes always to the unknown friend.
Goethe: the world is young, the former great men call to us affectionately. We too must write Bibles, to unite again the heavenly and the earthly world.
RWE: There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better or worse as his portion; that thought the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed upon that plot of ground which is given him to till. The power that resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.
RWE: Build, therefore, your own world.
RDR: By power Emerson means not political but personal power, personal energy. Emerson’s lifelong quest was for personal power, and Emerson’s strength is that he came to understand where his came from. His answer to the question he posed to himself—whence is your power?—is neither pure bravado nor pure renunciation, though it has a little of each. What marks his answer most is acceptance. The source of his power, he says, is “from my nonconformity. I never listened to your people’s laws, or to what they call their gospel, and wasted my time. I was content with the simple rural poverty of my own. Hence this sweetness.”