The functions of books according to Emerson

Or, Why does Emerson say, “Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst


Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) is one of the leading essayists, philosophers and teachers of America. This view of Emerson about the use and abuse of books is an important point in the essay “The American Scholar”. This essay was delivered as a lecture to the “Phi Beta Kappa” at Harvard College on 31 August 1837.  

Gaining contemporary knowledge from books 

Bacon’s famous words about books— “Some books are to be chewed and digested”—give importance, more or less, to all kinds of books of all ages, but Emerson’s words sound novel—they essentially mean books of one age may or may not be useful for another age, and if not useful, they are the worst things. 

More Notes: The American Scholar

Books must be relevant  

Books should be relevant to the present age otherwise; it has no beneficiary for the scholar.  

Books have profound influence upon the readers, especially upon the mind of the scholar. The scholar of the first age studied the world around him, found out truths, and described them in his book. But those truths were relative, that is, dependent upon the depth of the mind of the writer-scholar, and may be invalid for other ages. At best a book can be relevant for the next generation, not for all ages. Cicero, Locke, and Bacon are great writers, but they may not be acceptable to the present age.  

Don’t be a bookworm 

The American Scholar, the Man Thinking, cannot accept them. His genius looks forward, not backward. The geniuses of the past should not exert over-influence on the geniuses of the present through books. But this has happened unfortunately in history. For example, Shakespeare has exerted over influence on the minds of the later generations. The American Scholar cannot accept such over influence. 

The way of using book 

The right way of using books is that it should be subordinated to the main function of the Man Thinking. To him, books are only an instrument. He should use books only as inspiration. He should not waste his valuable time pondering over other men’s “transcripts of their reading”—the books. The method of reading books in the right way, according to Emerson is that reading should be sternly subordinated to the study of God. The Man Thinking must not be subdued by his instruments as books are. To depend on the meaning of books will be the abuse of it. 

To acquire beneficiary knowledge  

The pleasure that we derive from reading books is of distinct character. They impress us with the conviction that one nature wrote and the same nature reads. We read the verses of some of the greatest English is in poets like Chaucer, Marvell or Dryden with pleasure which great part caused by the abstraction of all time from their verses. It is true the great and heroic men have existed who had information play from books. But reading and writing should be creative. When the mind is inspired by labour and invention, the pages of whatever books were read become luminous with manifold allusions. Every sentence appears significant, and the sense seems to be as broad as the world. But the writer’s real vision of truth might have been short So reading books, the discerning mind will accept only the best part, on the authentic utterances He rejects all the rest. 


Emerson’s ideas about the use and abuse of books are original. The American Scholar should read books carefully, but should accept only those ideas that are relevant for his age, and reject the irrelevant ones. He should derive his knowledge from Nature, should read God, more than he should read the great authors of the past. 

Rashedul Islam
Rashedul Islam

Hi, This is Rashedul. Researcher and lecturer of English literature and Linguistics.

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