Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82) is an American lecturer, essayist, poet, and famous philosopher. His views on the importance and functions of books have been elaborately expressed in his famous speech “The American Scholar.” When he describes nature, books, and his work as the primary sources of learning for the scholar, he advocates discarding conventional reading methods. According to him, the American Scholar should accept from books only those truths which apply to his age and reject others.
More Notes: The American Scholar
Taking inspiration from them is the proper use of books. A valuable thing in the world is an active soul. This vibrant soul should not be allowed to be a slave to the ideas in books. The dynamic soul sees the truth, speaks the truth, and creates the truth. Books are meant for the idle time of scholars. In his busy time, when he can read God directly, he should not waste his precious time reading the writings of others.
Books are indeed a source of much joy. The poetry of men like Chaucer, Marvell, and Dryden gives much pleasure. Books should not be underestimated. But it is wrong to limit attention only to books. Books should be read creatively. For example, only the authentic parts of the books of Plato or Shakespeare should be read; What is not accurate among those writers must be rejected.
Books are the old records of scholars. But no one is perfect in knowledge. No writer can completely exclude his own tradition or culture from his book. No one can write a book of pure and ideal thought which will be as valuable for future generations as for his contemporaries. Books from earlier periods of history are of little use for the future. So, it must be realized that books do not have value and validity for all future time.
More Notes: Emerson
The active soul and genius are always looking ahead. But books always talk about the past. A talented person can indeed be affected by excess knowledge. For example, the English dramatic poets have been Shakespearised now for two hundred years with the result that the growth of English drama has been hampered. It is also essential to free such scholars from imitation of slavery. People’s minds can be fed by the knowledge contained in books, but reading books must be creative. History and science should be studied hard, and the knowledge gained from it should be preserved. But such study can also be helpful only when it develops the creative powers of the scholar when it enables him to think for himself.
More Notes: Suggestions
From the above discussion, it is now clear why Emerson utters such a view on reading books. His “The American Scholar” was intended to inspire creative and unique thinking and to stray from European literary and philosophical influence to establish a cultural identity. He believes that excessive and improper reading is destructive to creativity. What Emerson seeks is an intellectual match between writer and reader. He wants readers to be creative and not rely on the author for ideas.