Monday, May 21, 2012

Emerson on Books

The later essays of  Ralph Waldo Emerson are more approachable than the early ones, recondite, gnomic, demanding in their need for interpretation.  Among his later works, I like best The Conduct of Life (1860), but Society and Solitude (1870) is a close second.  In the latter is the magnificent reading guide called simply "Books."
In addition to listing titles most worthy of being read, Emerson offers practical rules for reading:  " 1. Never read any book that is not a year old.  2. Never read any but famed books.  3. Never read any but what you like."  I cannot bring myself to agree with his second rule, but his advice elsewhere about translations is most welcome:  "I do not hesitate to read all the books I have named, and all good books, in translations.  What is really best in any book is translatable, -- any real insight or broad human sentiment ."
Among the ancients, Emerson recommends Homer, Herodotus, Aeschylus, Plato, and Plutarch.  From the latest period of the ancients, he recommends Plotinus, who is given a volume to himself in the series entitled Great Books of the Western World.  (Emerson appears as a figure of satire in one of Herman Melville's works and is there given the name of "Plotinus Plinlimmon.")
In one observation, Emerson seems to foresee the reference librarian:  " Meantime the colleges, whilst they provide us with libraries, furnish no professor of books; and I think no chair is so much wanted. "  Emerson notes that in his day there were 800,000 books in the French National Library alone.  (Of course, now the total is ten times that, at least.)   He stresses the need for guides to reading.  " It seems then as if some charitable soul, . . . . would do a right act in naming those [books] which have been bridges or ships to carry him [the reader] safely over dark morasses and barren oceans, into the heart of sacred cities, into palaces and temples.  This would be best done by those great masters of books who from time to time appear, -- . . . . But private readers, reading purely for love of the book, would serve us by leaving each the shortest note of what he found. "




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